Introducing: Rahul Chandawarkar’s People. When Bhimsen Joshi sang at Sawai for the last time…

Pune, Winter 2007. I am sitting in front of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the doyen of the kirana gharana in the spacious drawing room of his Navi Peth bungalow. This is a few days before the annual Sawai Gandharva Sangeet Mahotsav (the Indian classical music festival he initiated) is set to begin. Bhimsenji (85) has been in and out of hospital since 2003 and has not sung at the festival for a good four years.

However, his health has looked up in recent months and there is a fair bit of anticipation about his singing at the forthcoming Sawai Mahotsav. Hence, after a few warm-up questions, I get brave and pop the inevitable question, “Panditji will you be singing this year?”

There is pindrop silence in the room. The people in the room look at me incredulously, almost yelling, “Are you out of your mind? How could you have asked this question!”

Bhimsenji looks at me intently for a few seconds, but what seems like the longest time before he says, rather matter of factly in his booming voice, “Gaavu Kee!” (Yes, I will sing!)  The people in the room are shocked. I am speechless. Then someone asks the doyen in a shaking voice, “Are you sure, Panditji? Will you really sing this year?!”  “Yes!” is the simple answer.

I thank the maestro, touch his feet and bolt out of the house. I ring my newspaper editor and ask him to keep space on the front page. I have big news.

“Bhimsen Joshi to sing at Sawai this year!” screams the headline the next day. There is excitement in the air. Sawai is sold out four days before the festival. On the opening day of the festival, someone in the Sawai press box asks one of the organisers: “Sir, tell us, will Bhimsenji really sing this year?!” The organiser, dripping sarcasm, Puneri style, points to me and says, “Ask the expert. He should know!”

The first few days are uneventful. However at noon on the final day, Sunday, December 9, the speakers crackle to life. Compere Anand Deshmukh makes an announcement. Pandit Bhimsen would sing shortly. Pindrop silence. Looks of disbelief and then, all hell breaks loose.

SMS messages fly across the city. ‘Bhimsenji will sing in 20 minutes. Drop everything and get here fast!’ People eating at the food stalls, hurriedly wash down their vada-pavs with their cutting chai. And in just a few minutes, after the announcement, 10,000 people settle down in rapt attention to listen to the icon.

A silver sedan arrives and drives to the ramp near the stage. The ailing maestro is wheeled to the stage. Bhimsenji looks old and tired, but he has kept his word. He sings the popular Gokul gaon ka chora in Raga Multani giving everyone goosebumps, followed it with a soulful, bhajan: Avagachi Sansar and concluding with the racy thumri, Raske Bhare Tore Naina.

‘Wahs, wahs’ and earsplitting applause follows.The most poignant scene however, is that of an old man clutching a Bhimsen Joshi poster tightly, standing in a corner with tears streaming down his cheeks. He says, “Who knows whether I will hear this God sing again!”  Indeed, it was the last time the maestro sang at the Mahotsav.

Rahul ChandawalkarRahul Chandawarkar, now based in Goa, is a former editor of Sakal Times and recipient of the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism award for 2009. Rahul Chandawarkar’s People will appear on Pune365 every other Monday.

Rahul Chandawarkar

Rahul Chandawarkar

Rahul Chandawarkar, now settled in Goa is a former editor of Sakal Times. He is also recipient of the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award in 2009. Rahul Chandawarkar’s People appears every other Monday on Pune365.
Rahul Chandawarkar