Bhimsen Gururaj Joshi (4 February 1922 – 24 January 2011) was an Indian vocalist in the Hindustani classical tradition. He is known for the khayal form of singing, as well as for his popular renditions of devotional music (bhajans and abhangs).
In 1998, he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship the highest honour conferred by Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama. Subsequently received the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour, in 2008.
Bhimsen Gururaj Joshi was born in a town called Gadag, Ron Town, in the erstwhile Dharwad (today Gadag) district of Karnataka in a Kannada Madhwa Brahmin family on 4 February 1922 to Gururaj Joshi(who had authored a Kannada-English dictionary) and Godavaraibai, a home-maker. Bhimsen was the eldest among 16 siblings. He lost his mother at a young age and was raised by his step mother.
As a child, Bhimsen was fascinated with music and musical instruments like Harmonium and Tanpur and would often follow processions accompanied by music bands. This exercise often tired him and he would curl up somewhere and sleep, forcing the parents to go to the police after efforts to trace him fail. Fed up, his father Gururajacharya Joshi come up with the solution, writing “Joshi mastarara maga” (son of teacher Joshi) on Bhimsen’s shirts. This worked and those who found the boy sleeping would safely deposit him back to his house.
His first music teacher was Agasara Channappa of Kurtakoti, who had trained with the veteran singer Inayat Khan. After learning ragas Bhairav and Bhimpalasi . The one and only unique vigorous style of rendering he developed along with advanced trainings by other teachers is attributed to the basic training he received from Channappa. Bhimsen Joshi next went to Pandit Shyamacharya Joshi, who hailed from Bagalkot and was a priest and classical singer. Pandit Shyamacharya taught him to sing as well as play the harmonium. Shree Shamacharya Joshi was a descendant of Great Haridasa Shree Mahipati Dasaru. As revealed by Shree Shamacharya Joshi himself when he was live, it was a turning point in Bhimsen Joshi’s life that Shree Shyamacharya Joshi went to Bombay for recording his songs by HMV where Shree Bhimsen Joshi also accompanied him and due to ill health Shree Shayamacharya Joshi returned to Bagalkot after recording few songs and asked Shree Bhimsen Joshi to render rest of the songs which Shree Bhimsen Joshi did and this proved to be a major breakthrough for Shree Bhimsen Joshi in the initial stage of his career.
Joshi heard a recording of Abdul Karim Khan’s Thumri “Piya Bin Nahi Aavat Chain” in Raga Jhinjhoti when he was a child, which inspired him to become a musician. During this time, he also heard Pandit Sawai Gandharva at a performance in Kundgol. In 1933, the 11-year-old Joshi left Dharwad for Bijapur to find a master and learn music. With the help of money lent by his co-passengers in the train, Bhimsen reached Dharwad first and later went to Pune. Later he moved to Gwalior and got into Madhava Music School, a school run by Maharajas of Gwalior, with the help of famous sarod player Hafiz Ali Khan. He travelled for three years around North India, including in Delhi, Kolkata, Gwalior, Lucknow and Rampur, trying to find a good guru. Eventually, his father succeeded in tracking him down in Jalandar and brought young Bhimsen back home.
In 1936, Sawai Gandharva, a native of Dharwad, agreed to be his guru. Joshi stayed at his house in the guru-shishya (teacher-student) tradition. Joshi continued his training with Sawai Gandharva till 1940.
Joshi first performed live in 1941 at the age 19. His debut album, containing a few devotional songs in Marathi and Hindi, was released by HMV the next year in 1942. Later Joshi moved to Mumbai in 1943 and worked as a radio artist. His performance at a concert in 1946 to celebrate his guru Sawai Gandharva’s 60th birthday won him accolades both from the audience and his guru.
Joshi’s performances have been acknowledged by music critics such as S. N. Chandrashekhar of the Deccan Herald to be marked by spontaneity, accurate notes, dizzyingly-paced taans which make use of his exceptional voice training, and a mastery over rhythm. The Hindu, in an article written after he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, said: Bhimsen Joshi was ever the wanderer, engendering brilliant phrases and tans more intuitively than through deliberation. Joshi occasionally employed the use of sargam and tihaais, and often sang traditional compositions of the Kirana gharana. His music often injected surprising and sudden turns of phrase, for example through the unexpected use of boltaans. Over the years, his repertoire tended to favour a relatively small number of complex and serious ragas; however, he remained one of the most prolific exponents of Hindustani classical music. Some of Joshi’s more popular ragas include Shuddha Kalyan, Miyan Ki Todi, Puriya Dhanashri, Multani, Bhimpalasi, Darbari, and Ramkali. He was a purist who has not dabbled in experimental forms of music, except for a series of Jugalbandi recordings with the Carnatic signer M. Balamuralikrishna.
