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.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

The perpetual millennial quest for self-expression just got another boost

Making adulting in the new millennium easier, one step at a time.

Having come of age in the Age of the Internet, millennials had a rocky start to self-expression. Indeed, the internet allowed us to personalise things in unprecedented fashion and we really rose to the occasion. The learning curve to a straightforward email address was a long one, routed through cringeworthy e-mail ids like You know you had one - making a personalised e-mail id was a rite of passage for millennials after all.

Declaring yourself to be cool, a star, a princess or a hunk boy was a given (for how else would the world know?!). Those with eclectic tastes (read: juvenile groupies) would flaunt their artistic preferences with an elitist flair. You could take for granted that and would listen to Bollywood music or read Archie comics only in private. The emo kids, meanwhile, had to learn the hard way that employers probably don’t trust candidates with e-mail ids such as

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

And with chat rooms, early millennials had found a way to communicate, with...interesting results. The oldest crop of millennials (30+ year olds) learnt to deal with the realities of adolescent life hunched behind anonymous accounts, spewing their teenage hormone-laden angst, passion and idealism to other anonymous accounts. Skater_chick could hide her ineptitude for skating behind a convincing username and a skateboard-peddling red-haired avatar, and you could declare your fantasies of world domination, armed with the assurance that no one would take you seriously.

With the rise of blogging, millennial individualism found a way to express itself to millions of people across the world. The verbosity of ‘intellectual’ millennials even shone through in their blog URLs and names. GirlWhoTravels could now opine on her adventures on the road to those who actually cared about such things. The blogger behind could choose to totally ignore petunias and no one would question why. It’s a tradition still being staunchly upheld on Tumblr. You’re not really a Tumblr(er?) if you haven’t been inspired to test your creative limits while crafting your blog URL. Fantasy literature and anime fandoms to pop-culture fanatics and pizza lovers- it’s where people of all leanings go to let their alter ego thrive.

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

Then of course social media became the new front of self-expression on the Internet. Back when social media was too much of a millennial thing for anyone to meddle with, avatars and usernames were a window into your personality and fantasies. Suddenly, it was cool to post emo quotes of Meredith Grey on Facebook and update the world on the picturesque breakfast you had (or not). Twitter upped the pressure by limiting expression to 140 characters (now 280-have you heard?) and the brevity translated to the Twitter handles as well. The trend of sarcasm-and-wit-laden handles is still alive well and has only gotten more sophisticated with time. The blogging platform Medium makes the best of Twitter intellect in longform. It’s here that even businesses have cool account names!

Self-expression on the Internet and the millennials’ love for the personalised and customised has indeed seen an interesting trajectory. Most millennial adolescents of yore though are now grownups, navigating an adulting crisis of mammoth proportions. How to wake up in time for classes, how to keep the boss happy, how to keep from going broke every month, how to deal with the new F-word – Finances! Don’t judge, finances can be stressful at the beginning of a career. Forget investments, loans and debts, even matters of simple money transactions are riddled with scary terms like beneficiaries, NEFT, IMPS, RTGS and more. Then there’s the quadruple checking to make sure you input the correct card, IFSC or account number. If this wasn’t stressful enough, there’s the long wait while the cheque is cleared or the fund transfer is credited. Doesn’t it make you wish there was a simpler way to deal with it all? If life could just be like…

Created using Imgflip
Created using Imgflip

Lo and behold, millennial prayers have been heard! Airtel Payments Bank, India’s first, has now integrated UPI on its digital platform, making banking over the phone easier than ever. Airtel Payments Bank UPI, or Unified Payment Interface, allows you to transfer funds and shop and pay bills instantly to anyone any time without the hassles of inputting any bank details – all through a unique Virtual Payment Address. In true millennial fashion, you can even create your own personalised UPI ID or Virtual Payment Address (VPA) with your name or number- like rhea@airtel or 9990011122@airtel. It’s the smartest, easiest and coolest way to pay, frankly, because you’re going to be the first person to actually make instant, costless payments, rather than claiming to do that and making people wait for hours.

To make life even simpler, with the My Airtel app, you can make digital payments both online and offline (using the Scan and Pay feature that uses a UPI QR code). Imagine, no more running to the ATM at the last minute when you accidentally opt for COD or don’t have exact change to pay for a cab or coffee! Opening an account takes less than three minutes and remembering your VPA requires you to literally remember your own name. Get started with a more customised banking experience here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Airtel Payments Bank and not by the Scroll editorial team.