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After watching Bobby Jindal make a fool out of himself by opening his mouth, I had a powerful urge to show another Indian who demonstrates irrefutable genius every time he opens his.  Earlier this month (February 4, to be precise), the great Hindustani vocalist Bhimsen Joshi turned 87.  In honor of the occasion, I thought I'd share some facts about, recollections of, and music by one of Indian music's greatest masters, who's still singing as he nears his ninth decade.

If you need a break from politics and want to enjoy one of the world's most powerful musicians, follow me below the flip.

Thirty-three years ago I wrote a letter to the editor of a local paper, correcting a music reviewer's critique of a recording (they were on lp discs at the time, remember?) by the jazz musician Don Cherry.  The next day my telephone rang; the voice at the other end identified himself as "Tommy K___."  He'd read my letter and wanted to meet me.  After Tommy came into my apartment and looked through my record collection, he said, "I have something you need to have."  The next day, he brought over three lp records which I have to this day.  One of them was a recording of Bhimsen Joshi, singing renditions of two ragas in the khyal style.

They blew me away. Still do.  Wide-ranging, freely expressive improvisation; incredibly accurate pitch, fantastically intricate melodies, catchy hooks, swinging rhythms...what wasn't to like?  I listened to them over and over.  Those recordings weren't the only thing that motivated me to begin studying Hindustani singing myself in early 1977, but they were a huge influence.

Here's a capsule summary of the man's career, courtesy of

Bhimsen Joshi was born in Gadag (Karnataka) on February 14, 1922. His father was a schoolmaster. Bhimsen Joshi developed passion for music from early childhood. As a child he was deeply moved by a recording of Abdul Karim Khan, the founder father of the ' Kirana gharana'. He left home in 1932 in search of a guru. He wandered for two years and traveled to Bijapur, Pune, and Gwalior. He tutored under Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan in Gwalior. He also went to Calcutta and Punjad before returning home.

In 1936, Bhimsen Joshi started hisPandit Bhimsen Joshi rigorous training under Sawai Gandharva (Pandit Rambhan Kundgolkar), the eminent Khayal singer and student of Abdul Karim Khan at Kundgol, near Gadag. He learnt the basics of Khayal singing and was under Sawai Gandharva's tutelage for several years. {snip}

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is an exponent of khayal style and has also rendered majestic thumris and bhajans. He gave his first public concert in Pune in January 1946 to mark the shashtyabdipoorti (60th birthday) of his guru Sawai Gandharva. {snip}

Bhimsen Joshi is the recipient of several prestigious awards. These include: Padma Shri (1972) Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1976) Padma Bhushan (1985), and Padma Vibhushan (1999).

In 1982 I heard "Bhimsenji" sing live for the first time, in a small concert hall at Harvard University.  I tried to get various potential girlfriends to come, but they found his recordings more frightening than fascinating; it's just as well, because after the first ten minutes I was gone to the world.

Bhimsen Joshi was sixty at the time, and had gone through a long period in which his public performances were marred by alcohol abuse.  He had been clean for several years, but there was speculation that he had fallen off the wagon...speculation that was put to rest within a few minutes of his opening, a slow, meditative invocation of the notes of the Raga Shuddh Kalyan.  He was in extraordinary command of his powers; the first piece lasted an hour and twenty minutes and still stands in my mind as one of the most memorable pieces of music I've ever witnessed (and I have witnessed many, many, many memorable pieces of music!).

The concert lasted for over four hours.  I didn't have the courage to speak to him directly, but within a few years I hatched a plan: I'd write a letter to him and ask him to teach me...and I'd use that letter to get a grant to go to India and study.  I wrote the letter; he wrote back; we corresponded; I sent him a tape of myself singing; he accepted me as a student; I applied for a grant (the "Indo-American Fellowship" administered by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars - it was basically a specialized Fulbright); I got the grant; I went to India and settled in the city of Pune, 130 miles inland from Bombay, a center for Indian classical music, and Bhimsen Joshi's home town.

