Kishori Amonkar: The story of the boundless note

Kishori Amonkar was trained in the Jaipur Atrauli tradition, but defied gharana rules and upheld the primacy of emotion in music

Updated - June 12, 2017 07:03 pm IST

Published - April 06, 2017 02:28 pm IST

Classical singer Kishori Amonkar performing at the 'Swar Utsav' at the India Gate lawns in New Delhi on October 17, 2003. 
Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Classical singer Kishori Amonkar performing at the 'Swar Utsav' at the India Gate lawns in New Delhi on October 17, 2003. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Let me reconstruct the image of Kishori Amonkar that’s haunting my mind’s eye: a simple sari drawn close over her shoulders. Totally shorn of ornaments, except her ear studs. A tanpura (in the later years a swar mandal) that she literally drew into an embrace. Kishori Tai’s eyes were mostly shut to the world: even when she opened them it was momentary, a smile was rarer, her face had a meditative seriousness about it. It was more than that, her entire persona was immersed in a sincerity -- the uncompromising kind.

The early 80s, when I heard Kishori Tai, she was on the road to becoming a diva. “Sahela Re” her own composition set to Raga Bhoop was an anthem of sorts -- one was listening to it all the time, till one morning the cassette just threw out its intestines on the player’s head and gave up. There were other remarkable musicians who had a lasting influence on our imagination of music: Padma Talwalkar’s rendition of Kalavathi, “Tan Man Dhan”, the Kafi Tappa by “Bol Suna Jani Saiya Re” by Malini Rajurkar, Lakshmi Shankar’s Madhukauns “Kaant Daras Bina”, Prabha Atre’s “Jamuna Kinaray Mora Gaon” in Maanj Kamaj, Girija Devi and Shobha Gurtu singing the most evocative kajris and chaitis. Kishori Tai certainly belonged to this galaxy of admirable women who embodied in their life and art the struggles and conviction of the generation that preceded them.

Listening to Kishori tai however, was a compelling experience of a different kind -- she defied gharana rules and upheld the primacy of emotion in music.

Kishori Tai learnt from her mother Mogubai Kurdikar, a chaste practitioner of the Jaipur Atrauli gharana. Later she learnt from experts of other gharanas -- Anwar Hussain Khan of Agra gharana, Anjanibai Malpekar of Bhendi Bazar gharana and Balkrishnabua Parwatkar of Goa. Temperamentally, she was similar to Pandit Bhimsen Joshi who took elements from various gharana musicians to perfect his own aesthetics. Kishori Tai declared emotion is supreme and notes have to be pursued in the absence of all boundaries. Music was the only convention, and every other rule was subservient to it. It was in this context that Kishori Tai would often ask in surprise: “They say I am a rebel. But why?” She clearly came from the Art for Arts sake school, and an ideological political correctness seemed absurd to her. “It is almost like practising caste,” she would explain. A life unexamined was hardly worth living for Kishori Tai, and in her case music was her life.

But for someone so immersed in art, when and why did tantrums precede her? A Kishori Tai concert was packed with anxious moments for the organiser: a fiery temper, white car only, no stage lights directed towards her, the tree in front of the stage was distracting, so on and so forth. Mogubai lived and performed when most women musicians were treated as lesser beings, despite excellence in their art practise. Kishori’s memories of those times were not only pertinent, but unforgiving as well. Also, she believed that everyone who came to listen to her had to necessarily come with the same intense feelings she had towards her music. She believed that there should be nothing about her to distract the audience, and she expected the same of them. If Kishori Tai’s appearance was marked with a striking simplicity, if her deportment was tough, the reason was music. Making light of music was unbearable for her -- her battle was both social and spiritual. In fact, that was how she was groomed: for 15 months Mogubai made her practise raga Bhoop and nothing else.

Kishori Tai’s music was a highly individual expression of the Jaipur Atrauli school. She too, like her music, was unique. Nothing could stop her from holding on to truth. It is not easy to listen to your own music and be a scathing critic of it, Kishori Tai dared it. She could without pretensions of any kind, admit that even on the pinnacle of excellence, she was still struggling to find the perfect expression of the sublime in her art.

Her ardent plea “Janam Janam ko sang na bhoole.... Sahela Re....” rings in my heart. Music is certainly a pursuit of more than one life. Kishori Tai knew this.


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