HUM HINDUSTANI: The singer and his songs —J Sri Raman - Friday, January 28, 2011

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What Bhimsen Joshi and his predecessors practised was more than pan-Indian music. Readers in Pakistan need hardly to be told of the country’s musicians who have preserved the subcontinental heritage of various Hindustani gharanas

Deafening has been the run-up to India’s Republic Day on January 26. The weeks-long din in parliament, designed to weaken and paralyse the county’s chosen system of democracy, was bad enough. The camp of religious-communal politics made it worse with a high-decibel campaign on Kashmir, always a reliably divisive issue in their repertoire, to culminate on the date.

On January 24, however, a hush fell upon the country, with remembered music replacing voices of rabid politics all of a sudden. It became a day of melody-filled mourning, as news of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s death spread and sank in.

This columnist found himself re-living a couple of concerts, to which he wandered as a restless youth in wintry Delhi decades ago. So must have millions of others, who watched and heard the maestro perform at the height of his powers. I was part of the audience mesmerised by his magic. Many others will be glad to say that to their grandchildren, too.

What held us all spellbound, above all, was his voice that was at once sonorous and seductive. He gave us a beauty that came from the barrel of vocal power. He weaved a spell over us with his flights of musical fancy, his wonderfully deft and delicate gamakas [ornamentation that is used in the performance of Indian classical music] and brilliantly tremulous brigas. There was, however, more to his music and magic than all this.

It was not his technical legerdemain that threw lay listeners like me into a trance. It was a liberating tradition that did the trick. We were not conscious of it at the moment but, when the maestro sang, a past of composite culture spoke to us. His own story recaptures the history of it all.

The very young Bhimsen, various accounts agree, was drawn to music by the strains of bhajans (group prayer songs) from a temple in his town now in the southern state of Karnataka and by the azan (call to prayer) from a local mosque. At the age of 11, he happened to listen to a gramophone record of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, founder of the Kirana gharana (family or school) of Hindustani music named after his town in present-day Uttar Pradesh. The soulful rendition of “Piya bin nahin aavat chain” (Without the beloved, no peace) left the boy restless and led to his long search for music and a master.

He left home, and his years-long quest took him to several centres of music, including Bijapur, Gwalior, Lucknow and Rampur, Kolkata, and Delhi. He found his guru (mentor) at last in Dharwar, closer home. Rambhau Kundgolar, better known as Sawai Gandharva, adopted him as a sishya (disciple), who served him like a servant while learning. His peregrinations included a musical pilgrimage of a seemingly profane sort to learn thumri singing [a genre of semi-classical Indian music] from the city’s tawaifs (originally, courtesans). An integral part of his learning was an intensive listening to Ustad Amir Khan, founder of the Indore gharana, and Barray Ghulam Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana.

Bhimsen Joshi was a titan of tender thumri gayaki (singing). And thumris, articulating an amorous devotion and associated mainly with erotic episodes revolving around deity Krishna, reached a peak of popularity in the Lucknow durbar (court) of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1822-87). Among the famed thumri singers are Gauhar Jan, Begum Akhtar, Shobha Gurtu, Noor Jehan, Prabha Atre, Abdul Karim Khan, Nazakat-Salamat Ali Khan, Barkat Ali Khan, and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. The mix of names a major source of Bhimsen Joshi’s music and its magic.

Religion did not strike a discordant note in the evolution of this music. The composite culture, of which it was so rich a part, was not consciously secular. It is sad in a sense that self-proclaimed crusaders of ‘cultural nationalism’ should today make Bhimsen Joshi’s rapturously elaborated ragas (melodies) a reminder of a shared heritage. When he sang, he transported us to a time when we needed no such reminder.

It was not only religious barriers that disappeared when he put all his soul — and much of his body — into his music. His jugalbandis (duets) with several other musicians also disproved much conventional wisdom about unbridgeable regional divides. Particularly memorable were his joint performances with Balamuralikrishna, a maestro of the Carnatic music of south India. Together, they showed that they represented only different streams of the same system of ‘organised sound’, as an obviously inadequate definition of music puts it.

What Bhimsen Joshi and his predecessors practised was more than pan-Indian music. Readers in Pakistan need hardly to be told of the country’s musicians who have preserved the subcontinental heritage of various Hindustani gharanas. Today may be the right time, however, to remind ourselves of Rahim Bakhsh (1920-2002), a towering figure of Hindustani music (Patiala gharana) in a once Taliban-free Afghanistan. And Persian influence has been palpable in the many-faceted music at least since the times of Amir Khusrau (1253-1323).

Bhimsen Joshi will and must be remembered for making the people forget, for moments or through nightlong concerts, false identities designed to divide them in the exploitative interests of their enemies.

The writer is a journalist based in Chennai, India. A peace activist, he is also the author of a sheaf of poems titled At Gunpoint

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