Brilliant Hindustani vocalist (1932-2017))

For the legendary Kishori Amonkar, the journey was never easy. As daughter and disciple of the great vocalist Mogubai Kurdikar, expectations from listeners were always high. Her female seniors included Kesarbai Kerkar, Hirabai Badodekar and Gangubai Hangal, whereas her contemporaries were Prabha Atre, Girija Devi and Malini Rajurkar. A few years after Amonkar gained huge appreciation in the late 1960s, Parween Sultana and Veena Sahasrabuddhe made a mark.

Yet, Kishori Amonkar came to be known as the very epitome of, and perfect role model for Hindustani classical female vocalism. Her death on 3 April 2017 at age 84 marks the end of an era, and a huge loss to India’s musical scenario.

What set Amonkar apart was that she had her own vision. Though rooted in the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana founded by Ustad Alladiya Khan, she slowly desired to imbibe the tenets of other schools. So besides her mother Kurdikar’s Jaipur-Atrauli purism, she took guidance from Anwar Hussain Khan of the Agra gharana, Anjanibai Malpekar of the Bhendi Bazaar school, Sharadchandra Arolkar of the Gwalior tradition and Goan stalwart Balkrishnabuwa Parwatkar.

“There are no gharanas, there’s only music. Every raga is a living entity, and every note has its own fragrance and colour,” she would say. Some of her renditions, both recorded and performed live, remain eternal favourites. Bhoopali, Bageshree, Yaman, Jaunpuri and variants of Todi were often requested. She also regularly presented Jaipur-Atrauli specialities like Bahaduri Todi, Kukubh Bilawal, Lalit Pancham and Loor Sarang.

She was proficient with thumri, Marathi abhangs and Kannada bhajans dedicated to Sri Raghavendra, and often catered to audience requests like Babul Mora, Avagha Rang Ek Zhala and Mhaaro Pranaam. Her only film attempts were Geet Gaya Patharon Ne and Drishti.

There was some criticism, of course, mainly from purists who felt she took a while before settling, often clearing her throat initially, or from those who weren’t accustomed to sudden changes in gharana rules. She was also known for her moods and temperament, sometimes stopping in between a recital because she wasn’t happy with the behaviour of somebody in the audience. This writer had the privilege of interviewing Amonkar twice, and meeting her at events on a few occasions. The first interview was before she received the Samrat Sangeet Academy Legend award at the Shanta Durga Temple, Goa, in 1997. Her first instinct was to find out about my awareness of Hindustani classical music, and thus asked a few technical questions. However, she soon got into detail.

There’s an interesting story about the festival. Amonkar was to receive the award first and was the only artist scheduled after that. After the function, she suddenly said she was unwell, and not in a position to sing. The crowd was naturally disappointed and the organisers were in a fix. So they asked a young local singer present there to give a performance. On the final day, master flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia was to close the festival a little after midnight. Amonkar suddenly came in and expressed her readiness to sing. Chaurasia continued playing till 4am, but she waited, and then gave a three-hour recital.

The second time was before the release of her Sony Music album Sampradaya in 2001. She was in a good mood, and happily explained her approach to music and her desire for perfection. “To express music faithfully, you have to be very intense. Unless you are intense from within, you may not get the right feeling. So your effort will fall short of perfection. Unless you sing a note correctly, you cannot reveal its nature,” she said. The world called her Gaan Saraswati. I would add she was aan, baan, shaan, daan, taan Saraswati.

Narendra Kusnur has been a music critic and columnist for over two decades. He has also been involved with the music industry as a label manager with EMI Music India, and as a corporate trainer with Reliance TimeOut books and music stores.