Bhimsen Tribute

(Published in The Times of India)

I first heard Bhimsen when I was about 12. I was being given my first taste of classical music, and Bhimsen was perhaps the best introduction I could have had. I think he sang Miyan ki Malhar that evening, because I remember relating instantly to the melody. So many monsoon songs from Hindi films were set in it. But what fascinated me and held me captive was Bhimsen’s exaggerated body language.

In those early years Bhimsen’s gestures reflected, visually, everything he was doing with his voice. He sawed the air, chopped up the ground, flew a kite, plucked notes out of the firmament, brought them down to earth, buried them deep in its womb, bent so low that his head almost touched the stage. Then he swung up, mouth wide open in a painful grimace, twisted and turned his torso, till one wondered why music was such an excruciating exercise for him.  

He has said of those early years that he still wasn’t sure how to present his music to an audience. He was seeking his own voice, a style that would reflect who he was and how he thought and felt. His violent gestures and body movements might have been external signs of the struggle he was engaged in. He had made the challenge daunting for himself by going beyond the Kirana gharana style that his guru Sawai Gandharva had bequeathed to him.  He had travelled all over the north, from Gwalior to Lucknow, listening to the music of other gharanas and now he was trying to bring them all into a meaningful musical coherence. In his own words “Asambhav ko sambhav karne ki asha thi” (I hoped to make the impossible possible).

When he won the challenge, his body language changed. His grimacing mouth closed over his notes as though they were now his internal pleasure. His body became still, his gestures rare, mere strokes to signal intention or underline a statement. The idea was no longer to struggle with his music and make an instant impact but to let it come from within and make it memorable.  

His music mesmerised listeners, including those who were hearing him for the first time. The magic lay in his resonant voice that could run fluidly through three octaves. It was not just the quality of the voice that created the magic, but the way he used it. He used its incredible flexibility in ways that stunned. He would modulate it within a single musical phrase from a deeply rounded sound to a barley audible trill, creating an emotional effect that was totally unexpected.

If there was one feature of the Kirana gharana that Bhimsen retained in his gayaki, it was its emotive appeal. Voice modulation was not the only means he used to achieve it. He did much else like elongating notes while the audience held its collective breath, embellishing the main notes with subtle grace notes that filled the music with a tremulous karuna rasa and arriving at the sam in a variety of ways.  

Over the years listeners became accustomed to the beauties of his music. Certainly I didn’t think I had much more to discover there, till I heard a recording of his Bhairavi thumri “Ras ke bhare tore nain” a couple of months ago. Typically the sleeve note of the CD didn’t mention the date of the live concert of which this was a recording. But the voice and what he did with it suggested it was probably an early one.

The rendition amazes for its robust appropriation of every influence there was in thumri singing at the time and presenting it with elan, the audience audibly excited by the effect. Bhimsen begins the thumri on a high note in a voice and style that are instantly reminiscent of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. He then moves into Siddehshwari’s style, touching on Abdul Karim Khan Saheb’s style via another reference to Bade Ghulam.

While this thievery (Bhimsen maintained that every good artist is a thief) is impressive, what made me sit up was one particular place in the rendering. Here Bhimsen holds a high note, twists and turns it around and, just when you think he can't have any more breath left, moves up the octave to a higher note and holds that too till it gradually fades away into space.

This is the voice that we have lost.

Published On : 25-01-2011