By Ila Ananya
Sitting down for her riyaaz one day, the legendary Hindustani musician Kishori Amonkar decided to practice Raag Bageshri. At the end of her long riyaaz, Amonkar, who was extremely happy when she started, ended up feeling sad and restless. It was because she was singing Bageshri, the raag of late night, which depicts a woman waiting to be reunited with her lover.
This is a story that young musician Rutuja Lad — a student of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana to which Amonkar also belonged — remembers hearing about Amonkar. It was an important story for her to hear as a student, Lad says, because it demonstrated what Amonkar has always said about music: that she was not singing a raag, but that the raag was coming through her — where the music was more important than the musician. It’s no wonder then, that Lad says she has heard people say time and again since Amonkar’s passing, that without her, Raag Bhoop would not be Bhoop anymore.
In the interview, Amonkar also talks about watching her mother Kurdikar perform at a time when women singers weren’t as respected as male musicians. The organisers of concerts would speak down to her mother, she says, paying her much less than men. Musician Neela Bhagwat (of the Gwalior gharana) believes that Amonkar’s music was also about overcoming this anguish and hurt.
This is an interesting lens through which to look at Amonkar’s performances — there are many stories of her imperial demeanour, including ones where she would sometimes simply say she didn’t feel like singing and leave the stage. Perhaps, she is referring to this when Amonkar says about her mother, “I saw this shoddy treatment of a legend like her. It hurt me deeply. But my mother had three children to bring up, so she continued. I decided that when I become a musician, I would never allow any of this. And I don’t.”
At times, Amonkar was seen as ‘strict’ and short-tempered with her audiences — a colleague told me that after Amonkar’s passing, her friend announced sweetly on Facebook that it was her mother that Amonkar had once famously snapped at in the middle of a performance, telling her to sit straight. It was finally a revelation that the, ‘You, woman in the yellow sari’ story was indeed true, and not just false lore passed down among generations of fans as a warning to be on their best behaviour at an Amonkar concert.
With instances like these, it is hard to separate Hindustani musician Lalith Rao’s description of Amonkar as just ‘sensitive’ from the idea that a part of her diva behaviour had to do with her own gendered experiences. “Any disturbance in the audience would distract her. It showed her involvement in her music, as something she valued,” Rao says. I’m more prone to speculate that Amonkar was being deliberate in insisting on respect — perhaps because she felt she wouldn’t get it otherwise, because she was a woman.
Lad also points to a recent piece by musician Shruti Sadolikar Katkar, who remembers how Amonkar always stressed on the importance of education. According to her, speaking English forced organisers to take her seriously in a way that her mother was never taken.
But as a young musician, Lad says it might not always be possible for her to make as many demands as Amonkar did. As a woman, however, she always found Amonkar’s strong belief in standing up for herself, and her strongly individual stamp of music, as inspiring. Amonkar still reminds Lad of when to put her foot down.
What was special about Amonkar’s distinctive style of music was how much she moved away from the traditional principles of the Jaipur gharana. Even people who don’t know the finer technical details of each gharana, could usually tell that there was something special about the music. If her mother Kurdikar was known to strictly follow her gharana’s style, Amonkar was always different. Her sharp and soft voice had the capacity to make you hum her songs to yourself from the first instant you heard them (as this version of ‘Sahela Re’ in Raag Bhoop did when I first heard it). As Bhagwat says, she is known to “show an emotional urge, a certain restlessness and anguish” that the Jaipur gharana didn’t otherwise allow for. “This must have made her happy as an artist,” adds Bhagwat.
Lad, who feels extremely fortunate to have performed in front of Amonkar twice (once when she was 10 years old when Amonkar was interviewing Lad’s then guru Kulkarni, and once when Kulkarni passed away), remembers the disciplined way in which Amonkar would unveil a raag at every performance. She would always first spend time alone with only her tanpura before she was to perform, and sometimes she did her alankar for so long that the performance went on for much longer than the scheduled time.
Lalith Rao, who trained under Khadim Hussain Khan of the Agra gharana, first listened to Amonkar in 1969. Rao has fond memories of Amonkar speaking to her in her [Rao’s] dialect of Konkani rather than sticking to the Konkani she knew (Amonkar’s mother was from Goa). Rao didn’t know Amonkar personally back then, but ever since that first performance, Rao says she made it a point never to miss any of her performances. “She had a spell-binding voice. The music of very few musicians affected me like hers did.”
Rao maintains that we can enjoy music even if we don’t particularly like a musician’s voice, and says that Amonkar was capable of singing the fastest taan and the slowest alaap. What was special, according to her, was that Amonkar’s own emotions came through her music clearly.
“People say Amonkar’s music broke the traditional mould. That is where the inspiration in her music lies; that is the point where she is able to show you a new perspective,” Rao says. Then she adds more forcefully that Amonkar did this with the important conviction that she was singing what she felt.
Amonkar bridged classical music for us all in this way. Her qualities of standing up for the respect her art deserved, and being unafraid to infuse emotion with technique, are her legacy to the next generation of Hindustani musicians. “Music needs to evolve,” says Lad. “And just as Kishoritai walked her own path, you need to walk your own path too.”