Bhimsen Joshi: Singer widely regarded as the greatest exponent of Indian classical vocal music

It is not often that one can describe somebody as the greatest in their field. In the case of the Indian classical vocalist Bhimsen Joshi that accolade really did apply. Renowned for his music's unsurpassed expressiveness and virtuosity – especially his tayyari or fast-passage extemporisations – he was one of those musicians of whom it can be said that to see them perform is a blessing. He became one of the foremost representatives of the gharana – school or style of music-making – known as Kirana. Yet there was always the possibility of something stylistically unexpected or joyously wayward emerging during a recital.

He was one of seven children born to a literary-minded, Kannada-speaking family; his mother Godavaribai named him after his grandfather Bhimacharya, believing him to be his reincarnation. His father, Gururaj Joshi ,was a schoolteacher, lexicographer and linguist, the author of, among other works, a major Kannada-English dictionary and Bhimsen Joshi's first biography, the Kannada-language Nadaputra (Child of Sound, 1967). There would be other biographies of his son, notably two by the eminent Indian critic, Mohan Nadkarni, Bhimsen Joshi – The Man and His Music (1983) and Bhimsen Joshi: A Biography (1994).

Bhimsen began picking up bhajans [Hindu hymns] from his mother from early on and as little more than a tot could replicate them pretty faithfully. His parents recognised his musical gifts and arranged for paid lessons, first with Channnappa Kurtakoti and then Pandit Shyamachaya. Besotted with music, he played truant in order to loiter near a shop and listen to records being played for customers.

At the age of 11, he ran away from home looking for a guru to teach him music. Hopping on a train from Gadag to Bilapur, he evaded the ticket inspector and sang classical and hit songs in exchange for food. After many adventures he reached Gwalior, where he received his first professional fee, when the Maharajah gave him 10 rupees (enough for two meals a day for three months) and a coconut. Two years later, the runaway fare-dodged his way home.

One of his favourite musicians was Abdul Karim Khan, a singer with a maverick streak whose sublime powers of spontaneous creation in a raga were matched by his fondness for breaking the rules. Joshi's long-suffering father managed to wangle a meeting with Khan's shishya [pupil] Sawai Gandharva in 1935 and he accepted the boy as his shishya. He slaved, doing menial work for his guru for 18 months before his first lesson, a test of his commitment and what would become of his voice after it broke. Many singers' voices change register or timbre when singing, suggesting a measure of artifice. Joshi's singing voice only differed from his speaking voice in its heightened artistry. There was nothing "put on" about his voice, or him.

During the war he was accepted as an All India Radio staff artist, a career fillip, at AIR's Lucknow station. With the decline of courtly patronage, AIR was taking over the role of India's principal patron of the musical arts. The duties were light – three 10-minute broadcasts a week – and he roomed with Bismillah Khan, a virtuoso of the shehnai, an oboe-like instrument. With the threat of Japanese invasion, he returned to Bombay in late 1942. Yet though he passed the Bombay station's audition, the hoped-for regular slots never materialised.

After a big concert break in January 1946, his star rose, especially thanks to his command of the khyal song style. As Sheila Dhar wrote in Raga 'n' Josh (2005), audiences "simply worshipped" him. However, Joshi was not exclusively a classical performer. He sang for films. One, Ankahee (1985), had particular resonance; its plot hinged on the source of his surname – jyotishi, a practitioner of jyotish, or astrology.

His marital life was complicatedbut not unique. In 1944 he married his cousin Sunanda, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. Both pre- and post-Partition, India was a land witha plethora of civic, religious and regional practices concerning marriage. By the simple expedient of relocatingto Nagpur in the Central Provinces, there could be no charges of bigamy when he married again in 1951. That marriage produced two sons and a daughter, and for many years Joshisupported both families under the same roof until he set up Sunanda in another property.

In 2008 he was the last person to be awarded India's Bharat Ratna, its highest civilian award. Its penultimate recipient had been Bismillah Khan in 2001.

Bhimsen Gururaj Joshi, Hindustani classical singer: born Gadag, Dharwad District, Bombay Presidency (now Karnataka), India 4 February 1922; married firstly Sunanda Hungund (deceased 1992; two sons, two daughters), secondly Vatsala Dhondopant Mudholkar (two sons, one daughter); died Pune, Maharashtra 24 January 2011.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Regional ESF Contract Manager

£32500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Birmingham: European Social Fund...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home