Bhimsen Joshi: A voice that brought classical music to the masses

Originally written for DNA:

The Indian music community suffered a massive loss today when Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi breathed his last. “It’s the end of an era,” said santoor player and associate Satish Vyas.

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Vyas, son of the late classical vocalist Pandit CR Vyas, said Joshi was responsible for taking Hindustani classical music beyond the classes to the masses. “His voice was enjoyed by people across countries, societies and age groups,” he said.

Explaining Joshi’s widespread popularity, Prabhakar Karekar, a vocalist who had performed with Panditji at many concerts, said,

“Whether he was singing classical or bhakti sangeet, Panditji poured raw emotion into his voice. His music was so pure and filled with such passion that it was impossible not to be enchanted by Anna’s voice. Whenever he sang, he sang like it was the best concert of his life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t care much about his bidaagi [remuneration].”

Bhimsen Joshi was trained in the Kirana gharana of Hindustani classical music, but he did not confine himself to its norms. “Pt Bhimsen Joshi assimilated the intricacies of various gharanas and it culminated in his unique style,” Vyas said.

Both Karekar and Vyas had many opportunities to meet and interact with Joshi. For them, he was an unparalleled vocalist and an exceptional human being. “If he ever raised his voice, it was to take a taan,” said Karekar, who has travelled across India with the master. “He was a soft-spoken person and never lost his temper.”

Vyas agreed, “Humility and simplicity were Panditji’s hallmark. Panditji was accessible to all his fans and he would make it a point to speak to each one of them personally.”

But even those who hadn’t met Joshi were touched by his voice and his life. Like most people born in the 1980s, Harshad Sharma, a 27-year-old photographer, was introduced to Bhimsen Joshi through the ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’ national harmony music video on Doordarshan. Panditji’s strong vocals drew Sharma into the world of Indian classical music and inspired him to read up on his life. What truly amazed Sharma was the maestro’s willpower to get out of his comfort zone in pursuit of his art.

“The young boy who once set out in search of a guru not only found a great guru, but became a guru of gurus himself,” he said. “His life is an inspiration for every individual.”

Panditji’s music travelled all the way across the globe to Rahul Thathoo, 26, consumer internet engineer based in Palo Alto. While growing up, Panditji’s music was Thathoo’s introduction to Indian classical music. Talking about Joshi’s influence on his life, Thathoo said, “Living abroad my parents enrolled me in singing and piano classes where I was being trained in Carnatic music and my first instinct was to try and sing like Panditji, much to everyone’s amusement!” Thathoo always keeps a CD of Joshi’s songs in his car.

Karekar, who has been deeply moved by Panditji’s death, said that though there is a plethora of young talent all around, no other vocalist is likely to evoke such strong emotional bonds as Joshi did.

The musician had been in poor health for a while and was admitted to hospital in the beginning of this year. “After living like a lion, it was disturbing to see Panditji in pain,” said Karekar frankly. “Though we are deeply pained by his death, in a way, we should be glad that he is free of his suffering.”

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