Girl on the go

September 22, 2016 10:16 pm | Updated November 01, 2016 08:13 pm IST

Shailaja Khanna remembers Kesarbai Kerkar, the first Indian voice to reach the outer space.

THE MAGIC LIVES ON Kesarbai Kerkar

THE MAGIC LIVES ON Kesarbai Kerkar

One of the greatest singers ever, ‘Surshri’ Kesarbai Kerkar, with her powerful molten golden voice, left an indelible mark on Hindustani music. Though she had a concert singing career of 35 years (she stopped singing in 1965 at the relatively young age of 73), which at the time was long, it has been over 50 years and nearly two generations have heard only her records. Yet her magic lives on, 39 years after she passed away on a wet September day in 1977.

Ironically, the year also brought happy memories for her and legion of fans. She is the only Indian to have had her music on the fateful Voyager Golden Record that was launched into space in 1977. It was believed to be among the most worthy and exemplary accomplishments of the human race. Her voice is one amongst less than 100 sent, and is now wandering through unexplored terrains of outer space till perhaps the end of time. The piece in raga Bhairavi paints the very poignant eternal question, “Jaat Kahan ho akeli gori” (Where are you going alone, girl).

Indeed her whole life was one she traversed alone, and with difficulty. Getting musical training was a huge effort for the talented Kesarbai as it was a man’s world dominated by “gharaanedar” (lineaged) musicians. She was regarded as a "bai", someone who sang to entertain and thus not worthy of a serious classical training. She had started her initial vocal training under Kirana doyen Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, but that ended once he left Goa. But she never forgot her links to the family, and remained close to his daughter Hirabai Barodekar.

Even Senia Sitariya Ustad Barkatullah Khan taught her only intermittently during the two years he was in Bombay. Until the age of 25, she trained with the venerable Hindustani classical gurus, Pandits Ramkrishnabua Vaze and Bhaskarbua Bakhale, but the training did not last, and she thirsted for more. However, the impact of the Gwalior taalim she received from both these Gurus remained in her singing, analyses Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, who till today listens to Kesar Bai’s recordings.

Finally, her patron managed to persuade the then reigning king of vocal music Ustad Alladiya Khan, founder of the Jaipur gharana to teach her, and she became his ganda bandh (a ceremony of discipleship only given to a really serious disciple) shishya (disciple). His conditions were staggering – a huge sum (in those days) of Rs 200 /month to be paid, for a minimum of 10 years, even if in between she was unable to continue to train under his extremely rigorous conditions. In addition a Guru dakshina of Rs. 5000 to be paid before he started teaching her. She started learning from him from 1921 onwards when she was already 29 years old, and continued learning full time for the next 11 (some say 15) years. Even after she started her concert career, which involved travelling away from her Guru, she continued to go and learn from him.

Pandit Biswajit Roy Chowdhury, who has also learnt from Jaipur Atrauli doyen Pandit Mallikarjun Mansoor, said, “Such was her fame that a time came when people in the street would point to Ustad Alladiya Khan and say look there goes Kesar Bai’s Guru!”

It was said of Kesarbai that she was very haughty aloof and high handed in her behaviour. She knew she was the best and was careful to ensure no one took liberties with her. She once explained why she rarely announced the raga she was going to sing on stage, in her later concerts, "Jisko samajh hain, woh khud jaan jayenge. Aur jisko samajh hi nahin unko samjhane kee kya zaroorat hai." A young fan persisted with her query, upon which Kesar bai asked, "tumhe kya raga laga". The fan said, “It was definitely Kedar, but I also thought it had Basant.” Kesar bai gave a delighted laugh, “haan, yahi to hai! Basanti kedar! Ye gharaanedaar ustad nahin mante ki koi Bai bhi ga sakti hain, so main Raga announce hi nahin karti.”

Definitely years of being shunned had left their mark on her; she had a huge ego. According to G N Joshi of HMV, around 1954-55 she had recorded 78 rpm records – out of 10 sides she wanted to re-record 4. However whenever HMV tried to approach her to re-record, she was unable to do so, citing ill health. When, after eight months, they finally gave her an ultimatum that they would release the recordings without her re-recording as they could not wait any longer, Kesar bai took it very ill, refused to ever record with HMV again, and, in fact, refused permission to HMV to sell their recordings for broadcast on the AIR. Goa, which was then under Portugese rule, used to broadcast Kesarbai’s HMV recordings over Radio Goa.

The other side of Kesar Bai’s nature comes out in an incident related by musicologist Deepak Raja. “In 1937, Kesarbai Kerkar, 'the Empress of concert platform', recommended Hirabai to be invited to perform at the prestigious All India Music conference in Calcutta and took pride in introducing a new star, without a trace of arrogance.”

Kesar Bai had a regal air, always dressed impeccably (in later years mostly in white) and wore a magnificent string of pearls. Her presence was striking, and she performed a lot in the courts of the time, in the 1930s-1940s. It is said the Maharajas of Kashmir, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kohlapur and Baroda specially loved her music. She taught only one student seriously – Dhondutai Kulkarni, but she was never able to do real justice to her guru's name, despite being a most erudite and scholarly musician, and a Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee. She has however written a very interesting book on her guru in Marathi.

Pandit Kashalkar says her “dam saans” (breath control) was extraordinary; the way she reached the ‘sum’ in a composition breathtaking, with sometimes only 1/4 matra left! Her taans were not only long, he says, "ek aakar ke saath mandra saptak se taar saptak tak" but also their design was impossibly intricate. He relates an interesting fact. His own guru Pandit Gajananrao Joshi was a huge admirer of Kesar Bai’s and went to learn from her. But she refused, as she did not teach men, so instead he went and learnt from her Guru bhai, Ustad Bhurji Khan, the son of her guru.

Definitely, she has inspired a generation of vocalists. Manjari Asnare was used to be called “Chhoti Kesar bai” when she stormed the music scene about two decades ago, as she followed her style closely. However, talking about her, Manjari, says, “Jaipur Atrauli gharane ke sanskaar mile hain” due to which she was lucky to sound like this doyenne of the gharana. She attributes this to the wonderful taalim she received from her main guru Pandit Madhusudan Kanetkar, who had learnt from Ustad Bhurji Khan. “It’s impossible to copy a legend to sound like them; you have to be given the correct taalim (training) to sound similar.”

There are quite a few private recordings of Kesarbai available; Sangeet Natak Akademi and Sangeet Kendra from amongst those featuring her longer recordings as well as her several three-minute recordings.

A music festival in Kesar Bai’s memory, called the Surshree Kesarbai Kerkar Smriti Sangeet Samaroh is held in Goa each November by the Kala Academy, Goa and a music scholarship in her name is awarded annually to a University of Mumbai student by the NCPA.

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