Well, to make a long story slightly shorter, it turned out that he wasn't that great a teacher; after a year I found a man who actually gave me the training that I needed to become a professional performer of the music I love (I discussed him a while back in a diary titled "Learning to Understand the Music," which I encourage you to read if you've come this far and you're still interested.).  I'm not going to dwell on the difficulties I experienced coming to grips with the fact that a great performer isn't always a great teacher.  I just want to share some music with you.

The first set of videos is from the mid-1950s, when Bhimsen Joshi was beginning to cause a sensation in Hindustani music circles; his combination of passion and virtuosity was considered unique, and his spontaneous improvisations were recognized as the effusions of genius.  Believe it or not, the complete performance given in this set is pretty short; a concert without the constraints of film would have lasted three or four times longer.  He begins with a short alap, an invocation of the main melodic themes he'll be using, in this case Raga Mian ki Malhar, a raga associated with the monsoon season.  Note the extraordinary low notes from around 0:35 to 0:49 or so!  At 1:30 or so he begins the first song, "Karim tero naam," ("Karim is your name") an Islamic devotional text (note that free performance of Islamic texts is common among Hindu singers; likewise the reverse by Muslim singers in this tradition -- secularism in art should always be celebrated!).

You don't need a degree in Hindustani music to appreciate this; you can do it by shutting your eyes and listening.  Each improvisation ends with the same melodic phrase on the same words, "Karim tero naam," and each improvisation extends the available material outwards a bit.  If you're rhythmically inclined, try counting out what the drums are doing; otherwise, just let them clatter away in the background.  The harmonium echoes the singer's phrases, filling in the empty spaces...and the tamboura drones on and on and on, providing the background that makes everything hang together.

The performance continues; at 3:22 in the second clip he moves to the upper register and uses a different text phrase ("dukha daridra door" -- "alleviator of suffering," another epithet of Allah) to anchor his improvisations.  After a few minutes of development, he returns to the first phrase at 5:44.

Here's where the fun really begins; at this point he starts the wild improvisations that more than anything made him famous.  These rapid-fire melismatic passages are called "taans," and it was hearing him sing them back in 1977 that really brought me into the world of Hindustani music.  You just get a sample before the clip ends...

...but when the third clip starts you can get a real sense of what this man can do with his voice.  Fantastic breath control, amazing range.  To support these faster improvisations, he begins a new song, "Mohammad Shah Rangile" (a panegyric to the emperor in whose court the composer, Niyamat Khan, was employed) at 0:55.  It's in a much brisker tempo and provides a fabulous framework for his brilliant runs.

The tamboura-playing woman in the lavender sari at around 2:56 is Bhimsenji's second wife Vatsala; the gentleman in the black cap shown immediately afterwards was still attending concerts in Pune thirty years later; I learned an enormous amount from watching Sri Dattopant Deshpande watching and listening!

Fast forward thirty years or so, and you have me, an American student of the music, living in Pune and attending Bhimsenji's concerts without fail.  I took a lot of photographs (no video, though) and made a lot of recordings.
Here's one of the maestro in 1986, singing the raga Khamaji Bhatiyar.  Same basic idea (a free-form introduction, a slow song speeding up, a melodic hook holding things together at the end of every improvisation).  He's about thirty years older, and to my ear every bit as impressive, if a little less pyrotechnical.

The past twenty years have made vivid the ravages of time.  Surgery for a brain aneurysm restored some of his vitality in performance...but a few years later a stroke cost Panditji the use of his legs.  His wife died in 2004; other parts of his private life have been touched by deep suffering (which need not be aired here).  His public performances are fewer, and more of the singing is done by his son Srinivas.  But as this 2005 video shows, there's a lot of life in the old lion yet.  Here, he sings a khyal in the majestic raga Darbari Kanada.  Same format as before; his voice is worn and weary, but the intonation is intact and the powerful musical intelligence is still at work.

