On Pandit Bhimsen Joshi…

Monday Musings for Monday June 17, 2019
Volume IX, No. 24/441


Pandit Bhimsen Joshi

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

Faithful readers of this space remember the essay on Hazrat Inayat Khan, the Indian Sufi-musician and his mesmeric instrument, the Vina. Well, Let me bring you the sad news of the death of another Indian singer-musician-genius, very much of the same mold of Inayat Khan. He was Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, dead at 88. This illustrious Indian musician with charisma of Napoleon, genius of Bach, and improvisational gift of Mozart with the golden voice of Orfeo, has orphaned the multitude of music lovers. We mourn his passing. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was given the title of “Singer of India”.

Every nation has its own music. Portugal has Fado; Spain, Fandango, Flaminco, Sardana, Bolero, and Zambro; Italian, using Richard Wagner’s (1813 -1883) term, Gesamtkunswerk of all musical art forms, the Opera; French, Jean Baptist Lully’s dotted rhythm overture to the majestic French Operas; German, Singspiel; Vienna, classical music; Persia, the Octatonic scale, harmonic implications, and unparalleled melisma. America, jazz and blue grass; and India, the taans, Ragas, abhangs or hymns, and the incomparable medieval Marathi saint-poets songs. Pandit Joshi was the consummate “Ostad“, master of all the Hindustani music.

The first time I saw Bhimsen sing in Mumbai, I thought he was having a convulsion on the stage. He did not. That was his all-consuming style.

Music seemed to require him to use every part of his body. As one critic wrote, “From a slow, mesmerized, almost motionless start and his eyes would roll upwards, foreshadowing the ascent to the notes that emerged from his distended, gaping mouth. His hand flailed, as though reaching for some imagined object just out of his grasp. Perhaps Joshi was trying to bring back to earth a soaring note from one of his magnificent taans, the series of rapid melodic passages with which classical singers in the Hindustani tradition of Northern India demonstrate their skills.” Pandit Joshi had a very modest start, born to the Dharwad region, sate of Bombay in British India. He grew up on the devotional songs his mother sang inviting people to prayer. They are called Azaan, and the person who sings them from the Mosque’s minaret is called muaazen. But he had access to 788 rpm discs and was introduced to western and classical music. He studied under Abdul Karim Khan, the great master of Kirana School. He was an industrious fellow practicing his art as many as 12 hours a day. He also traveled extensively. He was a man of faith and overcame his addiction to alcohol through resolute abstinence. His favorite music which illustrates his faith in god Krishna was a rage named Krishna. In my view he was an Orfeo for the 21st century with Orfeo’s fabled magical and mystical voice capable of opening the doors to Hades, but without Orfeo’s vanity and narcissism. His music is available for you to enjoy.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is a dramaturge. Received Raleigh Medal of Art in 2001, inducted to Raleigh Hall of Fame 2013, elected Lifetime Trustee, North Carolina Symphony in 2015, and 2016 recipient of NC Award, Fine Arts.

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