When Bhimsen Joshi passed away in January 2011, newspapers and magazines all over India ran his picture on the cover with no caption except the dates that set the borders of his time on earth. There was no need to give his name or say anything else about him. He was perhaps the most famous face and voice in all of India, and his impact on people’s lives was varied and immeasurable. It was not just that he became the leading khayal singer of the Kirana gharana, introducing new ragas and ornaments not only from other Hindustani gharanas, but from Karnatik music as well. It was not even the fact that he had artfully incorporated many of these innovations into his popular performances of both Marathi abhangas and Kannada bhajans. Pandit Joshi had a purely spiritual effect on countless people, for which the music seemed to be merely a vehicle. The comments on his numerous YouTube videos included such superlative praise as “a giant,” “a lion,” “the god of classical music,” “Maa Sarswati resides in HIM,” and “Perhaps God exists while Bhimsen is singing, and when he stops, who knows?” A Westerner posted that Joshi “. . . changed my life. I was addicted to drugs and alcohol. A friend introduced me to this great artist, and I listened to him for hours. It was the beginning of a new life for me.” It was therefore not surprising that the Badarikashrama Hindu temple in San Leandro recently honored Joshi’s passing with the same kind of ceremony and study that they have devoted to spiritual leaders like Gandhi.
Swami Omkarananda, Badarikashrama’s root guru, had recently returned from an extended trip to his ashram in Karnataka, and acknowledged Joshi’s deep spiritual influence in his opening address. “I heard Joshi’s bhajans when I was a young man and look what happened to me,” He said. “I gave up everything.
His voice could melt a stone, or a heart of stone. Everybody becomes a monk when listening to his bhajans, even householders.” The rest of the afternoon, and well into the evening, was a balance between the spiritual, the academic and the artistic, with the San Leandro temple’s Swami Mangalananda as Master of Ceremonies.
Stanford ethnomusicologist Anna Schultz presented an overview of Pandit Joshi’s complex musical history, which revealed some of the reasons why he was able to mean so much to so many people. He was a living embodiment of the mix between tradition and rebellion that is India’s greatest strength. His family members were not professional musicians, but his grandfather was a kirtankar i.e. a person who, in Dr. Schultz’s words, “accompanied by tabla and harmonium, tells stories of saints and deities, preaches philosophical concepts, and sings a variety of songs.” From his grandfather, and from another local kirtankar named Chinappa Kurtakoti, the young Joshi learned devotional singing and harmonium playing.
At the age of 11, however, he heard a recording of khayal singer Karim Khan, and was determined to learn how to sing like him. He stowed away on a train northward, hiding from the conductor and singing for the passengers to get food, eventually traveling to Pune, Bombay, Gwalior, and later Kharagpur, Calcutta, and Delhi. He learned a great deal from a several different teachers, but did not find his root guru until he learned that Sawai Gandharva, one of Karim Khan’s greatest disciples, was living in Kundagol in Joshi’s native Karnataka.
Thus, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Joshi discovered that his heart’s desire had always been in his own backyard. Joshi returned to Karnataka (to the great relief of his distraught parents, who had been actively searching for him) and studied with Gandharva for over four years. However, his knowledge of other traditions gave him a willingness to change and adapt the Kirana gharana, which transformed it permanently. He once said, “What one learns from one’s guru has to be supplemented by individual genius, or else one will not have anything worthwhile to say. In fact, a good disciple should not be a second-rate imitator, but an improved version of his teacher with first class improvisations.” The inspirations for Joshi’s innovations also came from his multicultural upbringing. He was fluent in both Marathi and Kannada, partly because his hometown of Gadag constantly shifted borders throughout his life. When Joshi was born, Gadag was in the British state of Bombay, which became the Indian Bombay state after independence, then was assigned to Mysore state after the linguistic reorganization of states in 1956, and then was renamed Karnataka in 1973. Dr. Schultz suggested that “the experience of in-between-ness helped him to transcend manmade artistic boundaries.”
Although we all felt the loss as we listened to Dr. Schultz’s summary of Bhimsen Joshi’s remarkable life, it was impossible not to feel optimistic when we listened to our two local embodiments of his gharana.
Shubhangi Sakhalkar’s teacher Prabha Atre was also a member of the Kirana gharana, and Nachiketa Sharma’s guru was a gurubhai (fellow student) with Joshi under Gandharva. Sakhalkar performed raga Miyaki Todi in Joshi’s honor. “Even though this is the wrong time of day for it, I want to perform this for you because it was the first raga I heard him do after I had learned to understand classical music,” she said. “His performance was electrifying; I’ve never forgotten it.” I can’t know whether her performance was equally electrifying, but it certainly electrified me. Swami Mangalananda had originally asked Sharma to speak about his own experiences with Joshi. But Sharma wanted to sing, and we all wanted to hear him, so eventually we all got what we wanted. What followed was a series of successive performances by Sharma and Sakhalkar, ending with a jugalbandi performance of both singers performing together. Each seemed determined to challenge the other, and in the process we heard pretty much every nuance and variation of modern khayal. Joshi’s gharana was reborn in ways that I’m sure he would have approved of, for such transformations are the only thing that makes eternal life possible.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.