Music expresses feeling and thought, without language; it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words.
Pandit Bhimsen Gururaj Joshi ( February 4, 1922 – January 24, 2011) was an Indian vocalist in the Hindustani classical tradition. A member of the Kirana Gharana (school), he is renowned for the khayal form of singing, as well as for his popular renditions of devotional music (bhajans and abhangs). He was the most recent recipient of the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour, awarded in 2008.
Until the first half of the 20th century, khyal was principally taught in the Guru Shishya (master-disciple) tradition. Bhimsen’s guru Sawai Gandharva was the chief disciple of Abdul Karim Khan, who along with his cousin Abdul Wahid Khan was the founder of the Kirana Gharana school of Hindustani music.
Joshi heard a record of Abdul Karim Khan’s Thumri “Piya Bin Nahi Aavat Chain” in Raga Jhinjhoti when he was a child, which inspired him to become a musician. In 1933, the 11-year-old Joshi left Dharwad for Bijapur to find a master and learn music. With the help of money lent by his co-passengers in the train Bhimsen reached Dharwad first and later went to Pune. Later he moved to Gwalior and got into Madhava Music School, a school run by Maharajas of Gwalior, with the help of famous sarod player Hafiz Ali Khan. He traveled for three years around North India, including in Delhi, Kolkata, Gwalior, Lucknow and Rampur, trying to find a good guru. Eventually, his father succeeded in tracking him down in Jalandar and brought young Bhimsen back home.
In 1936, Rambhau Kundgolkar (alias Sawai Gandharva), a native of Dharwad, agreed to be his guru. Bhimsen Joshi stayed at his house in the traditional guru-shishya (teacher-student) tradition, gleaning knowledge of music from his master as and when he could, while performing odd-jobs in his house. Another renowned vocalist from the Kirana Gharana, Gangubai Hangal, was a co-student of Bhimsen during this time. Joshi continued his training with Sawai Gandharva till 1940.
Joshi first performed live in 1941 at the age 19. His debut album, containing a few devotional songs in Kannada and Hindi, was released by HMV the next year in 1942. Later Joshi moved to Mumbai in 1943 and worked as a radio artist. His performance at a concert in 1946 to celebrate his guru Sawai Gandharva’s 60th birthday won him accolades both from the audience and his guru.
Bhimsen Joshi’s music was hailed by both the critics and the masses. His performances were said to have been marked by spontaneity, accurate notes, dizzyingly-paced taans which make use of his exceptional voice training, and a mastery over rhythm. The Hindu, in an article written after he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, said: Bhimsen Joshi was ever the wanderer, engendering brilliant phrases and tans more intuitively than through deliberation. Joshi occasionally employed the use of sargam and tihaais, and often sang traditional compositions of the Kirana gharana. His music often injected surprising and sudden turns of phrase, for example through the unexpected use of boltaans. Over the years, his repertoire tended to favor a relatively small number of complex and serious ragas; however, he remained one of the most prolific exponents of Hindustani classical music. Some of Joshi’s more popular ragas include Shuddha Kalyan, Miyan Ki Todi, Puriya Dhanashri, Multani, Bhimpalasi, Darbari, and Ramkali. He was considered a purist and has not dabbled in experimental forms of music, except for a well-known series of Jugalbandi recordings with the Carnatic signer M. Balamuralikrishna.
Apart from stalwarts of the Kirana Gharana, Bhimsen Joshi’s singing was thought to have been influenced by many musicians, including Smt. Kesarbai Kerkar, Begum Akhtar and Ustad Amir Khan. Joshi assimilated into his own singing various elements that he liked in different musical styles and Gharanas.
In devotional music, Joshi was most acclaimed for his Kannada, Hindi and Marathi Bhajan singing. His commercially successful CDs Daaswani and Enna Paliso included Kannada Bhajans, and Santawani included Marathi Abhangs.
Bhimsen Joshi was widely recognized in India due to his performance in the Mile Sur Mera Tumhara music video (1985), which begins with him. The video was created for the purpose of national integration in India, and highlights the diversity of Indian culture. Bhimsen Joshi was also a part of Jana Gana Mana produced by A. R. Rahman on the occasion of 50th year of Indian Republic.
Joshi sang for several films, including “Basant Bahar” (1956) with Manna Dey, Birbal My Brother (1973) with Pandit Jasraj, and Kannada films like Sandhya Raaga and Nodi Swami Naavu Irodhu Heege. He also sang for the films Tansen (1958) and Ankahee (1985).
Joshi organized the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival as an homage to his guru, Sawai Gandharva, along with the Arya Sangeet Prasarak Mandal in 1953, marking Gandharva’s first death anniversary. The festival has been held ever since, typically on the second weekend of December in Pune, Maharashtra and has become not only a cultural event for the city, but an annual pilgrimage for Hindustani Classical Music lovers all over the world. Joshi conducted the festival annually since 1953, until his retirement in 2002.
Joshi taught many students, several of whom have gone onto commercial success.