Three Essays and a Story
BHIMSEN JOSHI and the North Indian Classical Music
With the death of Bhimsen Joshi an era of North Indian classical music
has come to an end. This era dominated the last four decades of the 20th
century. It had luminaries like Kumar Gandharva, Amir Khan, Gangu Bai
Hangal, Hirabai Barodekar, Begum Akhtar, Pannnalal Ghosh, Bismillah
Khan, Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar and Ravi Shankar.
Although I hail from the same region and my father was a musician, and I
have listened to Bhimsen Joshi since my early youth, this article is not
meant to be a tribute to him. He had a large following and I am sure a
large number of tribute articles will appear. For me he had a wonderful
voice and he will be remembered more for his bhajans in Kannada and
Marathi than his renderings in the more 'classical' mode.
This article instead offers a few critical comments on the North Indian
classical music and its place in Indian culture. In the late sixties P.
C. Chatterjee (the then director of All India Radio, Calcutta) asked me,
'How does the Indian classical music reflect contemporary
sensibilities?' He added that when he asked this question to the
musicians themselves, it made no sense to them. I can understand it not
making any sense to the musicians, but what surprises me is that this
question has not been raised at all? Hereafter, the word Indian music
refers to north Indian music only. Indian classical music does not
reflect contemporary sensibilities as does art or writing. Why so?
Classical music in the West reflected the triumph of the bourgeoisie,
Napoleonic wars and so on. Can the Indian classical music be actually
Before we come to comment on it let us have a look at the terrain we are
dealing with. Indians like to trace everything back to the Vedas.
However the living and continuous tradition of this music dates to after
the Mutiny (The Indian War of Independence) of 1857. At the time, many
Indian princely states, having their wings clipped patronised musicians.
In as much as the Mutiny was mainly a north Indian affair, it is not
surprising that six of these music gharanas (schools/traditions) found
patronage in the small kingdoms in Deccan, in the border districts of
today's north Karnataka and Maharashtra. Bhimsen Joshi also belonged to
this region. These musicians rendered a refined version of the folk
music. Later with the increase in competition they developed styles
(some quite unmusical) to distinguish themselves. With the advent of
railways they began to travel and participate in musical conferences in
various Indian cities. These were patronised by ‘patriotic' gentry.
It was Bhatkhande who systemised the knowledge in the early decades of
the 20th century. First he published two volumes of dialogues discussing
aspects of each raga and the way they were rendered by different schools
and tried to fix a standard. Later he published six volumes of ‘Kramik
Pustakmala' which was a proper course in Indian music and was taught in
Banaras by Ratanjankar and others.
Bhatkhande and others by this time were part of the ‘nationalist'
discourse, taking pride in the ‘great Indian traditions'. In Bengal, the
Brhamo Samaj used music in their assemblies and was probably the first
to publish Indian notations in the Devnagari script by the 1880s.
Rabindranath himself took keen interest and a school of aesthetics and
divinity through music (one can reach God through great music!) came
into being with Dilip Kumar Roy as its chief exponent.
We must remember that in spite of the styles these gharanas developed it
was still very musical and pleasing even to ordinary people, unlike the
post independence, particularly the post 60s period to which Joshi
belongs. In the 50s and even up to middle of sixties the musical
conference tradition of the pre independence continued. 1967 changed all
We need hardly delve into the details of the sea change this period
brought in in India. It was the end of the Nehru era, or the euphoria of
independence. Now on Indian people knew that a new ruling class had
entrenched itself and they had to fight it.
In music, classical music was driven to the drawing rooms of the rich
and of course it went abroad. An affected sense of appreciation came
into being and musicians also began to perform to cater to this class
and moved away from the larger middle class audience, although
individually they nostalgically craved for it. Kiran Seth in Delhi tried
to revive interest in the children of these rich people in the
universities by starting SPICMACY (Society for Promotion of Indian
Classical Music among Children and Youth). It was patronised by these
classes but is more or less dead.
Coming back to the questions that we raised about its relevance to
contemporary sensibilities, the answer is that largely it does not
reflect. The reason being, it was always mainly a performing art for the
patrons and with increasing alienation of the ruling classes from the
people it too distanced itself from its folk origins and got into
musical gymnastics. For example: the ‘great' jugalbandis between the
percussion and the instrument/voice that were totally meaningless,
unmusical and unmelodious. As one musician put it, music without
M(melody) is ‘sic(k)'. I am afraid Bhimsen Joshi was no exception along
with Ravi Shankar and almost all the others.
So the era to which Bhimsen Joshi belonged is gone. I am afraid it will
be quickly forgotten, except for what it did to popular music
particularly in the Hindi cinema and also in Bengali and other north
Indian cinema. It gave great lyrics sung in a melodious and meaningful
style that appealed to everyone during those decades. Even today they
still live in the albums and are heard everywhere. As an aside,
classical music also rendered itself very nicely to humorous music. The
great Manna Dey singing play back for Mahmood exploited it fully.
Between him, Mahamood and Kishore Kumar they immortalised the caricature
of the teaching of the north Indian classical music in the film 'Padosan'
and in a perverse way, it is the best tribute to it.
Among the classical musicians, Bhimsen Joshi himself will be remembered
for his ‘lighter' renderings of devotional songs. Probably the lone
survivor among the greats from this era will be Begum Akthar and
Bismillah Khan, who never gave in to the gymnastics that these greats
went into to please the new class. They remained melodious and