Many will remember his more magnificent classical musical performances, running out of adjectives to describe the wonderful voice, its fantastic range, and his scarcely credible control over it. For me, though, this particular song, an invocation to goddess Laxmi, remains the one that has resonated throughout my life. It is perhaps one of the few things that still marks me out as a Kannadiga – that I can’t help but be moved by the devotion in this song! I grew up listening to my mother sing a version of it, she who was also trained in the same vocal tradition as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi; eventually, through my inadequate education into Indian classical music, I came to love his rendition of this classic. Years later, as a father walking around the house late at night to calm a cranky infant in my arms, I discovered that his voice had even more amazing powers: somehow this song, his voice, worked wonders that no lullaby could, instantly calming down both our daughters in their infancy! I am told that we even have a distant family connection with the maestro (genetically I am a Joshi, although my father got adopted into the Katti clan), through my paternal grandmother – but that is not the only reason why I can feel his rich voice resonating in my very bones.
A true musical highlight of my life: a concert he performed over 20 years ago on the shores of Dal lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. It was 1989, the last summer before the insurgency began, when the corrupt state government was making ever more desperate attempts to hold things together and bring in tourists. One of the incredible things they did was to team up with the Times of India, which was celebrating its 150th year, to host a series of classical music concerts at open air venues throughout the valley, free to the public, with transportation provided by the state! Not sure who thought that would calm the waters of the seething unrest, but I remain grateful for some truly wonderful musical experiences. The most magical was an evening in a park at the edge of Dal lake, with the lake and the mountains providing a magnificent background appropriate to his rich voice. And, as he got us deeper into the spell he was weaving, to the monsoon raga Megha Malhar, I remember monsoonal thunderclouds gathering over the lake behind us, catching the last rays of the sun, adding their own percussion to accompany his voice! It was July, and the mountains do get thunderstorms in the evenings anyway, sure – but surely his voice alone had summoned the very elements that evening, and all the troubles of the valley were washed away for a night. I still shiver thinking about the experience, feel the electricity of the evening.
Here’s one sample of his singing the Malhar:
UPDATE: Aai (mom in Marathi) reminds me that the relation is not all that distant – Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was actually my Ajji’s (grandmother’s) cousin! He was also married to another cousin of hers (cousin marriages were common in that part of the country) – although that arranged marriage was a miserable one for the poor woman shackled to this freewheeling free-spirited (pun very much intended) mercurial genius. As a child I even visited his house for a wedding it seems, but clearly well before any lasting memories formed in my brain. How I wish I had remembered the exact family connection when I saw him in Kashmir!