IS ART A transmission of emotion or of intellect? Should a classical musician be a medium for a guru’s highbrow abstraction of aesthetic perfection, or pursue perfection in each note like a haiku delving into a moment in nature, sidestepping all intellectual conceit? For Kishori Amonkar, the last of a generation of great Khayal vocalists, who died at the age of 84 on April 3rd, tonal purity came first. Her music, so often described as romantic and transcendent, appealed to the emotionally starved listener who did not care for the aloofness of Khayal music, but wasn’t ready to seek out lighter thumris. It was bridge music, striking a balance between the orthodox ornamental style of the Jaipur- Atrauli gharana to which she belonged, and her own meditative musical sensibilities. But there was nothing jarring about the ensemble that was Kishori Amonkar. She could execute an intricate, breathless taan characteristic of her gharana, catching the first beat of the taal like a hawk. But she also made it a point to deviate from the usual alaap, which she detached from rhythm, setting swara free of laya. The result was an approachable style that greatly endeared her to the common listener even as musicians lauded her for the lengths to which she could go to reveal the elusive personality of a raga.
With fairly common ragas like Bageshri and Bhoop as her canvas, Amonkar strove to evoke their peculiar rasas in performances that have remained benchmarks for decades. To hit the perfect notes, she insisted on the perfect environment—no lights on her face during a performance, no conversations before or after, and a deferential audience that would wait patiently as she took her time building the grand narrative of the raga, preferring experimental exposition to a pakad, a musical phrase—that will give it away in a jiffy. She was every bit the celebrity, flaunting her flair in English, never accepting pay that wasn’t commensurate with her stature as a musician, and revelling in requests for songs like Sahela Re and Mhaaro Pranam that will forever be associated with her voice—a voice that no musical note could elude. She composed bandishes and even the musical score of a film, Govind Nihalani’s Drishti (1990), despite a sour experience with playback singing in V Shantaram’s Geet Gaya Pattharon Ne (1964), following which she snapped ties with Bollywood. If Amonkar was easily angered, she did not show it in her music, which is a picture of solitude.
Born in Bombay on April 10th, 1932, Amonkar trained under her mother Mogubai Kurdikar, an exacting guru and an exponent of Ustad Alladiya Khan’s Jaipur gharana, which counted Kesaribai Kerkar and Mallikarjun Mansur among its top vocalists. Amonkar also studied under other musicians and finally forged her own style after a two-year hiatus at the age of 25 due to a debilitating vocal malady. Ayurveda and a spiritual guru guided her through the crisis and she returned to the stage stronger and full of the bhakti-bhava that one associates with Carnatic musicians and Dhrupad singers. The need to express and evoke unalloyed emotion became a profound inspiration. Like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi of the Kirana gharana who embraced a faster tempo and attractive aspects of other gharanas, Amonkar was a revisionist who went the other way, introducing pause and intimacy into her music. And like Pandit Jasraj, she romanticised the Khayal while still maintaining its respectability. ‘Since Jaipur gayaki has leaning towards long breath presentation, it has very little scope for remaining steady on a swara... As a result the oneness of atmosphere remains to be experienced. The emotive content of the raga, therefore, does not reach its climax,’ wrote the late musician Shrikrishna Babanrao Haldankar, who had trained under Kurdikar, in a critical paper on the Jaipur and Agra gharanas. Amonkar believed she could achieve the climax of musical experience by going beyond the mathematics of rhythm and the vanity of style. The world will keep returning to the timeless treasures she leaves behind whenever there is any doubt that classical music can be a splendidly moving force.