Kishori Amonkar, in an interview on November 30 2016 — which later came out as ‘The Loneliness of Kishori Amonkar’ in The Indian Express — had asked for only one thing when I was leaving — a visit every six months.
‘Kuch seekhna, kuch baatein karna,’ she said. We had just ended a three-hour conversation in her Prabha Devi home in Mumbai around notes, microtones, her mother and great artiste Mogubai Kurdikar as well as how she wanted to continue to perform for the rest of her life. Kishori tai’s long-time student and disciple Nandini Bedekar sat with us during the conversation.
I was a little surprised at the offer, though I readily accepted it, of course. Surprised because, this wasn’t the Kishori tai I knew. The one I thought I knew was the one people called “temperamental”, who looked through her friends before and after her concerts. I couldn’t blame them. She was a firecracker on and off stage and not just in terms of her music.
The music, of course, had the quality of taking one to the world she wanted you to be in and that’s what they all came for. She turned you into a friend, coaxed you with Sahela re, aa mil gaayein, a piece that is as synonymous with raag Bhoop as it is with her. She turned you into Lord Krishna, became Meera Bai and bowed in worship with Mharo pranaam baanke bihari ji while keeping the grandeur of Yaman Kalyan alive. She would perform Payaliya jhankaar moree in the wrathful Puriya Dhanashree, and in one collaboration with Carnatic legend M Balamuralikrishna dominated the bandish for a long time with just those three words.
Then there was the delicate yet intense Baabul mora, naihar chhooto hi jaaye, the famed thumri in Bhairavi. This piece of poetry was penned as a lament by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the popular 19th-century Nawab of Awadh, when he was deported from Lucknow by the British. The Nawab used the allegory of a bride’s bidaai from her father’s home, equating it with his own displacement from Lucknow to a distant Calcutta.
While many versions of the piece have been sung by many musicians, including the great Bhimsen Joshi, the one in KL Saigal’s melliflous, astounding voice has always managed to evoke a sadness that comes from a strange despair. Among millions of videos floating around on YouTube one of them showcases Kishori Amonkar’s tryst with it. The despair in Amonkar’s voice is so beautiful, for the lack of a better word, that I think it needed a woman’s voice to reach all the obscure nooks in one’s heart. She transmuted that pain in a woman’s being especially when she sang it in her later years, alongside her wish to serve the art form for many more years. “This one lifetime is not enough,” she said.
Kishori tai’s invite to me was also baffling because she never liked speaking about her music. Those three hours with her had racked my brain the way no other conversation had. I had to search my soul’s innermost depths to answer her questions. Some were wide angled (what is music? How much do you know about it?), some condescending (Did your guru teach you this bit? No? Do you know how significant that tukra is and you’ve missed learning that?), and some the more everyday sort of comments (why does Fabindia in Bombay not stock good kurtas?)
It has been two months since Kishori Amonkar passed away in her sleep. No illness. Even if there was one, no one would have known. She disliked discussing her health and all its associated distress.
It’s been six months since I last met her. I stare at my calendar. In normal circumstances, I was supposed to figure out a flight to Mumbai in a few days after fixing a comfortable day with Bedekar. I’ll perhaps call her and have a conversation nonetheless. It is surprising how talking can help one grieve.
Today I play the Bhairavi thumri on loop. Towards the end of this 13-minute piece, when she croons Baabul, stretches it and keeps at it with all her strength, it rips your heart. It makes me see myself as a bride, leaving my father’s house, somewhere in the future. It made me see her as a bride, leaving the world of her mother, the great artist Mogubai Kurdikar, deciding to divide her life between being a rasika and a devoted wife and mother.
Chaar kahar mile mori doliya sajaao…, apna begaana chhooto jaaye. She touches the piece with Sindhu Bhairavi here, the viraha ras becoming stronger. The azaan is sung in Sindhu Bhairavi and she pulls out the same intensity in her voice, soon enough, making her final journey flash before our eyes. She keeps at it still and takes us to the depths of our soul, exploring ideas and concepts we forget in the cacophony of life.
Her life, her music, her dying, this one piece, for me, embodies everything she stands for. For an artiste I still find it very hard to talk of Kishori tai in the past tense. She’s left a treasure trove of music for me to dive into and feel the way I want to, on any given day. Cherishing her will be the order of the day, every six months.