Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the legendary exponent of Hindustani classical music, was tonight chosen for the Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award.
The honour for the 86-year-old vocalist, who belongs to 'kirna' gharana, caps a distinguished career spanning more than seven decades since he first performed at the age of 19.
This was after a gap of seven years that the government selected a performing artist for the highest award, the last previous recipient being shenai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan. In fact, the last time a person was chosen for the honour was Khan.
Bhimsen Gururaj Joshi was born in a Kannadiga family on February 4, 1922 in Gadag, an idyllic village in Dharwad district of Karnataka. His father was a conservative school master.
In 1933, the 11-year-old Bhimsen left his home on his own to learn singing through the Guru-Shishya tradition. He spent three years in Gwalior, Lucknow nd Rampur in North India trying to find a good guru. His father succeeded in tracking him down and brought young Bhimsen back home.
At a young age, he was deeply moved by a recording of Abdul Karim Khan, a great master of the Kirana gharana, from where he started his rigorous training under Pandit Rambhan Kundgolkar, also known as Sawai Gandharva at Kundgol, who himself was a pupil of Abdul Karim Khan for 10 to 12 years. Bhimsen stayed with Kundgolkar from 1936 to 1940. He then left his guru and set out on his own.
Bhimsen's seemingless effortless performances are the result of relentless riyaz. He earned his first platinium disc in 1986. He has been a daredevil and a risk-taker for most of his life.
Bhimsen first performed live at the age of 19. His debut album containing a few devotional songs in Kannada and Hindi was released when he was 20.
"Young people have lots of technique, little emotion. They learn khayal in the morning, ghazal in the afternoon, natyasangit in the evening, want to perform at night," Joshi observed.
The statement reflects the lifetime experience of a dedicated and sincere artiste. It also explains why Panditji has survived others in life and in music, and weathered criticism and nightmares, to remain one of India's most admired artistes.
He has started an annual clasical musical festival called the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival in memory of his guru. This festival is held in Pune every December.
Few know that Bhimsen is an avid admirer of automobiles - a bike or a BMW, he can fix an erratic engine with elan.
"Had I not been a classical singer, I would have loved to spend my entire life in a garage fine-tuning a Fiat or a Maruti," is his oft-repeated line to friends.
On a Mumbai-Pune journey in a taxi some years ago, Panditji regaled the taxi-driver with his cascading 'taans'.
The highly amused taxi-driver, obviously unaware of his passenger's eminence, wondered if Panditji knew to fix the engine if the car broke down in the ghats.
Eventually, what the taxi-driver feared happened; the engine went bust while the ramshackle Ambassador negotiated a hairpin bend.
To the driver's surprise, Joshi helped him repair the engine and the journey resumed.
Joshi's craze for fast cars and football is well known.
He loved to drive himself across the country on concert tours. "Engine troubles were welcome," said vocalist Firoz Dastur. "They gave him a chance to get under the car and tinker with it."