LONDON / The Economist / Culture / February 3, 2011
MUSIC seemed to require him to use every part of his body. From a slow, mesmerised, almost motionless start his eyes would roll upwards, foreshadowing the ascent of the notes that emerged from his distended, gaping mouth. His hands flailed, as though reaching for some imagined object just out of his grasp.
Few could sing them like he could, his sonorous voice ranging effortlessly over three octaves as he explored the nuances of ragas—Indian music’s tonal settings for improvisation and composition, each associated with a season or a time of day. Yet those who packed concert halls to listen to him sing, as Indians did for over six decades, rarely mentioned his technique. Instead, they would talk about how he had made them feel, on a night long ago at the Dover Lane music conference in Calcutta, or under a tent in the grounds of Modern School on New Delhi’s Barakhamba Road, when he sang a raga of the monsoon—and suddenly the skies were full of thundering black rainclouds, even though it was bone dry and bitterly cold.
It was on nights like these that Indians fell in love with this strange man, whose contortions defied the best efforts of those in charge of microphone placement. For nobody could match the extraordinary ability of Bhimsen—always Bhimsen to his listeners—to capture the essential character of a raga, whether playful or grave, and send audiences out into the night humming, with the music under their skin, almost stunned with the force of something they could not quite comprehend.
That was what made generations of homesick Indian students turn to him on freezing winter nights in south London or Cambridge, Massachusetts, when home seemed unbearably far away and the darkness demanded nothing less than the master singing a sombre raga of the late night. But his voice meant a great deal even to those Indians who had little time for classical music. Millions of homes in Maharashtra woke up to him singing the abhangs, or hymns, of the medieval Marathi saint-poets on the early-morning programme on All India Radio’s Bombay station. A much-loved television campaign promoting national unity, which opened with his singing, ensured that even those who grew up with rap rather than ragas knew, and loved, that voice.
His childhood, in the culturally fertile Dharwad region in the state of Bombay in British India, was suffused by music: the devotional songs his mother sang as she went about her chores; the azaan, or calls to prayer, from the nearby mosque. But his love for music crystallised when, at 11, on a scratchy 78rpm record, he heard Abdul Karim Khan, the great master of the Kirana school, which melodiously blended elements of the music of both north and south. That was how he wanted to sing.
The railway boy
Spurred by music, then, he ran away from home, travelling ticketless on the trains that snaked across India from the home town of one great master to another, relying on his singing to melt ticket-inspectors’ hearts. Passengers, too, threw him small coins for his songs. By 1936 he had persuaded Sawai Gandharva, a disciple of Abdul Karim Khan, to teach him the intricacies of the Kirana style of singing. In 1941 he gave his first public performance; by 1946 he was famous.
His style picked up influences from all over India. True, he had the Kirana school’s tunefulness. But those intricate taans owed something to the Jaipur school, even to the style of Faiyaz Khan of Agra. For Bhimsen Joshi was really interpreting Hindustani music in his own way. A good singer, he said, was a bit like a thief, incorporating what he liked best about others’ styles into his own. He sang where he could, too, in the early years: bhajans, or devotional songs, for All India Radio’s Lucknow station for 25 rupees a day, and occasional songs for films later.
It was hard work. A glass of rich buffalo milk in the morning; then four hours singing a raga in the lowest octave as the first part of up to 20 hours of practice. But milk was not all he drank. People told other kinds of stories about Bhimsen concerts, the ones where he was repeatedly announced but didn’t appear for hours. It was only by the late 1970s that he overcame his problems with liquor.
His drinking, like his love for fast cars, was of a piece with the man: slightly reckless, fully immersed in whatever he was doing. His singing, he said, reflected his personality. He reckoned that everyone’s should. Don’t sing like me, he would urge his students. Sing like yourselves, find your own voice.
His favourite composition, in a raga named after a town linked in Hindu mythology to the god Krishna, used words in praise of a 12th-century Sufi saint, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, the saviour of the poor. But there was not one sectarian note in Bhimsen Joshi. He loved the syncreticism of Hindustani music, with its mixture of Hindu and Muslim influences. Music had no religion or caste, he often said. The religion of music was music.
Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2011.