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IN MEMORIAM: THE IMMORTAL VOICE

Updated April 16, 2017

“You have to love the raag, completely get involved in it and become one with it. For example, if you plan to perform raag Vibhas, you have to become that raag. When you sing the words, ‘Mora ra re preeth mora ra re’ in the teentaal you have to live those words, only then will you be able to make your audience forget their surroundings and enjoy the experience.” This was how the doyen of Indian classical music, Kishori Amonkar, felt about her art — the art of singing classic compositions. She passed away on April 3 in Mumbai.

For more than 60 years, whenever she appeared on stage to perform, Amonkar practised what she professed. Her voice, her style of gayeki is etched in the minds and hearts of every admirer of Indian classical music. Every time she began ‘Sahela re sahela re’ in the teental in raag Bhoop, ‘Chhum chhananana bichhuwa baje mori’ in raag Jaunpuri, Saint Kabir’s bhajan ‘Ghat ghat main panchi bolta hai’ in raag Bageshri, ‘Babul mor nahir chhuto hi jai’ in raag Bhairavi and some other gems, the audience would listen to her with rapt attention.

Kishoritai, as she was fondly called by everyone around her, was so deeply involved in her singing that she wouldn’t tolerate the slightest of distractions. Music was her life. Not too long ago, at a ceremony held to acknowledge her invaluable contribution to Indian classical music, Amonkar said, “No one is cheeranjivi (immortal) here. So even I will be gone one day, but from wherever I will be, I will only hear music.”


Though the doyen of Indian classical music Kishori Amonkar belonged to a revered gharana, she did not strictly adhere to its style


Belonging to the Jaipur Atrouli gharana, Amonkar trained under her mother Mogubai Kurdikar, who along with another doyen of Hindustani classical music, Kesarbai Kerkar, earned a formidable reputation as women vocalists way back in the early 20th century. Kishoritai referred to her mother as Mahi. She had once told a reporter, “Mahi was a very strict and innovative teacher. She would explain every note and word of the song to me. That is how I learnt which sur or word to stress upon and where to go soft.”

That is also how Kishoritai taught her students as well. The stress in her style was on the gayeki and that is why she never taught individual notes. She believed that if a singer sang notes separately, for example — sa, re ga, pa, dha, sa for raag Bhoop — then the listener would get distracted; the beauty of listening to the entirety of the raag would be lost.  


“Kishoritai, as she was fondly called by everyone around her, was so deeply involved in her singing that she wouldn’t tolerate the slightest of distractions. Music was her life. Not too long ago, at a ceremony held to acknowledge her invaluable contribution to Indian classical music, Amonkar said, “No one is cheeranjivi (immortal) here. So even I will be gone one day, but from wherever I will be, I will only hear music.”


Amonkar was showered with many awards, including the second and third highest Indian civilian awards of Padma Vibhushan and Padma Bhushan. She also had a reputation for being a bit whimsical. She would perform only when she got into the mood of the raag. Before the start of any concert, the lighting, the sound system and the ambiance on stage had to be just the way as she wanted them, because of which she sometimes made the audience wait for hours. But no member of the audience ever complained about it. There would be no time limit on her shows. A two-hour concert could stretch to three to four hours, much to the delight of her listeners.

Amonkar never allowed anyone to make a documentary about her life and work until film actor and director Amol Palekar and his wife Sandhya approached her for a documentary.

“I was lucky Sandhya knows classical music, so Kishoritai agreed to make Bhinna Shadja, a documentary on her music, not on her life,” Palekar said.

Critics often raised the issue that Amonkar didn’t strictly adhere to her gharana’s style of singing. Her reply: “Why should we restrict ourselves to one style? Music is spiritual. As long as the purity of the raag is not tampered with, why should the gharana matter? Just imagine the beautiful atmosphere it would create if 15 singers, all belonging to different gharanas, would sing one raag at one time. We would get to hear so many styles and that time would become supreme.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 16th, 2017