Every time India’s highest civilian honour goes to an artist, especially in troubled times, hope surges anew that there is place in our fiercely competitive lives for joy and tranquillity. What can symbolise this optimism better than the decoration of 86-year-old Pandit Bhimsen Joshi? The announcement of the Bharat Ratna for this Hindustani vocalist of the Kirana gharana is fitting reward for a man who remained true to the classical tradition, yet made his music accessible to millions. His voice and image in the Doordarshan tune, ‘Mile sur mera tumhara,’ transcended propaganda to become a signature ode for national integration. From the time he ran away from home to wander far in quest of the right guru, only to find him in Sawai Gandharva in his native Dharwad, Joshi’s musical journey has been focussed on self-realisation in art. He might have remained within the cloisters of the cognoscenti but for his penchant for Kannada and Marathi poets and his robust renderings of their bhakti verse ‘Santvani.’ This was music for the people — voicing their thoughts and aspirations, forging a sense of oneness and intimacy. Joshi’s major khyal renderings too refract this quality of resonance — integrating art, science, and bhakti seamlessly but never descending from the classical to the populist ‘devotional’ mode. That his full-throated vocalisation casts a spell on his audience has been an indisputable part of his charisma. Through the years, he has been both warmly applauded and fastidiously criticised for amalgamating features and techniques of other schools to craft a style of his own. The huge Sawai Gandharva Festival he organises annually has been as much a homage to his guru as his contribution to the future of the art form. Many performers acknowledged on that stage have become confident professionals enriching Hindustani music.
It is a long-known attribute of artistic genius that the person does not, in everyday life, conform to the conventions of society. Love of football and fast cars, an eagerness to don the role of the mechanic, and an unconventional lifestyle are all part of the Bhimsen Joshi persona, as is his streak of unworldliness. Hitting a roadblock midway in his career, Joshi’s music went from the sublime to the pedestrian. Family support and his own inner strength enabled the master to overcome alcohol addiction and regain his greatness as a musician. For Bhimsen Joshi, the national award is not only recognition of pre-eminence in the realm of music. It is also a reminder of the triumph of imperishable art and a heroic spirit over personal vicissitudes, the emergence of the artist from the troughs of depression to scale the heights.