'How do artists stay inspired in a chaotic world?': A critic's long association with Kishori Amonkar

On Monday, the world of Hindustani classical music lost a legend.

With the passing away of Kishori Amonkar, just a week before her 85th birthday, the world of Indian classical music has lost one of the greatest musical geniuses of the 20th century.

So much has been written and said about Kishori tai’s life, her glorious music, her eccentricities, her arrogance and moods and more. It could fill several books. Everyone who met her or saw her even once, has a personal Kishori story to narrate. In some ways, she was much like MK Gandhi in the world of politics or MS Subbulakshmi in Carnatic music – you could never be neutral after meeting her. You felt deeply moved and emotional about her music but didn’t know why exactly you liked her – or not. There were some who reacted very negatively to her too. And she was aware of it.

Kishori Amonkar belonged to that league of singers whose career graph was intertwined with their emotional life. Music was more than a performing art for her. Those who knew her up close and personal saw a different being behind the eccentric exterior, a mask she successfully carried. There was an emotionally fragile Kishori tai who didn’t let herself out easily unless she trusted your company.

My journey with Kishori tai, personally, goes back to 20 years – with her music, even further. While researching for a project, I met her mother, the great Mogubai Kurdikar. The topic was the traditional performing artistes community of Goa. Though initially hesitant to speak, she did finally give me some priceless anecdotes of various Baijis. We developed a great bond of friendship and love. “Call me Mai” she said and that is how I addressed her till she passed away.

Misunderstood romanticist

I was more than a smitten fan of Kishori tai and gaining her trust was one of my prized possessions. In several private conversations over the years, Kishori tai would go on to mention that the world around her continuously misunderstood her without bothering to understand her music. This was a fact. Organisers of music festivals gossiped about the eccentric behavior she might be capable of, more than the great music she could offer.

In an older interview, I asked her what gave her music an emotional and romantic quality. “Is that what it is?” she asked, totally unaware of the effect of her music on her listeners. Her music was her own. Though she learnt from several Gurus including Anwar Hussein Khan of Agra Gharana, Anjanibai Malpekar and her own mother Mogubai, Kishori tai eventually sang in her own style.

She had many jealous rivals. Her early attempt at film playback singing, which was a big success, was cut short when the gramophone records of her famous song Geet Gaya Patharon Ne mysteriously vanished overnight. She was heartbroken and stunned into silence at the pettiness of her well-established rivals to sabotage her budding career. This bitter experience stayed with her in her heart, though she never made much noise about it, unless asked. Many seniors who should have ideally encouraged her in her music began backbiting about her. Words of praise, awards or recognitions meant nothing to her over time. I had picked up a gramophone record of her Meera Bhajans in one of Bombay’s old markets for keepsake. When I showed it to her, her eyes swelled with tears. Such small and possibly most inconsequential gestures moved her deeply.

She turned deeply spiritual with advancing years. She deeply believed in Guru Raghavendra Swami of Brindavan in Mantralayam in Andhra Pradesh and Banke Bihari temple in Vrindavan. The Jagadguru Shankaracharya of the Sringeri Mutt in Karnataka bestowed her with the title of “Gaana Saraswati”. She held that title close to her heart, more than any others. She would sing songs about Krishna and other gods and choke midway with utmost sense of devotion. Her music was an offering to her gods. At the age of 25, she inexplicably completely lost her voice. It took more than two years for her to get it back, with the help of Ayurvedic medicine given to her by Acharya Sardeshmukh Maharaj of Pune. She saw a spiritual guru in him too. She was constantly aware of the unpredictability of life and the value of the music she inherited from her mother and her Gurus. She needed constant solace. Her spirituality gave her that and her music flowed out in gratitude to that aspect of her personal life.

In November, when the Carnatic vocalist Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishna passed away in Chennai, I called her. “He was my soul mate. I feel so alone. I miss him,” she wept over the phone, inconsolably. “One by one all my friends are going. Why am I still here?” The two musicians had given some of the finest musical jugalbandis ever in the history of Indian classical music. “If you are going to his house, place a flower at his photo from me,” she said. I never managed to go to his house either. In the middle of the December music season in Chennai, I got a call from her. I told her I was on my way to Thanjavur for the Tyagaraja Aradhana Utsavam. “Place a few flowers at his Samadhi and think of me,” she ordered. I did that. And in return, the priest there gave me a small paper sachet of holy ash from the place. I kept that with me, safe.

Last meeting

Last week she was in Delhi for a music festival organised by the Bhilwara Group on March 26. I took the liberty of dashing into the greenroom before the concert, knowing very well she does not like to meet anyone before a concert, let alone sit and have a long chat. I was ready to be kicked out if she was in one of her infamous moods. She welcomed me with much warmth, to my surprise. “Kaise ho, Vijaya?” she asked as I bowed down to touch her feet. “Vijaya” was what even her mother had called me. We held hands like long lost friends. It felt like the 1990s once again. I gave her the paper sachet of vibhuthi from Tyagaraja’s Samadhi, which I had with me. She held her head against it with closed eyes, before taking out a little and applying a dot on her forehead. “Thank you for this – this is priceless,”she added, her voice choking with emotion. She gave the sachet to her student for safekeeping. A photographer friend who had tagged along, sat there with a few prints of her images to get them autographed. To distract her, I showed her those images. She signed them. She signed one for me that reads “Dear Vijaya! Love! Kishori Amonkar!”

Among the many things we chatted about in that short meeting was Balamurali’s music. “Whatever you write, send me a copy,” she ordered. While chatting, she suddenly clenched my right hand, looked into my eyes and asked, “How do we artists stay inspired in this chaotic world?” As she asked this haunting question, her eyes began to swell with tears. “You are an inspiration for many of us, tai. You cannot be saying this! Where do we go?” I replied. “You are in love with the notes. Not me. I am just another nobody, in service of these notes,” she added. For a brief second my mind went blank. Various thoughts came to mind during that concert at Kamani auditorium. Had Kishori tai mellowed with age? Not really. After the initial bit of warming up, she sang and her voice soared the octaves, hitting sublime notes, like it always did.

Behind the tough exterior, was an extremely fragile and sensitive person. She was simply more conscious of her loneliness and couldn’t deal with it.

Little did I imagine this would be the last meeting. Kishori tai will live on in the emotional and romantic fragrance her music spreads every time we listen to her voice.

Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic.

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