Kishori Amonkar turned 80 recently. Her ideas and vision of music, revealed during an interview 25 years ago, are recalled.

Exactly 25 years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kishori Amonkar, diva of Hindustani music, who recently turned 80. Here are some excerpts from my impressions and her candid comments during that memorable meeting:

Her image and personality lacked that ‘flashy' quality one associates with show biz. She was slim, with a thin face and prominent nose. As she bent over her Surmandal (a stringed instrument) on stage, she closed her eyes to make music. She got involved in the raga Bhoop ( Mohanam in the South) and explored it in detail, offering a taste of her rich inheritance. Watching her on the stage, I wondered whether she was ‘performing' at all… in the commonly accepted format. She did not seem to follow any formula for success.

I had doubts whether she would communicate with me the next morning. However, by speaking directly and simply of whatever came to her mind, she made me wonder again… Do people care to find out about the complexities of an artist's personality? Are they interested in the process of the making of an artist, or are they looking only for the product, the public persona? If they understand the artist and her attitude, does that make them understand her music better? Or, are they looking only for an evening's momentary listening pleasure? Will they listen to Kishori with a different ear after reading about her?

Kishori spoke with reverence and love of her mother and guru, Moghubai Kurdikar. She said, “I believe in the guru-sishya parampara. I don't believe in learning from texts and cassettes. Nowadays, students record, they go home and learn dead music. Learning from a guru is live learning. It is a give and take of souls.

“Our music is the fifth Veda. The Vedas teach you Brahma Vidya. You cannot learn that from a machine. If you go on contemplating and meditating upon the divine art, I am sure you will reach the ultimate destination of a note – which is Brahma. I am trying my best to reach that.

“This art needs meditation. It is not that I don't love the public. It is because of them I am where I am today. I consider each one of you as an embodiment of Raghavendra Swamiji. When I sing, you become Raghavendra… I am seriously moving away from performing. I am waiting for a chance to get into teaching completely. That's my goal.

“In North India, music is treated as entertainment. I detest that to the core….people don't care. They casually walk in and out of the theatre, while you are singing. The audience in Madras also does that. I feel it is not their fault. If you see Tirupathi Balaji standing before you, what will you do ? You will get rooted to the spot. So I think, perhaps, I lack the qualities to make me forget myself and in turn make you forget everything else.”

Kishori summed up a profound concept in simple words.

She said: “We have given an entertainment value to our music. Singing, practising and performing, all are different. These are the three aspects of music. I give importance to singing. It is like talking to your soul. It is an inner communion which you are trying to communicate ... in the process, naturally it will diminish in value.

“I believe that Indian music is nothing but the expression of a feeling. If I say, ‘I love you,' can you measure it? You just have to feel that vibration. We have limited our music to formats. In North India, every raga is sung in a typical form. First alaap, then vistaar, then you put words into the alaap; words in the thana, then dhrutha … We repeat the entire repertoire. I don't think one needs to sing dhrutha here. Dhrutha conveys an entirely different feeling. You sing it when you are restless or have an intense feeling. But we don't do that. Apologetically, I accept these faults. You do the same in Carnatic music. In a performance you give a break, you give some time for the violin, some time for the mridangam. It is a break from the emotion.”

How does one break away from the routine formula, to resurrect this other music hidden behind a form that has a set formula, a set pattern? “You should learn these formats when you are a student. It's high time that I took the plunge and followed that feeling and experienced it myself. I pray to God to give me the strength to go to that level, which is abstract.”

Intellect and heart

Kishori expanded on her vision: “My students are a nice blend of mind and brain which you need in art. You cannot be merely sentimental, devoid of intellect. There should be a perfect balance between intellect and heart. It is known as sayyam in Indian religion. This is how we ultimately reach moksha. But you must understand that you need control to do that. I am learning to control myself. I know I am an extremely intelligent person. This is why my mother did not take me to any concerts until she approved of it.” When someone asked Kishori whether she had made changes in her performance abroad (Festival of India in France), she replied, “I said no. I believe music is universal… You may change formats. But you cannot change the feeling. I give prominence to that!”

Kishori expressed her belief in the oneness of Indian music. “The two systems - Hindustani and Carnatic - are more the result of practical tradition, influenced by environmental cultural forces. I think this is a world of notes. We should not put in too many words, too many rhythmical acrobatics into our singing. It is high time instrumentalists got out of the acrobatics with the percussionists. These are just gimmicks. The worst exploitation of the audience is by gimmicky artists. Listeners have been led to believe that they should be excited by a performance. That goes exactly against the principles of Indian classical music, which brings you peace!”

A rare personality, Kishori Amonkar has held her own all these years. Her music speaks volumes. Her words reflected her concern for musical dharma. At 80,she is a legend worth bowing to with reverence.