Contours of a musical journey

The first Gana Saraswathi Kishori Tai Amonkar Sangeet Mahotsav held last weekend at Goa had a striking backdrop. With the swar mandal against her chest -- Kishori tai who rarely opened her eyes while singing – she wears an intense look. Is it anger, irritation or did someone disrupt her meditative state? In a way, the photograph is a figurative summing up -- while music was the closest to her heart, this world angered her. Kishori tai’s persona embodied the complex processes of history and art: and she never concealed it.

Dr. Arun Dravid, who was present at the festival for a lecdem on Kishori tai’s rare recordings, is her first disciple and an associate of over five decades: he has seen her from close quarters, in all her shades. A doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT, the 75-year-old Dr. Arun Dravid is the Chairman Emeritus of Jacobs Engineering India. It is indeed a matter of chance that he became a disciple of Kishori tai, but ever since he did, their relationship has been more than that of a guru-shishya. “She was my guru indeed, but since we were only 12 years apart, I became her confidant, advisor and a brother to her. That is why her children and all her disciples call me maama,” he says eloquently in an interview with The Hindu.

A disciple of Ustad Majid Khan saab since he was a boy of ten, Dr. Dravid had a solid foundation in the Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana. “Majid Khan saab was a stickler for perfection. He focused more on building my gayaki than my raga repertoire. I learnt from him for five years, and when I went back after a break of one year to prepare for my class 10 exams, he said he could no longer teach as age was catching up. ‘Look for another guru,’ he said.”

The first person who came to Dr. Dravid’s mind was Mogubai Kurdikar, he was a huge admirer of her music. In fact, during his high school days, he had even visited her. “My older brother’s friend, Mogubai’s son, Ulhas Kurdikar took me one afternoon to her house. ‘If you are a student of Majid Khan saab you must sing something for me’, she had insisted.” Dr. Dravid sang raga Bhimpalas and no sooner did he finish, Mogubai mischievously asked him: “Are you sure you are a student of Majid Khan saab?” Taken aback by the question, “Why would I lie?” he asked in return. “Where did that ga ma da pa phrase come from? I am certain that your guru did not teach you that.” Dr. Dravid had to admit that it was his own – ‘don’t take undue liberties’, she extracted a promise from him. “I went back to ask her if I could become her disciple. She was busy with her own students Kamal Tambe, Kousalya Manjeshwar, Vamanrao Deshpande and others. But she said I could be her daughter, Kishori’s student. ‘Chalega kyaa?’ she asked. I was more than willing…,” Dr. Dravid recalls the beginning of his long association with Kishori tai.

When Dr. Dravid began to learn from Kishori tai she was often asking Mai to help her out, since this was her first go at teaching. “I was an extremely passionate student, sincere and regular. After the initial two months, her fondness for me grew, and she refused to take fees from me.” Kishori tai admitted to her disciple that he challenged her intellectually. “How can I take fees from you? You inspire me to think higher,” the young mother of two sons had remarked. In the days to come Dr. Dravid joined the IIT, and Kishori tai was not too pleased. She insisted that he comes for class every weekend. “I neither want to be a part time teacher, nor should you be a part time student,” she had said categorically. With special permission, Dr. Dravid left the campus every Friday evening and after five rigorous sessions returned to the campus late Sunday night. “They were difficult years. I had to balance both music and studies, and both equally demanding. I learnt a lot, however.”

As the days passed, from being a sincere student, Dr. Dravid became part of the household. Music evolved, and so did their relationship. Their life was full of trials and tribulations – Mogubai bore everything with equanimity and poise. Not even once did she raise her voice in anger. Neither did she ever speak of all that she had gone through socially. “She was a saint. Devout and genuine. Kishori tai was not calm like her.” Constant ups and downs on the personal front, difficulties, social stigma… Kishori tai did not take any of this kindly. She was quick to temper, had mood swings, and it was difficult to calm her down. “I became her confidant. There was nothing that she did not tell me. I, in my own way, tried to comfort her. At times, her anger against the upper castes would erupt. ‘Do they think we are footwear in their feet!’ she would shout. Her trust and love for me was implicit, yet there were times when I too became the target of her anger. There were also occasions when she got angry with Mogubai who insisted on purity and resented her taking even small liberties. Without retorting or arguing with her, I would sit quietly, waiting for her temper to subside. Tai had nine veins of love, and one vein of anger,” observes Dr. Dravid. “None of these affected our relationship, because all along I remembered where it was coming from. I was deeply sympathetic to her, and had great respect for her. It was her luminous mind that charmed me. In the many years that I have known Tai, I know her strengths and weaknesses. I have internalized her and will forever remain a dedicated and sincere student. ”

Dr. Dravid, by his own admission, was her helper, chauffer and vocal accompanist. He travelled with her to Lucknow, Delhi, Amritsar, tuned her tanpuras, took her to the doctor, to the temple, and to buy groceries. “For all the confidence that she had about her music, she used to be a nervous wreck before a concert. She would shiver, panic and at times clasp my wrist tightly, nervously asking, ‘will I be able to sing, will I be able to sing?’.” She was of the firm belief that even the most arduous practice would not ensure a good performance. Kishori tai used to say that the raga had to come to a musician and that could happen only if one is divinely ordained. There were times when she said she begged her spiritual guru Raghavendra Swamy to take over a concert.

The forces of history manifested in Kishori tai in a very complex way. She abhorred the social practices because of which her mother suffered, and also had deep resentment for the way Kesarbai Kerkar dominated the music world. Kesarbai was extraordinary, but she was extremely overbearing and had hindered the rise of an artiste like Mogubai. “Kishori tai used to say that she would reign supreme in Kesarbai’s lifetime itself. ‘I will give it back to her’. She was like an accelerator that had been pressed into a fast forward mode and what normally takes 20 years to achieve, she did it in 10 years. It is the intensity of her drive to be the very best in the country, surpassing every living musician, that drove her to achieve what she did. Her sadhana and dedication to music is hard to imagine.”

Kishori tai is among the greatest musicians India has produced, not merely because she mastered her art, but also because of her extraordinary aesthetic vision. “She was a born artiste. She turned everything that she touched into a piece of art. Every Diwali, she would make a huge rangoli in the house. It took her six to seven days to complete it – it used to be exquisite. When I left for the US to pursue my career Kishori tai was very unhappy. Nevertheless, she understood my compulsions, and wished me well. For three months she knitted a sweater for me. I cannot tell you how beautiful it is… I still use it. She wrote such beautiful poetry, and that too most casually. Art was in her blood and endowing things with beauty was natural to her. The manner in which she emphasized the notes, the unusual turn of phrase, intonation, capturing the feel of the moment – she did not even have to think much about it.” With no atmosphere of formal education in the house, Dr. Dravid recalls how Kishori tai mastered English and Urdu. “She was inherently brilliant, and it was seen in everything she did.”

It was not easy to be Kishori tai’s disciple, she was a strong person with remarkable musicianship. To have a personality of your own was hard work. “The guru gives you a lot, but the disciple must be discerning to choose what is good for him. If you are not alert, you will end up being a bad copy. There were times when I argued with her about her own compositions, if the explanation was convincing she would invariably agree. As a shishya, dedication is a must, but not slavery. This is something Kishori tai herself practised. She allowed me to be my own self, and shape my art. I have preserved her music in all its sacredness.”

(In the next edition of Friday Review, we will carry a report on the lecdem “Rarely Heard Kishori Amonkar” by Dr. Arun Dravid, at Kala Academy, Goa.)

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Printable version | Sep 14, 2021 1:31:43 PM |

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