Joshi’s singing has been influenced by many musicians, including Smt. Kesarbai Kerkar, Begum Akhtar and Ustad Amir Khan. Joshi assimilated into his own singing various elements that he liked in different musical styles and Gharanas.
In devotional music, Joshi was most acclaimed for his Hindi, Kannada and Marathi Bhajan singing. He has recorded bhakti songs in Marathi, Santavani and Kannada, Dasavani.
Bhimsen Joshi was widely recognised in India due to his performance in the Mile Sur Mera Tumhara music video (1988), which begins with him. The video was created for the purpose of national integration in India, and highlights the diversity of Indian culture. Bhimsen Joshi was also a part of Jana Gana Mana produced by A. R. Rahman on the occasion of 50th year of Indian Republic.
Joshi sang for several films, including Basant Bahar (1956) with Manna Dey, Birbal My Brother (1973) with Pandit Jasraj. He also sang for the films Tansen (1958) and Ankahee (1985) where latter fetched him National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer. His song ‘Bhagyadalakshmi baaramma’, a Purandara Dasa composition, was used by Anant Nag and Shankar Nag in the Kannada film Nodi Swami Naavu Irodhu Heege. He also sang as a playback singer for the Marathi film Gulacha Ganapati, produced and directed by P. L. Deshpande.
Joshi along with his friend Vasantrao Deshpande organised the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival as an homage to his guru, Sawai Gandharva, along with the Arya Sangeet Prasarak Mandal in 1953, marking Gandharva’s first death anniversary. The festival has been held ever since, typically on the second weekend of December in Pune, Maharashtra and has become not only a cultural event for the city, but an annual pilgrimage for Hindustani Classical music lovers all over the world. Joshi conducted the festival annually since 1953, until his retirement in 2002.
Bhimsen Joshi was known for his powerful voice, amazing breath control, fine musical sensibility and unwavering grasp of the fundamentals, representing a subtle fusion of intelligence and passion that imparted life and excitement to his music. A classicist by training, and temperament, Bhimsen Joshi was renowned for having evolved an approach that sought to achieve a balance between what may be termed as “traditional values and mass-culture tastes” and as such he went on to have supposedly the largest commercially recorded repertoire in Hindustani vocal music. Pt. Joshi’s iconic status in the music world has earned him a whole generation of suni shagirds who by merely listening to him have picked up his style and not through any formal tutelage. His greatest endeavour in perpetuating his legacy could be the Sawai Gandharva Festival held at Pune. annually since the year 1953 which seeks to promote a certain music culture.
Bhimsen married twice. His first wife was Sunanda Katti, the daughter of his maternal uncle, whom he married in 1944. He had four children from Sunanda; Raghavendra, Usha, Sumangala, and Anand. In 1951, he married Vatsala Mudholkar, his co-actor in the Kannada play Bhagya-Shree. Although bigamous marriages among Hindus were prohibited by law in the Bombay Presidency, he did not divorce or separate from Sunanda. With Vatsala, he had three children; Jayant, Shubhada, and Shrinivas.Initially, both his wives and families lived together, but when this did not work out, his first wife moved out with the family to live in a rented house in Limayewadi in Sadashiv Peth, Pune, where Bhimsen continued to visit them.
Bhimsen had a passion for cars. He was a swimmer, an enthusiast of yoga and a football player. He had acknowledged his weakness for alcohol but became a teetotaller after it started affecting his career.
Joshi was admitted to Sahyadri Super Speciality Hospital on 31 December 2010 with gastrointestinal bleeding and bilateral pneumonia. Due to difficulty in breathing, he was put on ventilator support. He suffered convulsions and was put on dialysis too during his stay in hospital. Though he recovered briefly for three days when he was taken off the ventilator, his condition deteriorated thereafter. He died on 24 January 2011 . He was cremated at Vaikunth Crematorium in Pune with full state honours.