(Wrote this a few years ago when Joshiji had come to perform in Mysore)
“The marvellous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.” Helen Keller
A fortnight ago, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi performed at a concert here in Mysore. So, you’re thinking that this article has strayed here from the Arts and Entertainment section. Not so, not so, dear reader. Because the point of this piece is not music at all, but ….well, let me get straight to the point without much ado.
It was a beautiful, balmy evening, the kind that Mysore is known to tot out proudly, especially during this time of the year because it’s an old tradition and because we know that it’s kind of expected as part of our famed Dussera festivities as much as Balarama the elephant and the golden howdah and the fairy lights on the Mysore Palace. The venue was the Centenary Hall, a heritage edifice of noble proportions that we are as proud of as we are of the weather. The concert was supposed to start at 6 p.m. but what with the holiday mood and everything, it was sort of understood that 6 p.m. was IST or Indian Stretchable Time. But even by this timekeeping, the hall was almost full by 6.30 and there was now an air of eager expectancy as we waited for the maestro.
7 pm: one whole hour past the official starting time of the concert and a bit of a stretch even for us easy going Mysoreans but it was after all both Dussera and a Sunday evening and many of us had anyway got in only about half an hour ago and the organizers had made an announcement that had the reassuring mention of “5-10 minutes” somewhere in it. And so, every one settled into their seats and the air of expectancy stirred itself up again and permeated the hall like a gust of Mysore mallige fragrance….
8 pm: Now, even we were a bit annoyed. The next “coming-shortly-expected-anytime-now-almost-here-please-bear-with-us” announcement was greeted by a ripple of grumbly mutterings and an irate member of the audience got up to make a rather emphatic point about the organizers’ inability to get things together on time. Fortunately, many of us among the audience clutched a card on the reverse of which was a brief life sketch of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. And so even as we clucked our tongues about the lateness of the hour, we also clucked them indulgently and sympathetically, making allowance for over half a century of a brilliant musical career and a life of 82 long years that must sit heavily and cruelly on a man’s shoulders, however great a legend he may be.
8.15 pm: Finally, the rustle of excitement which told us that Pandit Bhimsen Joshi had indeed arrived. Through one of the open side entrances, I sighted a clutch of people rushing towards the stage entrance and amidst that clutch, somebody being wheeled in wheelchair. Oh-oh, I thought - two hours late, 82 years and in a wheelchair. This doesn’t augur well for the evening ahead. The now much relieved organizers started to make their various announcements and speeches. But nobody was paying much attention to that because we were riveted by the onstage activities. The instruments came quickly in place, along the accompanists, all on a large, low platform. And as the sound checks were done, a little peculiar looking bright red thing was placed on the platform – a sort of a cross between a legless chair and a throne, the sort that some sadhus and godmen tend to favour. Two hours late, 82 years, in a wheelchair and now he needs help to sit? This really doesn’t look promising, I thought to myself worriedly.
Then, it was time. Another agitated rustle and as the organizers hovered and fluttered like worried hens, a tiny shrunken figure leaning heavily on a cane and helped by two men came onstage. There was a spontaneous standing ovation from an audience that had been waiting for him for over two hours - a measure of his past glory. But was that all past, many must have wondered, as he made the excruciating progress across the ten feet or so to the funny red throne-baithak. He needed help to sit; one man arranging his feet like you would a doll in a show window. Soon he was “ready”. I stared at the unmoving, wizened little version of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi apprehensively. Why does he need to do this, I thought? He is already such a colossus and can well afford to rest on his laurels. Why would he expose this pitiful reduction of himself to the world? How could anyone in this physical condition even speak, let alone sing a 2-3 hour classical music concert? The tanpuras began play and as he got them tuned and the sound playback adjusted to his satisfaction, waving his arms up and down – I saw a spark splutter somewhere. But was it enough? Would he really be able to pull this off after all?
Finally everything was set. A quiet hush descended on the audience. Pandit Bhimen Joshi bent a little towards the mike and folding his hands in a namaskara, rumbled in the famous rumble. It was in chaste Kannada, impossible to translate but loosely, it went something like this. “I humbly beg for your forgiveness for being late. The reasons are not important. That I am late is. Please forgive me.”
With that, he had us. Wave after wave of appreciative applause washed over the auditorium. After that, even if he did not single a single note straight, it wouldn’t have mattered because he already had our hearts.
Then, he began to sing. Slowly, painfully. The high notes still impressive but the low notes were painful to hear – barely audible and hoarse. This, from a musical legend who was known to roar masterfully across 3 octaves? Then, almost magically, the voice began to totter and stagger up like a new-born calf and before we knew what, the legend was back, filling the exquisite night air with his powerful, awesome voice.
Like many people in the audience that evening, I didn’t know what exactly he sang. That the hauntingly beautiful opening bade khayal was in his favourite, signature Puriya Dhanashree followed by its sparkling, enchanting little sibling which went, “Paayaliya jhankar…” I did not know then that what followed was a lovely dadra in Raga Khamaj. Somewhere in between, I gratefully recognized the soaring, inspiring Vadirajaru composition “Hari bhajane maado nirantara”, part of a whole repertoire of Daasaru kirtanas that he had made hugely popular in Karnataka by singing them in his own inimitable style, breaking away from tradition. I didn’t know that the second incredibly sweet bada khayal was in Raga Jaijaiwanti, followed by a pretty, delicate composition in the same raga – “jhanana jhanan jhanan paayal baje.” . But none of that mattered. Because, when more 2 and a half hours later, he ended with the exquisitely simple but stunningly profound Sant Namdeo abhang, “Teerth Vitthala, Kshetra Vittala” in Raga Jogia Mishr, we couldn’t have asked for anything more. We had been transported, moved, delighted, amazed, astonished, entranced and enthralled.
Which makes it time to give you a little background to this concert. The previous evening, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi had performed a jugalbandhi with Dr. Balamurali Krishna in Bangalore. The journey from Bangalore to Mysore is a gruelling 4-hour one, which he must have made only on the next day or the morning of our concert. He is an 82-year old man who, according to one report, is hard of hearing, has failing eyesight, a weak heart, and underwent a crippling surgery for a benign brain tumour a few years ago. Which brings us to that same question. “Why did he need to do this?” He won his first platinum disc in 1986 and has won every possible accolade including the Padma Bhushan.
The answer is very simple. To do what legends are meant to do. To inspire us. That nothing is insurmountable. Nothing. That nothing is more powerful than the human will. Nothing. That the true victory over disease and physical debility is not necessarily its cure but in finding the strength to carry on despite it. That we have choices– not in what happens to us but in what we make of it.
I have no clue what drives Pandit Bhimsen Joshi to still keep performing. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I – like perhaps so many others - will never forget the lessons of endurance, indomitable will and sheer, true grit that he taught us that evening.
Just for the record, he performed again the very next evening at the Mysore palace.