A Tribute to Kishori Amonkar

KISHORI Amonkar is no more (1932-2017). Her demise at the age of 84 cannot be termed unexpected, after a life lived full and devoted to the practice of music. Her mother Mogubai Kurdikar had herself been a great singer, having learnt music from the founder of the Jaipur gharana Ustad Alladiya Khan. However, Kishori Amonkar is not remembered as Mogubai Kurdikar’s daughter but rather as a musician who established a unique singing style of her own. She brought many changes in the style of the Jaipur gharana; and changes in gharana style are not easily accepted, so Kishori had to face a lot of criticism for her unique style of singing.

Kishori’s initiation into music began in early childhood but it was when she was ten that her mother appointed a music teacher for her. Soon the teacher complained to Mogubai that in spite of being the daughter of such a great singer the child could not even intone the basic ‘sur’. This complaint found its mark in the girl and she began working seriously on her voice and ‘sur’. At this point her mother took upon herself the responsibility of Kishori’s musical training. Mogubai arranged for many Ustads to teach Kishori in order to widen her musical horizon. Chief among Kishori’s Ustads were Ustad Anwar Hussain Khan of the Agra Gharana, Anjanibai Melpekar of the Bhindibazaar Gharana, Shard Chandra Arolkar of the Gwalior Gharana, Mohan Rao Parlekar and Balkrishnabua Parwatkar of Goa. From childhood Kishori was fond of the film music she heard on the radio, and this fondness did two important things for her in life. She herself believed that the source of the fluency of emotion in her singing was her predilection for film and light music; secondly, she sang one film song which became so popular that established playback singers became envious of her. Suddenly, overnight all copies of the disc ‘Geet Gaya Pathharon Ne’ disappeared mysteriously from the market. Hurt, Kishori Amonkar stopped singing for films. Later, she said that even if this had not happened she would probably not have sung in films for long as this field was not meant for her.

Later, the expression of emotions in classical singing became the basic philosophy of her music; she even broke the discipline and limitations of the Jaipur Gharana in her quest for expression of emotion. It was not as if she forsook everything taught to her by her mother and Guru Mogubai, but she definitely freed her music from the strict classicality of the Jaipur Gharana.

From the 18th century till the first half of the 20th century great emphasis was laid on classical purity in music. During this phase of classicalism ragas were like images graven in the flow of time whose form and content were inseparable from each other. Around the time of Independence there was a rise of romanticism in Hindustani classical music when the musical frame was allowed to be loosened a little and musicians combined different ‘surs’ for expression of feeling. While romantic composers create different moods, the pure classicist concentrates on the purely aesthetic combination of swaras. In the second half of the 20th century this romantic regeneration was represented by Ustad Amir Khan, Omkarnath Thakur, Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Kishori Amonkar and others. Not that the classical stream had disappeared completely; rather, there was also a stream which balanced romanticism and classicism represented by musicians like Sawai Gandharva, Faiyyaz khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and others.

There is a belief in the Jaipur Gharana that once a person comes into its ambit he attains full musical satisfaction and he has no desire to seek outside any more. It was, therefore, a strange coincidence that the challenge to the borders of the Jaipur Gharana came from within its own house through Kishori Amonkar. But was Kishori the first to thus challenge her Gharana? Pandit Bhimsen Joshi had all but ‘abandoned’ his own Kirana Gharana and had adopted the style and ‘bandish’ of other Gharanas including the Jaipur Gharana. However, the foundation laid by the Kirana Gharana was often clearly visible in his music. Kishori Amonkar is also not very different in this matter. Talking about this she herself says, “The basis of my music is still the Jaipur Gharana. This Gharana is like a mother to me. I may have left some of its specialties; for example, I have added ‘aalapchari’ in my singing which is not part of the Jaipur Gharana tradition; or, for instance, I have discarded the inseparability of ‘laya’ and ‘swara’. But remove the foundation of Jaipur from my singing and see how the whole structure will crumble!” (From an interview to Vinay Dhumle in 1977). In any case, no Gharana or tradition can remain a living tradition unless it undergoes change. Abdul Karim Khan, Sawai Gandharva, and Bhimsen Joshi have carried forward the Kirana Gharana with their different styles of singing and continuous change; therefore, Kishori Amonkar should get credit instead of criticism for bringing change to the Jaipur Gharana.

It is not as if Kishori Amonkar started singing in her own special style from day one. She herself acknowledges that her rise as a singer with an independent style took place in 1967-68. Her own thoughts on the changes in her style are quite significant. She says, “Earlier, my stage presentations used to accept the traditional swara pictures and patterns; but after some time I felt that the listener prefers music which touches the heart rather than the intellect…later, to satisfy myself and to build my own independent style I dedicated myself wholly to swaras instead of to swara-images. Depth in music comes from ‘riyaz’ (practice). Our reactions to experiences in life are expressed through music.

If we have not developed special feelings for swaras, then they can do nothing for us. Every bandish has its own potential for development. If we want development of the bandish, we must minimize our own role. We think too much about ourselves. We want to show the world how well we have been taught, how much we have practiced, how much control we have over voice. We look for applause from the audience. We want to see them mesmerized by us. So, we are not able to immerse ourselves fully in music; human limitations stop us from doing so. But once a person dives deep into swaras, his artistry shines more brilliantly, and his ego starts shrinking. It is then that the musical presentation becomes less ornamental and gains in depth. (From Majhya Shabdat Mee, 1977). This is the state in which there is hardly any difference between music and the musician.

There have been several criticisms about Kishori Amonkar: she arrives late for performances; she takes an inordinately long time to tune the tanpura; she refuses to meet or talk to people (even well-known musicians) and refuses even to recognize them during the interval or after her concerts; she demands special facilities for herself, etc. She herself has never denied most of the long list of complaints against her. Talking to her ‘Gurubhai’ Vaman Rao Deshpandeabout these criticisms, she says, “I don’t do such things deliberately; they just happen. There is a pain, a suppressed anger inside me, which is the result of my early painful experiences. I myself want to be rid of these things, but between two presentations or during the interval in a concert I am so lost in the presentation that I actually don’t recognize the person in front of me, even if it is a friend or a well-known musician. While tuning the tanpura my concentration is such that I have no idea of time…” Gradually, Kishori Amonkar’s personal traits began to be spoken of with so much exaggeration that even after her death many Hindustani music experts placed more emphasis on these true/untrue/half-true facets rather than on musical contribution.

During the time of Kishori’s mother Mogubai, women artists were not viewed with respect and they were not given equal money to male artists. Kishori Amonkar had seen those days from up close, and probably wanted to ensure that such unequal treatment is not given to future artists. Paying tribute to Kishori Amonkar, Pt. Mallikarjun Mansoor’s son and classical musician Pt. Rajasekhar Mansoor wrote an article in the EPW in which he describes a meeting with Kishori where she expressed anger that in spite of being the son and disciple of a musician like Pt Mallikarjun Mansoor, he had not devoted himself wholly to music and had become a lecturer in English instead. Pt Rakasekhar says that when he told her that this was his father’s wish, as he did not wish his son to suffer the bad experiences he himself had in his early struggling days, tears started to flow from Kishhori Amonkar’s eyes and she recalled and recounted her own mother’s struggles.

The pangs of yearning and separation resonant in Amonkar’s music could owe their presence to these early experiences. Her music is, in a way, a dialogue with herself. That is why during her concerts she did not want any light to be focused on her face. The question then is, what is the role of the listener in this dialogue with the self? I feel that when we are witness to this self-dialogue and self-interview and when her music resounds within us, we become immersed in a dialogue with our own self. Respects and tribute to Kishori Amonkar !

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