Why Rabindranath Tagore bestowed the title Surashri on Kesarbai Kerkar

The Nobel laureate described Kerkar’s music as ‘an artistic phenomenon of exquisite perfection’.

The story of Kesarbai Kerkar’s musical career goes back to the closing years of the 19th century. It begins in Goa, in that small patch of green on the Western coast of our country, which has provided so much of the musical talent of the land.

Kerkar was born in Keri, a village in Goa, on July 13, 1892, in a family of moderate means. The family’s only source of livelihood was musical performances. This circumstance compelled the child to begin her studies of music at an early age. Her family soon recognised her inborn talent. Four or five miles away from her village, there was the hamlet of Lamgaon, quite close to Dicholi, and the family learnt that Ramkrishna Bua Vaze had taken up residence in this village. Kerkar took her first lessons in classical music from this teacher, and the training continued with system and regularity for nearly two years. But her teacher’s musical assignments entailed frequent travel and her training began to be interrupted.

A little later, Vaze left the village to take up another teaching assignment and Kerkar’s training came to an abrupt end. She was perplexed and sorely disappointed. The family decided to take a trip to Bombay and, in 1908, they arrived to consult friends and relatives and arrange for a teacher in classical music for her. Thus began her period of training with Barkatullah Khan (Sitariya). It lasted five years, but once again history repeated itself, and Khan was invited to Patiala to take up a permanent post there.


An interrupted training

Kerkar wasted a year waiting for Khan to return. Finally she decided to turn to another teacher. Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale agreed to train her. But there were long spells when he had to be away in Poona, and her training was often interrupted by his frequent absence. This training, too, ended in a year’s time. Kerkar then decided to do her utmost to persuade Alladiya Khan to accept her as a pupil. It was a difficult task to accomplish. He was then at the durbar of Kolhapur. Kerkar sought the help of Shahu Maharaj: she begged him to intervene on her behalf and convince Alladiya Khan to teach her. Shahu Maharaj was sceptical. “You are asking for too much. It is like being tied to an elephant. How will you manage to cope with the burden?” But Kerkar was adamant and Maharaj granted Khan permission to instruct her in music. But the battle was still far from won. Khan himself was unenthusiastic, and it was the plea of one of his most intimate friends that persuaded him to accept Kerkar as a pupil. That day was a great event in her life. It was the harbinger of her future success.


Khan was an exacting teacher, a stern disciplinarian. Kerkar had to practise for eight hours every day in his presence, four hours in the morning and four in the evening. This schedule of work continued unremittingly for 11 years. When he was engrossed in instructing her, he lost track of time, and the practice sessions continued long beyond the appointed hours. Later on, owing to his failing heath, they reduced the load of their working hours but his interest in the quality of her work, in the perfection of accomplishment, was unflagging. He continued to teach her for a full 27 years, right till his death in 1946.


The praise of poets

Of the many important performances Kerkar has given, she most treasured the memory of a recital she gave at the residence of Rabindranath Tagore in Calcutta in 1938. The poet was so moved by her music that he conveyed to her in a letter written in his own hand the effect her beautiful music had on him. He described her music as “an artistic phenomenon of exquisite perfection”. He said, “The magic of her voice with the mystery of its varied modulations has repeatedly proved its true significance – not in any pedantic display of technical subtleties that are mechanically accurate, but in the revelation of music only possible for a born genius. Let me offer my thanks and my blessings to Kesarbai for allowing me this evening a precious opportunity of experience.”

This miracle of music was not a mere play of chance. Kerkar laid no great store by luck or coincidence. She attributed her success to the sympathy and support she received from a wealthy music lover of Bombay, to the infinite pains that Khan took to impart musical knowledge to her, and finally to her own devotion to him, her ceaseless efforts to be a worthy pupil of the great master. Kerkar’s single-minded devotion to music was remarkable. She steadfastly fought to keep her art free from every type of contamination, every temptation which would bring down standards. She preferred aloofness like that of a yogini who desires an unattainable goal. The severity of her penance was sometimes misunderstood. Her exactitude was a personal sacrifice which was necessary to preserve the beauty of her art with all its majesty and grandeur. She tried to go beyond the normal range of perfection. And she was able to touch the mystic chord.


In January 1969, the president of India honoured her with the title of Padma Bhushan as recognition of her significant contribution to classical music. In 1953, the Sangeet Natak Akademi had honoured her with the President’s Award. But the tribute she cherished most was the title of “Surashri” that Tagore bestowed on her in 1938. It was a fitting reward for the arduous toil that went into the making of her music. Lovers of music all over India referred to Kerkar as “the yogini of music”, and it is thus that she will be remembered forever.

This article first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.

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