By Ajay Cadambi
If there’s a voice that has profoundly impacted the way Hindustani music is heard, perceived and assessed, it would have to be that of Kesarbai Kerkar – said to be the highest-paid musician of her time.
Kesarbai was born in 1892 in the village of Keri in North Goa, and moved to Bombay as a 16-year-old with her mother and uncle. However, it was only in 1921 that she became the shagird (disciple) of Ustad Alladiya Khan, the founder of the Jaipur Atrauli Gharana, under whose tutelage she grew famous.
It is well-established that Gharanedar Ustads were reluctant to part with their musical knowledge and frowned upon the idea of teaching women. In order to dissuade women from singing, they usually quoted exorbitant fees. Kesarbai was fortunate enough to have a patron who ensured that she could pay for Alladiya Khan’s tuition.
Kesarbai’s voice was extraordinary. She could traverse all three octaves at a uniform volume with perfect sur. Her deep and full-throated aa-kar and her command over behelava, bol-taan and gamak taan leaves you simply awe-struck. She could even be heard even at the end of Durbar Halls and she would insist on removing amplification devices from the stage. Her concert career began in 1930 and for nearly three decades, she was the unstoppable queen of the mehfil. She retired from the performance circuit once her vocal abilities began to diminish, and died in 1977.
Kesarbai’s music reveals a great complexity of musical ideas and aesthetics, something not every listener could understand or process at the time. Nonetheless, she acquired a large and permanent following that was willing to walk many miles to listen to her sing.
And did you know that a recording by Kesarbai of a thumri in Raag Bhairavi exists in outer space? It’s on the Voyager Golden Record, a gold-plated copper disc of recordings from all over the world that was sent into space in 1977!
Here’s a version of it:
And here are three full-length concert recordings of morning ragas presented by Kesarbai. They have been carefully preserved, restored and released into the public domain by the Sangeet Kendra, Ahmedabad.
Kesarbai sings two compositions in this variant of Asavari, the vilambit set to adachautaal (14 beats) and the drut set to teentaal (16 beats).
The influence of Raag Desi is conspicuous in the Atrauli-Jaipur version of Khat presented by Kesarbai Kerkar. The composition is set to vilambit jhaptaal (10 beats). Her execution of bol taans in this particular rendition is simply marvelous.
Raag Kukhubh Bilawal
The Jaipur Atrauli musicians excel in their presentation of the Bilawal variants. This composition is set to vilambit jhaptaal (10 beats).
For more reading on Kesarbai, try:
GN Joshi, Down Memory Lane (Orient Longman, 1984).
Sheila Dhar, Raga’n Josh: Stories from a Musical Life (Permanent Black, 2005).
Kumar Prasad Mukherjee, The Lost World of Hindustani Music (Penguin India, 2006).
Ajay Cadambi is a researcher based in Bangalore.