Kishori Amonkar on culture
Times of India

Kishori Amonkar, the irascible diva who has just received the NCPA Lifetime Award, talks about her love for Maugham and her complex relationship with her mom, Mogubai.

I grew up to Kishori Amonkar’s voice. Every time my mother placed the Thorens needle on the long playing record, and the crackling gave way to the slow cadences of Sahela Re in raga Bhoop, I suspect the ferns in the balcony smiled, the cook made peace with the brinjal, and a little girl with thick eyeglasses succumbed to a space that would some day save her soul. For, the world is divided into two types of people those who have let Indian classical music enter their being and those who have not; those who have experienced a few moments of sublime peace, and those who still teeter restlesly in the bylanes of human suffering.

“In its final analysis, Indian classical music is a feeling,” says Amonkar. “It is not about you and me”. It is not even about the raga or the singer. It is about universality. It is truth…I believe that every subject has come into existence to realise this ultimate… The final destination is peace.”

I finally met the legendary singer in her home in a quiet bylane of Prabhadevi in Mumbai, on the eve of her receiving the first lifetime achievement award from the NCPA (National Center for the Performing Arts). It is an honour the 80-year-old singer holds higher than the Padma Vibhushan because it does not come from a bunch of ignorant imbeciles who may just deign to reward a cricketer on the same platform as a classical singer, she says with her notorious huff.

You shudder, expecting an outburst against a government that has no respect for classical musicians. And it comes, like a tempestuous taan. You suddenly see a witch-like profile, a magical rage that is directed against any one who has not understood the pain and loneliness and insanity and resolution that accompanies the pursuit of beauty. She continues to rant about foolish audiences, an indifferent government, and pathetic populist musicians who are offering ‘confusion’ under the guise of ‘fusion’. She cannot understand the youth’s obsession with what she calls ‘erratic’ music. Even though her popularity rose enormously when she sang for [the movie] Geet Gaya Pathharo Ne or rendered the memorable [bhajan] Maro Pranaam…, she is clear that these are just short excursions in her journey into something far more deep and potent. She concludes:

“Basically, a nation that does not respect its culture and its artistes can never hope to progress in the real sense. It will not be bestowed with either health or wealth in the long term.”

She is probably right. But the torpedo taan finishes, and we seamlessly go back to the undulating quiet of the aalaap, her ode to beauty and truth.

“Where was I? Ah, yes. What is art? I have tried to explore what art is. Art is about science, discipline, sublimation, manifestation…It is truth beautifully manifested through the language of notes. It seems that people don’t want peace because they have not experienced a small nuance of this. If they did, they won’t go away from it.”

She turns to one of her acolytes seated on the floor next to her, and he nods vigorously in agreement.

Amonkar believes Indian classical music must be taught compulsorily in schools, something many other great musicians have suggested would be the perfect, indeed obvious, antidote to the undue stress that children are forced to face in these times. “I don’t blame young people. I blame their parents for not exposing them to the right thing”, says Amonkar.

Indeed, the parent occupies a critical space in a world where oral traditions have been carefully passed down generations like sachets of jewels. Amonkar is sitting in front of a gorgeous black-and-white portrait of her mother, Mogubai Kurdikar, one of the greats of her time, trained in the Jaipur gharana. The photograph covers an entire wall, appropriately, for it depicts an era, an ethos. In it, Amonkar comes across as the humble accompanist, not an irascible diva and, even if photographs tell more lies than truths, and this one disguises what was a massively complex relationship, Amonkar’s voice shakes as she speaks about Mogubai.

“My mother gave me the best grounding I could have asked for, I am what I am because of her,” she says, recalling the 5 to 7 am practice sessions that were as non-negotiable as teeth brushing. In those days, the young Amonkar was more focused on sports and studies and was “an obsessive reader of Somerset Maugham”. “My weakness is that I love the English language,” she says with a laugh.

A failure to sit for a college examination because of an illness drove her into taking music more seriously, she says. And you hardly care if the stories are apocryphal. For what emerged was one of the greatest artistes of her time one who broke boundaries and left people moved, exhilarated, and astonishingly tolerant of all her marvelous stage tantrums.

What about the endless controversies surrounding her — the unabashed manner in which she sometimes breaks the rules of raga or gharana that make the purists cringe? She is quick to respond.

“A raga is actually a feeling, it is about creating an atmosphere. It has no boundaries. Tell me the boundaries of any season of summer or winter. Can they be junctionised or partitioned? We tend to give preference to the medium but not the purpose behind the medium which is to reach the universal. We must surpass the medium…”

“Our ragas are so dense, so pregnant with beauty, They are not about notes, they are about shruti, she says, referring to the unseen, un-notatable microtones that flow between notes. “I sometimes fear that in my old age, I won’t be able to hold the shruti. I pray that on the eve of my death, I have performed the greatest concert. And then I go…”

She smiles at a young violinist who is waiting to start the practice with her for the NCPA concert where she will present her own compositions. “Now please go, she says to us. “I have to sing.” Just one last thing, tai. Is Indian classical music dying? “Look here,” she says.

“Truth never dies. I would have liked to see more of it around me in this era. But things will come around…”

And that is Amonkar’s final bandeesh to the world, if only it cared to stop and listen.

Mai’s musical gift

Fame is dictated by destiny. It is not the same as greatness. While Kishori Amonkar was fortunate to have both bestowed on her, Mogubai Kurdikar, her mother, her teacher, and a stunningly beautiful singer, perhaps did not get the fame her music deserved. Mogubai was born into the kalawant or entertainment community in Goa, to Jayashreebai, a fiercely ambitious woman who wanted her daughter to become a great singer. She pushed her into training at a young age and then made her join a travelling theatre company where she further honed her musical talents. But Mogubai was orphaned very young, and left with nothing other than her mother’s death wish that she become famous. Mogubai’s destiny changed few years later in Sangli, when a tall turbaned whiskered man discovered her and decided to teach her. She became Alladiya Khan’s protĂ©gĂ©. But it was a tumultuous time for a young woman singer flying solo, and Mogubai encountered constant opposition to her training under the respectable founder of the Jaipur gharana. She had to wander from teacher to teacher, and ended up under the Khansahib’s brother, Hyder Khan. Legend has it that, many years later, as Mogubai sat doing riyaaz with baby Kishori on her lap, concentrating on a difficult taan, she imagined Alladiya Khan once again teaching her the nuances of the composition. The child’s fidgeting roused her from her trance and she realised that it wasn’t it her imagination. The Khansahib was actually standing before her, teaching her once again. Her training under the Khansahib continued and he nurtured her into one of the greatest stalwarts of the gharana. And that is the tradition that she passed on to Amonkar. Mogubai, or Mai as she was universally known, died in 2001, at the age of 94. But musicians in India never really die. They resonate in ancient temples, in concert halls, and through the legacies they leave behind. “Her blood flows through me,” says her daughter.