April 5, 2017 1:02:05 am
I don’t remember the year because I was very young, even Baba (father and vocalist Ajoy Chakrabarty) was young, when I first heard Kishori Amonkar at a music conference. We did not have too many female artistes alongside men at music festivals and she was a bright and prominent name. She was on stage and at her peak. My memory is of loads and loads of people going mad to listen to her and the crowd that surrounded her afterwards. This speaks of her acceptability among listeners. Then, there was her voice; it was the sweetest voice we had heard in reference to Indian classical music. We were used to the voices of Begum Akhtar and Gauhar Jaan, but Kishori tai’s voice was very mellifluous, of a high pitch and a fine timbre. Amol Palekar and Sandhya Gokhale have made a documentary on Kishori tai called Bhinna Shadja. He asked me to perform for a birthday celebration planned for Kishori tai in Pune several years ago. The concept was also called Bhinna Shadja and I would be part of a trio that also included Nandini Bedekar, one of the closest disciples and associates of Kishoriji. I had never performed a duet before, leave alone a trio, and did not know how comfortable I would be. But, it was a tribute to Kishori tai and I said yes right away.
It was the only time I sang for her in her presence. In our tradition, to be in the presence of a guru-like figure is a blessing for youngsters, for we benefit from the vibes that they send out. After the performance, she spoke to me. It is extremely humbling to have a god-like figure bless you. Two things happened — firstly, I was blown away by her English accent. We expect someone elderly to speak in Hindi or Marathi but she spoke like a professor of English, who had travelled the world. This speaks a lot about her interest in contemporary modes of expression because one has to be attuned to modern trends to speak that way. The second thing was what she said. She told me, ‘I want you to sing to express, not impress’. Thanks to my family and my performances, I have met many maestros and remember their blessings and the insights that they have given me. What Kishori tai said that day has gone into the Bible of my life. Our generation performs to impress at so many levels — audiences, organisers, connoisseurs, sponsors — but here was a legend telling me there was no obligation to impress. She was so happy, committed and secure in her art that she was under no obligation to cater to anybody else.
This also speaks volumes of her courage. Her music itself was a statement. From choosing a treatment of a raga to the structure of a performance to the songs, she did not make compromises. She became popular on her own terms. I last heard her perform around four years ago. An artiste changes with age, and so does his or her art. Kishori tai’s music became more introspective and meditative. She has said herself in an interview that the stillness that had come into her music was not there before. She was going deeper into her music and into herself.
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