Updated: April 3, 2018 11:01:13 am
My first encounter with Kishori Amonkar was through an HMV tape I had won as a 13-year-old. My father, a banker, had recently been posted to Chandigarh and my new school decided to give me a “nightingale award”. I “knew” precisely four ragas and could do a 15-minute performance. I was even keen on learning a fifth and more, because there were shiny trophies, applause and awe (itni lambi taan kaise yaad rakhti hai). For my mother, a one-time sitar player, this was a moment of glory. It was an exciting time. I thought I was ready to be famous. Then, Kishori Amonkar happened.
The award, besides a trophy, included two tapes. One by Lata Mangeshkar and the other by Amonkar. The first name I knew. The second, I had never heard of. In a house where classical music was played daily, where stories of Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan and Girija Devi were the talk of evening soirees, Amonkar had somehow never featured. Then there was the matter of popular television. While most significant musicians of the country including Amjad Ali Khan, Ravi Shankar, Allah Rakha and Lata Mangeshkar among others, made it to Lok Sewa Sanchar Parishad’s Mile Sur and Desh Raag — the eminently hummable television anthems on a tableau of nationalism — Amonkar was not to be spotted. She was not on TV, radio and certainly not in newspapers.
The reason, I figured many years later as a music correspondent, for both was one — her approach to music. In the 1990s, with cable TV in place and a world of manic advertisement, musicians making their music global and approachable were becoming the mark of popularity, even brilliance. Good money was being paid for concerts. Amonkar, though, wouldn’t do more than four shows a month, even at the prime of her career. She also didn’t enjoy travelling abroad. Instead, she sat in a tiny music room in her Prabhadevi apartment in Mumbai, bent over her swarmandal, and sang, the riyaaz stretching to 8-10 hours a day.
When I stuck that prized HMV tape into my father’s black Philips radio-cum-casette player, there was the trademark clonk of a new cassette set to play on the machine. And there it was, Amonkar’s famed Jaunpuri. A sharp alaap that began in taar saptak, came to madhya saptak effortlessly, and merged into the bandish Baaje Jhanjhana. I knew this raga, it was one of the “big four” I had trained in. But this was different. Not only was this another bandish, the oscillation of gandhar and dhaivat was from another world: The slides, the way they came to the sam from various corners, always landing perfectly. This was mesmerising stuff. Through the delineation of this raga, Amonkar was opening possibilities I didn’t know existed in Hindustani classical music. Later, I realised that most people training in and trained in the form thought the same.
The next day, excited by my interest, my mother decided to find me a guru. She settled on Swati Rai of the Banaras gharana. Swati ma told me Amonkar’s technique was her own, which is why it was hard to box her in a gharana. Amonkar didn’t believe in the concept of gharanas and took the best possible musical ideas from the various people she had learnt from — Anwar Hussain Khan of the Agra gharana, Anjanibai Malpekar of Bhendi Bazar gharana, Sharadchandra Arolkar of Gwalior gharana and Goa’s stalwart Balkrishnabuwa Parwatkar. This led her to create an inimitable style, one that could challenge the audience, the critics and more importantly, herself.
Amonkar’s music wasn’t a practice where she repeated what she had learnt. It was sadhana, where she took what she had learnt and through it, looked for a route to divinity. “Sadhana makes you see one step ahead and move further. You have to walk and run on your own. The guru gives you strength to be able to do that. If you don’t, then you remain ordinary. My mother made sure I wasn’t ordinary,” she said in one of her last interviews, to me. I also found out later that she did fewer concerts on the advice of her mother, the iconic Mogubai Kurdikar of the Jaipur Atrauli gharana. A young Amonkar was once keen on doing eight concerts in a month and Kurdikar screeched, “when will you do your riyaaz?” Amonkar was 36 and at the prime of her career. “I never dared to question my mother,” she would say.
Last year, in October, when she agreed to speak to me for an interview after her concert at Nehru Park, I thought, finally, this was it. After I arrived at her hotel and stood outside her door, she said, “I am tired now. Tell her to come home if she wants to talk.” Disappointed, I latched on to the second part of her sentence and reached her third-floor apartment in Mumbai’s Prabhadevi in December. She was not expecting this. She agreed to meet with me.
Amonkar was perched on an intricately carved swing, and sat there, smiling. Like a typical journalist, I thought I had my foot in the door. And then the tables turned. “I appreciate that you are here. But I need to know how much you know about music. So tell me what do you know?” Dumbfounded, I managed some response on the lines of learning notes and not the ragas. After 30 minutes of a gruelling session, where she would react sharply at my incorrect answers with a silent glare and an “arre wah” when she agreed with me, our conversation began.
For the next three hours, I sat at her feet as a student of music and next to her as a journalist, as she went on to weave her life’s stories with notes — the ones she considered living entities. She spoke of her reverence for her mother, her deference due only to her music, and laid bare her soul. The fondness with which she spoke of shrutis (micronotes), which according to her would evoke a gamut of emotions, was a happy maze in which one could get lost. “I have never cared about what critics say. I do care if my audience is transported into a reverie. For that, I have to sit alone and practice. Loneliness is an artiste’s virtue,” she said.
At the time, she was also excited about her granddaughter Tejashree Amonkar’s upcoming wedding in February. Tejashree accompanied Amonkar often at her concerts as a backing vocalist. “I will do all the laad at her wedding. I do it all the time when she is not learning. But the moment she sits in my class, I don’t allow mistakes. I am not her grandmother then,” she said.
I left that apartment in a strange reverie that day. I called my mother from the taxi, and told her that I was glad that she thought of getting me a guru. To understand a bit of music made me capable of understanding her world in all its depth.
Kishori Amonkar passed away on Monday night in her sleep. She was healthy and performing till last week and teaching till two days before her death. Befitting, as she couldn’t tolerate being bed-ridden or letting anyone see her in distress. Her life. Her music. Her dying. These aren’t just stages in an individual’s life. They mark the gold standard of musical genius.
As my interview with her was ending, just before I was to leave, the conversation veered to the end of a generation of classical singers. She thought for a moment and said, “Beta, main chali jaungi toh chaar kandhe pe le jaakar jalaa denge dekhna. Yeh sangeet hi reh jayega yaad karne ke liye”. (I will die and be cremated. The music is all I will be remembered by.)
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.