An Eclectic Innovator

Kishori Amonkar will live on in the emotional and romantic fragrance her music spreads

By Vikas Datta

With the passing away of Kishori Amonkar, just a week before her 85th birthday, the world of Indian classical music has lost one of the greatest musical geniuses of the 20th century.

So much has been written and said about Kishori tai’s life, her glorious music, her eccentricities, her arrogance and moods and more. It could fill several books. Everyone who met her or saw her even once, has a personal Kishori story to narrate. In some ways, she was much like MK Gandhi in the world of politics or MS Subbulakshmi in Carnatic music – you could never be neutral after meeting her. You felt deeply moved and emotional about her music but didn’t know why exactly you liked her – or not. There were some who reacted very negatively to her too. And she was aware of it.

Kishori Amonkar belonged to that league of singers whose career graph was intertwined with their emotional life. Music was more than a performing art for her. Those who knew her up close and personal saw a different being behind the eccentric exterior, a mask she successfully carried. There was an emotionally fragile Kishori tai who didn’t let herself out easily unless she trusted your company.

She had many jealous rivals. Her early attempt at film playback singing, which was a big success, was cut short when the gramophone records of her famous song Geet Gaya Patharon Ne mysteriously vanished overnight. She was heartbroken and stunned into silence at the pettiness of her well-established rivals to sabotage her budding career. This bitter experience stayed with her in her heart, though she never made much noise about it, unless asked.

Kishori tai had planned to cure ailments of the body, but fate planned her to instead to minister to the soul through her incomparable voice — and innovations. Schooled directly and indirectly by stellar proponents of her Jaipur gharana, Kishori Amonkar never remained bound by its style only to emerge as one of the foremost exponents of Indian classical music.

Always eclectic in outlook with her naturally sweet voice, and talent augmented by a capacity to assimilate, she was well versed in nuances of Western classical music (she thought Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was something akin to the Indian tradition), appreciated light classical music — with her favourites including Noor Jehan, Begum Akhtar and especially Jagjit Singh, whom she admitted to liking watching on TV.

But for all her innovations, Amonkar, who passed away late Monday, a week before her 85th birthday, never went down the Bollywood path – regularly.

She had been convinced to do the title song for V Shantaram’s “Geet Gaya Pattharon Ne” (1964) but this had angered her mother, who had taught her Indian classical music was sacred. According to TJS George’s biography of MS Subbalakhmi, Amonkar recalled her mother telling her that if she wanted to enter the film industry, the purpose of her teaching would not be served and that she “might gain money and fame but lose much more”.

And as her mother was renowned classicist Mogubai Kurdikar, who was a disciple of ‘Gaan Samrat’ Alladiya Khan, the founder of Jaipur gharana himself, including when pregnant with Kishori, it left a major impression.

As such, Amonkar imbibed her art from both her mother’s guru and her mother, who brought all her three children up after her husband’s untimely death. This unfortunate atmosphere ultimately helped for “all banal distractions were banished from the Kurdikar home, which was forever fragrant with musical and spiritual pursuits. Apart from their schoolbooks, the only other books the youngsters could lay hands upon were spiritual books, and each one was taught to respect the arts, the shastras and a disciplined way of life” (as per Ashok Rao in “Music Makers: The Living Legends of Indian Classical Music”).

Amonkar, who was taught by her exacting mother in the exacting style of the gharana, characterised by correctness and purity of grammar and structure and balance between ‘swar’ and ‘lay’, recalled her mother, who had other students too, never gave her any special treatment, being rather more strict and demanding with her.

And while Amonkar proved a good and capable student of music, she also excelled in studies and sports (field events and table tennis) and wanted to be a doctor. But a case of sore eyes when she had to give the exam led her to devote her life to music. Even a spell of losing her voice did not stop her and she plunged into it with gusto when she recovered. (In this, she had a rare model. Ustad Alladiya Khan had also reportedly once lost his voice – and developed some features of the gharana’s style to compensate for this).

What distinguished her was her eclecticism. Amonkar, who criticises the gharana system as unduly restrictive, also learnt music from a wide range of teachers, including Anjanibai Malpekar of the Bhendi Bazar Gharana, Anwar Hussain Khan of Agra Gharana, Sharadchandra Arolkar of Gwalior Gharana while Pandit Husnlal gave her instruction in lighter music.

Amonkar, who was known for performing with her eyes shut, told Rao that this led her to named “the blind artiste” but explained this had developed due to her concern if she could connect with her audience.

“How many souls can you communicate with. How many atmaas can you please?It used to worry me… until I found the solution. Sing for God. If the Parmatmaa is happy, ordinary souls will also feel that happiness! That is why I usually sung with my eyes closed.”

And despite pain in much of her singing, for Amonkar, music was always a path, never a destination, to happiness.