The day we received news of the maestro’s death, a friend, Jayaram, called to share his memories of Bhimsen Joshi with me. He recalled a 1970s concert on the Health League grounds of Hyderabad. He remembered in particular the unforgettable Purya Dhanashri of that evening that lasted an hour and a half and was primarily responsible for the concert going on well past midnight. I did not know Jayaram then, but we were connected forever by that concert, for I too sprawled on the sands and listened transported to another realm that night.
My wife and I were fortunate to be in Hyderabad for a decade starting in 1971. Through my classmate and close friend Gourang Kodical, a disciple of tabla ustad Shaikh Dawood, we were exposed to some of the finest Hindustani music the twin cities offered then, not all of it in large halls or fancy venues. The ritual Guruvar mandal, a homage every Thursday to their teachers by local musicians was in the form of impromptu recitals by some of the finest local musicians in a tiny little apartment in Hyderabad’s own version of the chawl. The place was the residence of Bhaskar Rao Udgirkar, and the congregation had commenced in 1954. My wife’s music teacher Vajendra Ashrit, Shanker Daspremi, Vasudeva Rao Lasinkar, U. Govind Rao and Ramesh Hyderabadkar were some of Gourang’s friends and associates behind the mandal.
In addition to the up and coming, we also heard renowned musicians like Bhim Shankar Rao or Pandit Jasraj’s disciples like Girish Wazalwar and Chandrasekhar Swamy at the Guruvar Mandal. Promising young sitarist Pandurang Parathe was yet to migrate to Madras and the film world, while his senior M. Janardan had already done so, and Kartik Seshadri, Janardan’s younger fellow shagird of Ravi Shankar, was winging his way to the USA.
The whole gang from the mandal was present at all the major concerts held at Hyderabad during those years of relative plenty in terms of classical music there. They were generous to praise good music but caustic in their criticism of shallow imitation or artifice of any kind. Of course, they were biased as hell—aren’t we all?—and God save the musicians who strayed from the strait and narrow path! Countless cups of tea were imbibed, not to mention cigarettes and bidis—the self-effacing tabla wizard Ustad Shaikh Dawood led the bidi brigade—as some of the soirees we attended tended towards all-night affairs. The nip in the winter air as we sat mostly in the open at these concerts added to the excitement of the whole experience.
It was through our wonderful friends at the guruvar mandal that we became regulars at the Pandit Motiram Punyatithi that his sons celebrated every year in Hyderabad. All three of Motiram’s sons Maniram, Pratap Narayan and Jasraj had sung together in the early anniversary concerts, while I managed to hear the duo of Pratap Narayan and Jasraj and later Jasraj by himself. Those were memorable concerts, the best live vocal performances I had heard up until then. We were also to be thrilled by the virtuosity of four young instrumentalists answering to the names of Amjad Ali Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shiv Kumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain.
One unforgettable Ravi Shankar concert at Ravindra Bharati in 1974 was made more so by an announcement the sitar maestro made midway through the recital. “I regret to bring news of the death of two great musicians today,” he said. He was referring to the incomparable Amir Khan and southern film music legend Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao. The news meant that I would never listen live to one of the greatest Hindustani vocalists of our time, certainly my personal favourite musician. It was deeply depressing.
I was much more fortunate in the case of Bhimsen Joshi, who was the second member of a mutual admiration society whose other half had been Amir Khan. Legend has it that Amir Khan asked his students to listen to at least 25 concerts of Joshi before they ventured to ascend the performance stage. And Bhimsen Joshi always maintained that his Abhogi was Amir Khan’s gift to him.
At the concert Jayaram described, no one left the venue even as it stretched to some four hours. The singing was sheer joy, with Bhimsen Joshi traversing three octaves with seeming effortlessness. It was an amalgam of meditative depth, incredible taans, perfect laya control and absolute swara precision, so typical of the singer’s non-drinking years. His subsequent performances in the twin cities during my years there never equalled the pristine glory of that concert.
I had to wait until he came to Madras in the 1980s, when he had banished the demons from his life, to savour the old Bhimsen Joshi magic again. When he mesmerized Madras audiences at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, he had for decades worked assiduously at making the Kirana gharana his own, incorporating the influences he had sought all his life from all the masters he admired no matter what school they belonged to. It was the Bhimsen Joshi gharana.