I spent around a year visiting him every day at his house in Pune, practicing in a back room while hoping he'd get around to teaching me something.  He never really did; great performers don't necessarily make great teachers.  And, as I've said, I was blessed to find a great teacher of my own.  But I continued to attend Bhimsenji's concerts whenever I could.  Although I haven't spoken with him in many years, I remember him every time I sing, and I return constantly to the recordings I've made in my years in India.  To me the sound of Bhimsen Joshi's voice is now part of my imagination; I sometimes hear him in my dreams.

Any of you who've made it this far, raise a virtual toast to the voice of a giant, a few weeks too late for his eighty-seventh birthday.  Many happy returns of the day, Panditji.  May you live long and sing long!

Originally posted to WarrenS' Blog on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 07:50 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips... (9+ / 0-)

    ...for one of the world's greatest voices?

    I'll be in and out for a while if anyone has any questions.

    Freedom isn't "on the march." Freedom dances.

    by WarrenS on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 07:50:54 PM PST

  •  Love Joshi (5+ / 0-)

    What a lovely diary! Thank you for taking me on a wondrous journey.

  •  Your dedication is impressive ... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KenBee, WarrenS, daveygodigaditch

    .. of all the web joints in the world, I never thought I'd see Bhimsenji mentioned here. He's an Indian institution and it's so refreshing to see him here amidst the current spate of Jindals and slumdogs.


  •  Thank you... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KenBee, WarrenS, daveygodigaditch
    for the beautiful diary.  I'm glad to know about Panditji and his music.  Very special...thank you.
  •  interesting diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KenBee, WarrenS

     I'm unfamiliar with the subject but I'm sure I would enjoy his work. Over the years I've had people ask me for violin lessons or worse, lessons for their kids. I am a horrible teacher, no discipline or plan, but even worse is how angry I get if someone doesn't remember something we just did. I understand that it's hard to do new things or execute them, but to forget the concept just makes me furious. Like I said, I'm a terrible teacher so now I've learned to tell people that right off the bat. The last time I took lessons I stopped after a while because at some point I learned so much beyond how much I was practicing. In other words I felt I had years of practicing to do before I needed to move on to new levels. However there's no denying the benefit of playing with someone who is really good, just for the sake of training your ear.
    I only offer this as a piece of perspective as to why some good players make horrible teachers.

    music- the universal language

    by daveygodigaditch on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 08:28:51 PM PST

    •  Teaching is a separate art. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      KenBee, daveygodigaditch, cusoon

      I am a teacher by profession, and I have learned to listen into my students' mistakes; every mistake has a story to tell, and once we can hear that story, the error is no longer an enemy, but a diagnostic tool.

      But this perspective took me decades of experience to develop.  I still regret the students I failed to understand, earlier in my career; would that I could go back and correct my own errors of method and attitude!

      There were many reasons why he was not a good teacher; enough to be worthy of inclusion in another diary, sometime, somehow.

      Freedom isn't "on the march." Freedom dances.

      by WarrenS on Fri Feb 27, 2009 at 08:34:43 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  A wonderful tribute Warren, thank you... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        certainly the music of dreams.

         As to teaching, I've just started teaching/assisting a free class of beginning violin/fiddle students. Unlike some of my (more short term agenda driven) fellow players, I've always seen 'new' players' as my future musical partners...a view which has proven delightfully true over and over again. Teaching has taught me more than I ever knew, it's really energizing me. And very embarassing, yet I teach by my own mistakes, and hopefully make it easier for the students to make their own and not be upset and embarassed.
            My fellow teacher and I are teaching it completely by ear, just our ears, and our instruments, and our voices. I'm really stressing singing what you play and are attempting to learn as I have found I cannot play it if I cannot sing it.

         Thanks for this...

        Happy Birth day Violet Elizabeth 2/14/09 WooooHooo!!

        by KenBee on Sat Feb 28, 2009 at 01:41:40 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Admire your dedication (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KenBee, WarrenS

    My eyes popped out when I saw Bhimsen Joshi's name but the minute I saw your name I was not surprised. I have attended your performance. Thanks for this diary and promoting a great artist.

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