Amol Palekar’s documentary on Kishori Amonkar has its faults but is still a film that no admirer of the living legend should miss.

When an acclaimed actor-director pays tribute to a living master-musician in the form of a documentary, one’s expectations are understandably high because practitioners of one art can appreciate their counterparts in other arts much more easily and with much greater depth than mere connoisseurs. That’s why, when one went to watch a documentary on Kishori Amonkar, the reigning diva of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, one was full of expectations as well as curiosity as the film was directed by none other than Amol Palekar. Sandhya Gokhale, who had provided the concept and design, was also involved in directing the film that was produced by Saarth Productions in association with Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, National Cultural Fund, ONGC and TATA Capital.

The 69-minute documentary is titled ‘Bhinna Shadja’ that may mean ‘Differentiated Shadja’ — Shadja being the first note ‘sa’ of the saptak — though the filmmakers choose to render the name as ‘Note Extraordinaire.’ However, Bhinna Shadja also happens to be the name of a raga that has been beautifully sung by Kishori Amonkar in her memorable concerts as well as published recordings. This raga also goes by the names of Kaushik Dhwani, Audav Bilawal and Hindoli, and has all the shuddha notes except rishabh and pancham.

When one is through with the film, the significance of the name dawns upon the viewer with much greater force as the legendary vocalist spends a good deal of reel time to explain how the exploration of the shadja (sa) is the most important thing in classical music and how this note has to be used in different ways and measures in different ragas and, sometimes, has to be employed scarcely and very, very carefully.

The film opens with a beautiful Bhoop recorded by Kishori Amonkar for an HMV LP in 1971 playing in the background while a long shot shows her getting up in the morning to offer her prayers.

Bhoop, her signature raag

Appropriately enough, tabla maestro Zakir Husain is thereafter shown saying, “She has sung ragas that can be compared to some of the most immortal renderings ever of those ragas. I mean the way we talk of Ustad Amir Khan Saheb’s Marwa, in the same breath we talk about Kishori Tai’s Bhoop. So, these are some landmark performances that take place over hundreds of years. And you would talk about them through the rest of your lives and through many centuries to come.” An articulate Zakir further explains that when he listens to her, it seems to be a painting that embodies every detail of someone’s life. “In that, there is great happiness, great sadness, great anger, great frustration, great desperation — everything just comes into focus in this great concentrated little piece.”

Flute wizard Hariprasad Chaurasia talks about his association and family friendship with Kishori Amonkar since 1962 and recalls those days when she used to like light music quite a lot. He maintains that his guru Annapurna Devi and Kishori Amonkar can be compared to a coconut — hard from outside but very soft and sweet inside. Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan brings out the essence of a truly creative artist in his comments on Kishori Amonkar and says that initially, everybody has to imitate his or her guru and try hard to sing or play exactly like the teacher. However, the real test for an artist is to find a new path and add a new dimension. According to him, Kishori has made the music of her gharana even more beautiful by enriching it with her innovations. Santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma too praises Kishori Amonkar’s contribution to the art of khayal singing.

The film shows Kishori Amonkar talking in great detail about how her mother, the legendary Mogubai Kurdikar, taught her. As Mogubai’s husband died young, she had to take care of her children and had to give tuitions to support the family. “She had very little time to teach me while she would spend most of her time teaching others. I used to sit outside the room and listen,” Kishoritai recalls. She explains how she decided to sing her own thing rather than imitating her mother. When she came under criticism by purists, Mogubai, who would never praise her daughter, replied to them that all the disciples of the gharana founder Ustad Alladiya Khan too did not sing exactly like him.

Kishori elaborates on her rasa theory and explains how every raga should express its own mood and the performer should avoid using those phrases that undermine that mood. The most poignant part of the film is when her two sons recall the days when she had lost her voice for many years and had to communicate through gestures or by writing on a paper.

One wishes the film had more footage of Mogubai’s and Kishori’s performances and was less wordy. Also, one wonders why the directors chose only instrumentalists to comment on Kishori and her art. Still, it is a film that no admirer of Kishori Amonkar’s art can or should miss.

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