Don Mclean moaned in the 1971 song, American Pie, about ... "The day the music died." January 24, 2011 would perhaps be the day for us in India, especially in Pune, the day when music died, with the death of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. No epithet can define his importance in the world of Indian classical music; no amount of mourning and eulogy can sufficiently redeem what is lost forever.
Newspapers would write it was an end of an era, and that's right. But the real implication of Panditji's death is much widespread. It is as if the reality of Hindustani Classical Music suddenly became a myth.
Apart from being an extraordinary vocal artist as he was, the greatness and relevance of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi lies in his ability to popularise Indian classic music among the masses. You may not be a connoisseur of all these raga business, but you have heard of Pandit Joshi, and you have heard him singing, somewhere or other, in some form or other. That was the influence of the Bharat Ratna.
In Pune especially, he was as if the first citizen, and his residence, Kalashri, a veritable pilgrimage. You cannot command this kind of respect from the artistes and the common men if you are not the real thing. And he was indeed for real.
Among other things, Pandit Joshi gave Pune its annual music festival, in the memory of his guru Sawai Gandharva, the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival, which has a pride place in the calendar of music events organised in India. For a lot of people Sawai Gandharva is an occasion to look forward to, from one year to another. And, you are lucky if you get to hear Panditji performing, or at least see him in person.
I remember seeing him four years ago at the Sawai Gandharva. By then he had already taken ill. But he could not avoid visiting the event which over the years has become synonymous with his name. A performance was in progress; as the white car entered the field and stopped near the stage, everything stopped. Even the artistes performing at the moment, a big name in his own right, stepped out and reached the car to get Panditji's blessing. I was right there. I had seen God.
The first time I heard Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was sometimes in 1997-98, at a live event the University of Pune main building. The hall was quite big; but the organisers were sure it won't be sufficient. They were right. As the crowd overflew from the hall to the lawn outside, there were a huge screen and sound boxes carrying Panditji's voice and the persona. I listened to him sitting on the grass, in the soft glow of the growing evening. What can I say, it was sheer bliss...