Mogubai Kurdikar was born in a village in Goa in 1904 and died in Bombay in 2001. In the early 1980s, I used to read in the papers about the very occasional performances she’d give. Those were my last years in Bombay, and I was deep into learning khayal myself, and learning about khayal. Everything related to it was of interest to me.
Mogubai was referred to in these reports as a “doyenne” – a word popular among music journalists – of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, also known as the Alladiya Khan gharana after its progenitor. Her reputation as a vocalist suffered slightly for always being spoken of in conjunction with at least one of two other reputed persons who both had an immense, standalone existence. The first was her older contemporary, Kesarbai Kerkar; the second, her daughter Kishori Amonkar.
Today, I am no longer sure how many people have actually heard her sing, though anyone familiar with North Indian classical music is certain to know of her through these contexts. But Mogubai is a considerable artist, with an achievement that’s not only of historic interest but one that’s worth acquainting oneself with directly.
A distinctive style
Kesarbai’s and her guru-behan Mogubai’s styles are very similar. The similarity is emphasised partly by the 78 rpm recordings in which they both sang at their peak; they contain not drut or fast compositions, but madhyalaya or medium-tempo ones, like this serene Kedar in teentaal:
These parameters and their shared musical lineage underline the overlaps in their approach to recording the khayal. The similarities also suggest that both were exemplary students of Alladiya Khan’s. From where else would they have got that very distinctive delivery of the musical note; those perfectly-executed taan patterns that increase, in the space of a few minutes, in intensity, incandescence, and tempo; and a peculiar sense of grandeur that comes from their almost religious deference to intervals: sa and pa (the tonic and fifth), sa and ma (the tonic and fourth), and notes from which you must return to the interval (such as dhaivat, or the sixth)?
When you listen to Mogubai singing Savani, for instance, you feel that just two or three notes – sa and pa, the basic demarcation of a scale, and dha – are enough for a great singer to expend all their feeling on:
One can only presume that this particular DNA was inherited by the two vocalists from studying, avidly, Alladiya Khan’s style and temperament.
The differences are revealing too. Kesarbai has an androgynous voice – a timbre that lies on the borderline of the recognisable register of her gender. She’s one of the few women Hindustani classical singers – perhaps the only major female artist in that tradition – to possess that tone. There are greater numbers of men who sing in seemingly inappropriate registers – the early A Kanan, the later Abdul Kareem Khan, Balgandharva, Vishmadev Chatterjee, all sing in a bold transgenderal key that might be common to both, kinnaras (the heavenly female singers) and gandharvas (the heavenly male ones). The androgynous voices are alienating, and they extend our idea of beauty. It’s partly the tradition’s ongoing, and spiritual, experimentation that makes such a range of voices possible.
Mogubai’s voice is, by comparison, almost girlish. But the girlish timbre, you realise in a few minutes, belongs to a singer no less masterful than Kesarbai. In one regard she is unique, not only in her gharana but in Hindustani classical vocal music: her adventurousness in, and grasp of, laya, and her interest in singing almost-unheard-of matras. The 15-beat cycle to which this composition in Bageshri is set is an example.
Listen, too, to how the unexpected bursts of fast taans towards the end of this brief Jaijaiwanti traverse the 10 beats of the jhaptaal composition.
Whatever the reasons for Mogubai’s recordings not being as widely heard as they should be, there’s also the matter of the artist’s own proclivities governing their relationship to the world. Every singer wants to be heard – but who do they want to be heard by? A large audience, a group of cognoscenti, their guru, themselves?
For every singer must listen to themselves, and be at once absorbed and surprised by themselves, when they sing. Or is it someone else they sing for, who doesn’t, or don’t, fall into any of the categories I’ve mentioned? There’s no consensus about the impetus that sustains a lifetime of practise and performance.
I was moved when I saw Kishori Amonkar, in a long interview from the ’70s, saying that her mother had cautioned her, when she was in great demand, to not perform more than twice a month. “When will you do your riyaaz otherwise?” Mogubai had asked.
In this observation lies a key to both her perfectionism and self-containment. She must have welcomed performing in public, but she needed to pursue music itself even more. Riyaaz was her primary focus. The discipline of the art preoccupies certain artists more than the quest for an audience. What we’re hearing when we listen to Mogubai is not so much a performance as it is, I suspect, the cultivation of a form.
Amit Chaudhuri is a writer, a Hindustani classical vocalist, and a composer of crossover music. Listen to his music here.