London: When I was a student at Sydenham College in Mumbai in the early 1980s, the musical highlight of the year was the three-day festival of Indian classical music at St Xavier’s College. Zakir Hussain played a major role in bringing the biggest names of classical music to perform in the quadrangle of St Xavier’s College.
We would sit in creaking wooden chairs, or lean back on the wall as we sat on the floor, kept awake by the melody and genius of the likes of Mallikarjun Mansur, Gangubai Hangal, and Bhimsen Joshi. One by one, they’ve gone—now Bhimsen Joshi has joined the other two maestros.
I recall those evenings well. The shawl wrapped around us gave us comfort, the chai kept us warm, but that music soothed us. The festival would last three days, and while the artistes who performed there often changed, there was always one certainty—that the last singer on the last night would be Bhimsen Joshi. That last night would be 25 January—the next day, being Republic Day, would be a holiday.
The memory is still vivid. Joshi comes on the stage at around 4.30am; over the three days, we have heard Arjun Shejwal’s pakhwaj, Mrs Rajam’s violin, U. Sriniwas’s mandolin, Ravi Shankar’s taal vadya kacheri. The sky is still dark, the stars visible. Joshi clears his throat, sits on the stage, looks around the audience and smiles at a few familiar faces.
Then he closes his eyes. The artistes around him tap the tabla and tune the harmonium, and he hums slowly, opening his eyes.
At that time, the audience doesn’t matter; he is on the quest to become one with something elemental, eternal. He knows what he is seeking—like Arjuna and the eye of the fish; like Sunil Gavaskar and the arm of the bowler, his mind having worked out the stroke; like the sculptor and the mound of clay from which he knows exactly what he will create; like the one who meditates and his inspiration. Nothing else matters, as he begins to lose himself in the purity of his sound—first, the gentle ascent of raga Miyaan ki Todi. Then, after having warmed up, a melodious, soulful thumri in Bhairavi, as he playfully brings out the pathos of Babul Mora. There isn’t a dry eye in the quadrangle.
Then he leads us gently to the finale. By then, the sky has turned blue and pink. You begin to sense the sun rising, the stars fading. And the moon beaming. It is not a resounding, noisy finale. Bhimsen Joshi’s conclusion is plaintive, an even-paced abhang—Teerth Vithal, Kshetra Vithal, in Ahir Bhairav.
The abhang winds down gently. By then, the sun is shining; the dark sky has turned blue. It is nearly 7am. It is Republic Day. What a joyous way to celebrate the republic.
We walk home in silence, as if in trance. The experience has been rich, uplifting, ennobling.
It is nearing 26 January. The concert has ended abruptly. But the voice is still with us, continuing to spread happiness and bliss. For with Bhimsen Joshi, the concert never ends.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.