Bhimsen Joshi

Bhimsen Joshi - Centenary Tribute (1922-2011)

The voice and the life that inspired me

Nagaraj Rao Havaldar

Indian classical music is known as ‘shravana vidya’, a knowledge that is acquired by listening. It starts with listening to a song and reproducing. The next stage is repetition and third stage is creation, provided you go to a guru. Pt. Bhimsen Joshi heard Ustad Abdul Karim Khan on a gramophone disc and fell in love with his music. That inspired young Bhimsen to go in search of a guru.

If I am not drawing a parallel with the great masters, I also heard Pt. Bhimsen Joshi on radio singing a song for a Kannada movie, Sandhyaraga and made up my mind to learn and sing in the same school. Nevertheless, listening to the radio was an ongoing process and his singing of Malkauns, Todi, and Durga had subconsciously turned me into an ‘Ekalavya’ following the path of the great master.

In 1979, I moved to Dharwad for post graduate studies in History and Archaeology. To my great joy, I discovered that the music department at the Karnataka University had an open course of six years called, ‘Sangeetha Ratna’. Along with my Ph.D., I also completed the Sangeetha Ratna, learning from great masters like Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur, Pt. Sangameshwar Gurav, and Pt. Panchakshari Mattigatti. But my subconscious desire to learn from Bhimsenji was a major undercurrent.

In 1984, Pt Bhimsen Joshi came to Kolkata and stayed in my father-in-law, Raghavendra Rao’s house (Raghavendra Rao also wrote for Sruti). I pounced upon this opportunity and expressed my desire to learn from Bhimsenji. He asked me to sing a raga of my choice and he gave me one hour to arrange for a tabla artist. I quickly managed and sang raga Darbari Kanada for about 20 minutes. While the gandhar and nishad swaras oscillate in Darbari, since guruji was sitting in front, when I sang, all the swaras were oscillating! He noticed that and asked me if I was nervous, and I said yes. He further questionedif my nervousness was due to his presence, and whether it helped lift the level of my performance, and I said no. He said, “When you sing, you should not be conscious of the fact of who is sitting and listening. It is purely a melodious conversation between you and the raga. You should become the embodiment of that raga. Come on, sing with this mental makeup.” I sang the same Darbari with little more focus and confidence. That piece of advice, to be one with ourselves made me a better performer. How beautiful was his first lesson to me! I persisted that I would like to learn from him. He suggested that I should go and meet him at his residence in Pune.

After submitting my doctoral thesis, I promptly went and met him in Pune in 1985. Those were the days he performed extensively. Again, Panditji gave me a profound and practical advice, “Nagaraj, if you come here you will end up as my ‘tanpura student’, as I am always busy with my concerts. Instead, I would recommend that you go to Madhava Gudi, my disciple, who has learnt from me for 28 years. He knows every nuance of my gayaki and gharana. With your training in Sangeetha Ratna, combined with your potential and passion, you can learn so much from Madhava Gudi and then come back to me for further fine tuning.” This advice by guruji again changed my life.

I promptly came to Dharwad and started learning from Pt. Madhava Gudi, a great teacher and a wonderful human being. During his gurukula, he would wait for the guru to impart the nuances of the gayaki. Whereas, when I learnt from him, he would take every opportunity either to teach or to discuss about the raga or the composition. This process went on for few years and periodically I would go to Pt. Bhimsen Joshi to render my learning and progress. He would fine tune and would play upon the pun of the words saying that, I was his grand-disciple (like grandson).

In 1988, I joined the All India Radio, Bangalore as Program Executive. That was a central government job with lucrative salary and lot of other perks and benefits attached to it. Coming from a lower-middle class economic background, I found it very attractive. But, Bhimsenji had a different view about this. When I met him in Delhi, at the Radio Sangeet Sammelan, he asked me, “Nagaraj, what are you doing here? Your guru, Madhav is in Dharwad, whom are you training under in Delhi?” I told him that I had come for the programme executive training at AIR, and not as a musician. He immediately raised his voice and said, “You have joined the wrong department, you will end up as a glorified clerk! You must resign immediately, otherwise all the dreams of music you have will not be realised.”

Whenever he came to Bangalore for concerts, as long as I was still serving in AIR, he would never talk to me. Instead he would talk to my wife Sudhamayi and enquire, “How is the clerk? Where is the tanpura?” His repeated persistence, advice and enormous faith he showed in my ability, gave me the courage to resign from a gazetted officer’s post in 1991 and made classical music as my full-time passion and profession. I am indebted to him for ringing the warning bell at the right time. Panditji had inspired many musicians of his era and more so the younger generation.

His personality was unique. Along with music there were many qualities that we could emulate from his life. My guru Madhava Gudi used to tell me, “Panditji is an extraordinary genius regardless of his chosen field. He would have excelled and topped everywhere. If he had chosen to study psychology, he would have become a great psychologist. If he wrote poetry, he would be the greatest poet. He had the fundamental will power to achieve excellence in anything he chose”. We, his shishyas and prashishyas lived under the aura of his personality and his music. He would always tell me not to imitate his voice and take inspiration from his style, add my own aesthetics, thought process and make my music presentation a unique one. This also in turn inspired me to compose tunes for Haridasa’s compositions. Whenever I composed a new tune, based on a particular raga, to suit the mood of a lyric, my guru Madhava Gudi would endorse my endeavour and my parama guru Pt Bhimsen would give a nod of satisfaction and authenticity.

Under the strict tutelage of Pt. Sawai Gandharva, with enormous hard work and zeal, Bhimsenji had carved a niche for himself as a great performer. His honesty to himself, music, and the rasikas is well depicted in this anecdote:

Once Panditji was invited for a music festival in Kerala. He was about to start the concert. A rasika requested him to sing raga Jog. He closed his eyes, heard the tanpura for a few seconds and made an announcement– “I am sorry, I have not had proper training in raga Jog. I do not want to give a hotchpotch presentation with my experience of listening to others. But I promise, if I am invited to this festival again, I will come prepared with raga Jog”. Incidentally, Panditji was invited to the same festival next year. This time, he voluntarily made an announcement—“One of the rasikas had requested me to sing raga Jog last year. This year I have come fully prepared to present it”. It was an immortal rendition.

In my interaction with Pt Dattatreya Garud who played the tabla for Bhimsenji in early 1950s, he said that the concert would begin at 8 pm and go on up to 6 am next morning, only with a tea break of 15 minutes in between. It was only one vocalist singing for almost ten hours for a remuneration of three rupees! His first love was just music and music alone.

There are hundreds of such anecdotes which I have heard from his contemporaries, family members and my own personal experiences which make his music and life an open book. We can learn so much to the best of our abilities. By sheer hard work and dedication he became a Bharat Ratna awardee. To him, nothing other than music was important - fame, awards, accolades, and mundane pleasures- took a backseat.

(The author is a well-known Hindustani classical vocalist and the recipient of the Pt. Bhimsen Joshi Smriti Puraskar Award, 2023)