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Kishori Amonkar (1932-2017): A musician of monumental sincerity

In a field where most successful musicians burn out in their 40s and 50s from complacence, the vocalist's musical growth continued unabated.

As a singer trained in the highly format-driven Jaipur-Atrauli school of khayal music, one of two main genres in Hindustani music (the other being dhrupad), Kishori Amonkar, who died on the night of April 3 in her Mumbai flat at the age of 84, was a most unlikely candidate to emerge as an architect of romanticism in the genre. Her mother and mentor, the great Mogubai Kurdikar had, after all, been known for her staunch fidelity to raga grammar and the contours of a bandish, or composition, as taught in her gharana.

Yet despite Kurdikar’s strict adherence to the formal organisation of material as taught by Alladiya Khan, the gharana’s founder, one finds that a certain prettiness emerges from her manner of emoting a musical phrase. That latent, sparingly deployed streak of expressionism found its true champion in Kishori Amonkar.

Few musicians of the long-format recorded era have been able to spontaneously deliver areas of such unseen beauty in a raga as Amonkar has. Like the legendary sarod player Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009), Amonkar was a master of surprises, not allowing the grammar of a raga to hinder her creativity. In fact, great musicians such as her internalise the grammar of a few hundred ragas so early in life that coming up with the most unexpected and beautiful sentences is as natural to them as making conversation.

Talking to her ‘friends’

During her practice sessions, Amonkar would go through a complete exposition of a raga in exactly the same way in which she would perform it on stage. Sometimes, the raga deities, as she called them, reveal themselves, and sometimes they don’t, she would say. “Love that note,” she said to me once. “Plead with it, beg if you have to, for it to show itself.” She was convinced that ragas were living beings and that she could converse with them, plead, cajole and, at times, even be cross with them for not letting her arrange them as she desired.

Behind what might seem to some like allegorical posturing lay a highly intelligent, rational mind that derived its fuel from the phenomenal amount of musical knowledge it had acquired. Processing this hive of data and deriving fresh ideas was likely what Amonkar referred to as “talking to my friends, the ragas”.

Possessed by the note

The Jaipur gharana is known for its composition-centric approach to developing a raga: the entire bandish is presented up front in the opening minutes of a performance, and then the singer goes on to highlight key areas of a raga in her aalaap – improvisation in a slow tempo – using melodic themes already explored in the bandish, and elaborating on them.

Kishori Amonkar the modernist brought to this gayaki, or style and structure of khayal elaboration, the reposeful approach of developing each focal note of a raga, beginning in the mandra saptak, the lower octave, and building phrases around that note, usually ending on it, weaving back to the sthayi, or first line of the bandish, until she was satisfied that she had met the creative challenge of delivering an exhaustive array of combinations centred around her focal note, as in the recording below.

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She would then move on to the next cluster, gradually ascending the scale of the raga while slowly unfolding its canvas. This approach is similar to that of Amir Khan’s (1912-1974), and begins to emerge in Amonkar’s gayaki in the late 1970s, as in the recording below.

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In contrast, her earlier singing was more in line with the traditional Jaipur approach of sketching broad outlines before beginning to populate details onto the canvas, as in the recording below, which is from a long-playing HMV recording from 1967.

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Performance strategies

A Kishori Amonkar performance of any raga is without exception neatly arranged into well-thought out sections. This is perhaps a vestige of her training in the format-heavy Jaipur gharana style. I use the word “vestige” because Kishori Amonkar today is beyond gharanas or formats. This brings us to the bipolarity of her musical personality that is evident in the schism between the rigour of her developmental discipline and the emotional spontaneity for which she is known.

I do not view it as a contradiction but as a consequence of her complete mastery of form, technique and, of course, grammar, which allows her to depart on a tangent, as seen amply in the performance of Khem Kalyan in the recording below, and to rejoin the bigger picture at a point of her choosing. In this sense, she is closer to the master sitarist Vilayat Khan (1924-2004) than Ali Akbar Khan.

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In my view, the term “genius” is used far too often to describe people and their abilities in various areas of human endeavour. Brilliance of the kind Kishori Amonkar possessed is usually wrought by a combination of early exposure and immersion, a passionate love for one’s work, and finally, hard labour that goes into the craft of shaping one’s art.

The key ingredient of Amonkar’s transcendental genius, I believe, was her fanatical sincerity towards her work and a highly rational inner self that, in spite of her reputation as an egoist, kept her grounded and self-critical. In a field where most successful professionals burn out in their 40s and 50s from complacence, Amonkar’s musical growth continued unabated right until her last days.

Arnab Chakrabarty is an accomplished sarod player who occasionally writes about music.

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