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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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

Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

£35-45K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer / Web ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£18000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first ...

Recruitment Genius: .NET Web / Software Developer - ASP.NET

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Small and agile digital marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Accountant

£12000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A national firm of chartered ce...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders