Kishori Amonkar

Pursuit of perfection

Print edition : April 28, 2017

Kishori Amonkar at a concert organised in Bengaluru in August 2007. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

With Gangubhai Hangal and Pandit Rajshekhar Mansur at the Dr Mallikarjun Mansur Award presentation ceremony in Dharwad in 2007. Photo: BM Kedarnatheshwarswamy

With Begun Parveen Sultana and Pandit Satish Vyas at the Gunidas Sangeet Sammelan in Mumbai in November 2010. Photo: PTI

At home in Mumbai. A February 2016 photograph. Photo: Prashant Nakwe

President Pratibha Patil presenting the Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship to Kishori Amonkar in New Delhi on September 28, 2010. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Kishori Amonkar (1932-2017) innovated delightfully, even intrepidly, on stage and was never averse to pushing boundaries. Yet, she never played to the gallery.

IT has all gone quiet. Not a beep to be heard anywhere. No shuffling of feet. Certainly no sound of stilettos on a marble floor. Just like it was when the redoubtable Kishori Amonkar performed. She brooked no sound, not even mobile phones on vibrator mode. She demanded, and deserved, complete attention. It almost always came her way. The rare occasions when it did not, the doyenne of Hindustani classical music made sure to berate whoever was responsible for the lapse. This intolerance of any aberration while she performed often made many wary; others found in it a touch of arrogance. On occasions, she was known to leave a performance within a few minutes if the audience was not discerning enough or if it wanted light bhajans. Often, she chided those who came to her concerts and expected her to repeat her song from Geet Gaya Pathharon Ne, a 1964 Hindi film for which she made an exception—interestingly, not many seemed to prefer her songs from the 1990 art film Drishti. For Kishori Amonkar, though, it was all about devotion. In the early part of her career, she pleaded for vasl (union) with the almighty through her ragas. In the latter part, each raga came imbued with divinity, each swara was a limitless experience, a journey to infinity.

Yet, Kishori Amonkar, for all her genius—she held her own as a woman artist in the era of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Amir Khan and others—could never quite shake off the tag of being a difficult person. If her dedication to her craft was legendary—she was known to have performed with high fever, and even a sore throat—so were her tantrums. The image preceded her arrival; and at times, it did not leave her even when she was physically absent from a place. It so happened a few years ago at a press conference in New Delhi when Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj was asked by a young, and recklessly ignorant, journalist if he wanted to choose some other dance form now that he had been performing in the same medium for many decades! Maharaj laughed it off, only saying, “Have you ever asked Sachin Tendulkar why he does not play table tennis or badminton now that he has been playing cricket for so long!” His remark brought the house down, and tension dissolved into peals of laughter. But at the end of the conference, a seasoned journalist wondered aloud: “I would have liked to see the reaction of Kishori Amonkar if the journalist had asked her this question!” He need not have wondered. Nobody would have dared to ask her anything less than well informed questions.

Indeed, mention Kishori Amonkar, and there was a sense of fear, even foreboding. Many journalists dreaded interviewing her, many critics failed to turn up to speak to her after their reviews were published. And among the organisers, there would usually be a pass-the-buck routine when her name was shortlisted for a recital and somebody had to convince her to agree to the dates. She was strict with her accompanists, never quite willing to let go of an error. She was demanding of the tanpura too; it had to sound just right. Anything less than perfect meant a failure. Even among her audiences, she suffered no fools. Even when she did not expect only connoisseurs to turn up for her performances, she preferred discerning audiences. Once, when the Chhattisgarh government invited her to perform in Raipur, the audience was not aware of devotion, imagining that she would belt out popular numbers. She left the stage, not ready to dilute the seriousness of her chosen craft in front of an audience less than appreciative of it. Similarly, once in New Delhi’s Music in the Park series, when two mobile phones rang, and one of the young organisers sought the attention of his colleague, she threatened to leave it all until there was pin-drop silence. Her words had the desired effect.

Yet, leave aside all the notions of her tantrums, real or imagined, close your eyes and let your mind waft across to the world of her ragas, how she loved raga Malhar, often delineating the beauty of the sun after an energy-laden shower, how she brought out the divinity of Miyan ki Todi and just how she caressed the twilight raga Bhoop. Why, she even glowed in raga Hansdhwani, which was adapted from Carnatic music. This ability to caress, cajole, even nudge ragas was God-gifted. What was not was her perseverance, her ability to ask questions of herself that nobody dared to ask. That is why she did not suffer ignoramuses. Once in an interview, she delineated the crests and troughs of music like the back of her palm. “Like there are many shades of love, there are many shades of a swara too. Bhoop, Shuddh-Kalyan and Deshkar sound like similar ragas, but the Gandhar of Bhoop is different from the Gandhar of Shuddh Kalyan and Deshkar. It’s challenging to find the accurate place of a particular swara, because it is simply slippery. The universe of swara is without any beginning or end. It is limitless, immeasurable. I try to find feelings and emotions through these swaras and express them,” she said, raising the level of conversation many notches.

Her immense knowledge, her alert tanas, her harkats, everything had an immediacy and yet a timelessness to it. Much of it came from early training under her mother Mogubai Kurdikar, who did not receive her due in the world of music. But Kishori Amonkar was not to be denied.

She was a doyenne of the Jaipur Atrauli gharana all right, but it did not prevent her from learning under Anwar Hussain Khan of the Agra gharana, or the Bhendi Bazaar gharana’s stalwart Anjanibai Malpekar, or Goa’s Balkrishnabuwa Parwatkar, or learning even the niceties of the Gwalior gharana. From each fount, she drank until her thirst was quenched, from each stalwart, she picked up the body of her craft, giving it a soul in her own unique ways. She never sang to entertain, music was all about sadhana for her. She would sit in total solitude before a performance. On stage, she innovated delightfully, even intrepidly. She was never averse to pushing boundaries. Yet, she never played to the gallery.

Unlike in the case of her mother, recognition came her way: first came the Padma Bhushan some 30 years ago, then in 2002 she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan. That is not all. Unlike many of her seniors, she was wise in matters of money. She demanded a certain amount, and she got it. This was a lesson she had imbibed at the feet of her mother who, for all the encomiums, never quite made the cut on the financial front. Not for Kishori Amonkar shimmering silks on stage or conspicuous jewellery taking away attention from her music. She dressed simply but tastefully in cotton saris with her familiar big bindi.

She spoke English just to tell those around her that she knew the ways of the modern world. In fact, she insisted on young artists getting themselves an education beyond their music. It was a teaching she often imparted when she performed in Banaras, or even in Mumbai and Delhi in front of an audience that usually included many upcoming artists. Right until the end, she admonished her students and audiences alike. Right until her last breath she sought perfection.

When it all came together, it was a mesmerising experience. Her performance was never about the moment. It was all about taking the lessons home. And learning afresh. Her music will not go quiet. Let not a beep disturb the profundity of the moment. Time for a rewind. Kishori Amonkar plays on.

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