One conventionally thinks of a successful life in classical music as a series of concerts and accolades. But there is another equally significant, though often forgotten, aspect of life for a musician. A life spent in acquiring knowledge, imbibing music’s nuances, enhancing them and passing them on to future generations. There are those who hone the craft for their own enrichment and do not need the lure of stage to distract them from the continuous acquisition of knowledge.
Focus on learning
'I have no regrets about the lack of performance opportunities; my focus was always on learning and teaching.'
Pt Bhimsen Sharma
One such personality is Pt Bhimsen Sharma, who recently received the one-time Sangeet Natak Akademi Amrit Award. Born in 1936 at Mukerian, Hoshiarpur, Sharma’s family had no link with music. His father, however, liked to sing kirtans and appreciated good music. Seeing his son’s innate interest in music, he sent him to Batala to learn from Pyarelal, a music teacher. The region was rich musically. Ustad Allah Rakha lived in a village nearby, Ustads Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan lived in Sham Chaurasi.
Sharma later shifted to Amritsar, where his exposure to music increased. He attended mehfils hosted by Bijli Pehalwan, a big name at the time. Durgiana Mandir would hold music concerts and an annual festival; Bhimsen performed here. He started learning from Kundan Lal Avadhoot, a disciple of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan. In Amritsar, he also met the great Pt Dilip Chand Vedi and their relationship continued throughout, with Sharma visiting Vedi in Delhi.
Meanwhile, the performances went on and Sharma made his debut at Harivallabh at the age of 18. Realising that a life in music needed formal training, he went to the centre of music in the North, and studied at Prayag Sangeet Samiti, Allahabad. Here, he got a degree in vocal music in 1957-58. Back home, to support himself, he started teaching at Government College, Muktsar, and later taught at Government College for Women, Amritsar. In 1966, he went to teach music at colleges in Dharamsala and Shimla. Unlike in Punjab, there was no ‘mahaul’ of classical music in Himachal Pradesh, but interest grew slowly in the colleges. His classes would go on for 10 hours but he never charged a penny. In 2000, on deputation from HP University, he also started the music department at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.
Meanwhile, his learning continued. His relationship with Ustad Amir Khan of Indore was unusual. Sharma had heard a song sung by him from the 1952 film ‘Baiju Bawra’ and was enthralled. When the Ustad came to Harivallabh in 1964, Sharma requested him to take him under his wings. Khan saab obliged and taught him how to do ‘riyaaz’, voice culture. Whenever Ustad Amir Khan would come to Delhi, Sharma would meet him and learn from him. Similarly, when he heard Ustad Vilayat Khan in Allahabad for the first time in 1954, he was totally riveted. The opportunity to learn from him came in the late 1960s in Shimla, where the Ustad spent his summer. Sharma would do ‘sewa’, get the Ustad his cigarettes, paan, etc, and then request him to allow him to stay and hear his ‘riyaaz’, done late at night. Sharma also began playing the sitar with vigour and there was a time when he wanted to stop singing to pursue it! Sadly, Ustad Vilayat Khan left Shimla permanently in 1971 and that chapter closed.
He met the great Acharya Brihaspati in 1974-75. Their relationship deepened to the point that the Sharma family used to stay with Acharya in Delhi during the two winter months. From him, Sharma learnt some rare ragas and Rampur gharana bandishes.
Realising that he needed to share his music with a wider audience, he published his book ‘Swar Samvaad’ at the age of 82, in 2019, comprising over 100 compositions. He has created five ragas, two of these named after his gurus: Brihaspati Todi (after Acharya Brihaspati) and Amirkhani Todi (after Ustad Amir Khan). Today, Pt Bhimsen Sharma is a content man. He says: “I have no regrets about the lack of performance opportunities; my focus was always on learning and teaching, which I did all my life, with great satisfaction.”
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