There was a magical unpredictability in Kishori Amonkar’s khayal. It was complex and pulsating, yet profoundly meditative. She abhorred unnecessary displays of virtuosity, and warned those hankering for applause through on-stage gimmickry that they were misusing the medium to excite listeners when, in essence, the role of music was to take them to a place of absolute silence.
For Amonkar, the tonal purity of the sur reigned supreme, and it was her matchless ability to paint its delicate hues, invoking the most fragile microtones, that gave her singing that extraordinary luminosity. So tall were her artistic accomplishments that core raags in the Hindustani pantheon came to be singularly associated with her renditions of them. She immortalised raag Bhoopali for instance, holding music lovers in thrall with her self-composed masterpiece Sahela Re.
What were the triggers that informed this exceptional musical sensibility? How did Amonkar, a pedigreed inheritor of the Jaipur-Atrauli lineage, turn into an iconoclast and break new ground with her fiercely original thought?
Since her death in 2017, much has been written about the life and artistry of Kishori tai, as she was fondly called. But the majority of it either concerns her famously mercurial persona, or is overrun with superlatives about her unrivalled musical brilliance. When Amonkar herself spoke about her craft – on the rare occasion that she did – it was in such esoteric terms that people were caught off guard by the abstractions.
It was this sketchy nature of musicological insight into arguably one of India’s greatest female vocalists that prompted Arun Dravid, Amonkar’s foremost disciple, to embark on the journey of clinically deconstructing his guru’s music for scores of serious aficionados two years ago. In January, he held what was perhaps the last of his lecture-demonstrations at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai, a studiously curated three-hour presentation, in which he elaborately explored the multiple facets of Amonkar’s gayaki, and her artistic evolution over a performing career that spanned more than six decades.
Dravid, 75, began learning under Amonkar in the early sixties when she had just started performing publicly. He continued to do so intermittently till the early 2000s, by which time Amonkar had emerged as the reigning diva of the Hindustani classical stage. Dravid, who was a gold medallist at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, had also risen up the ranks in an illustrious corporate career and would retire as chairman of the India operations of Jacobs Engineering.
His long, intimate association with Amonkar’s music through the early period and the younger generation’s lack of familiarity with it in the formative years is what prompted Dravid to conceive the series. He wanted to put the spotlight on the first half of Amonkar’s career to set the context for her later motivations as an avant-garde radical.
“I divide her musical life essentially into two broad segments – from 1960 to 1985 and 1985 to 2017,” Dravid told Scroll.in. It was roughly in the mid-’80s when Amonkar’s music went through a phase of change, when “she began departing from the rigid discipline of the Jaipur gharana, and remoulded her style to give it a distinctly more emotive flavour.”
The Jaipur school of singing had come into being in the early half of the 20th century as a result of the voice limitations of its founder Ustad Alladiya Khan. He was unable to handle extensive melodic elaborations due to a physical disability acquired at a royal court. This prompted him to formulate a more compact style of presentation, which was marked by several distinct characteristics. They included a one-to-one correspondence between the note and the rhythm; a faster pace of improvisation; the practice of singing the shuddha aakar, or a natural non-compressed aaa; and intricate patterns of taans, orrapid melodic phrases. As a result of its wide repertoire of compound raags and highly intellectualised form of presentation, Jaipur gayaki was soon highly regarded by musicians.
“But somewhere along the way its emotive content dried up a little,” said Dravid. “The appeal of hitting the heart with the note was subdued, and the biggest contribution Kishori tai made in her later years was to fill that void. She didn’t fully leave the gharana, its basic grammar always remained visible in her expositions, but her focus began shifting emphatically on discovering the swara and its true nature. She was a born aesthete, but became an even more ardent devotee of aesthetics in music.”
This transition was a result of her obsessive quest in the 1980s to uncover the deeper dimensions of North India’s primordial musical tradition. She began studying in great depth ancient Sanskrit treatises on music, such as the Bharat Natyashastra and Sangeet Ratnakar, meditating over the precise microtonal position of a shruti, or note, and its relationship with the mood of a particular raag.
“It was her ruminations on these most subtle nuances, often difficult even for trained musicians to discern, let alone concert audiences, which gave her music the power to move people to tears, without them understanding why it was happening to them,” said Dravid. “She actively sought out insights that would’ve eluded her had she remained confined to the rigid stylistic impositions of a particular lineage.”
Dravid illustrated his point about the shrutis in his presentation by playing Amonkar’s rendition of raag Kaunsi Kanada, a late night jod-raag, which amalgamated the melodic framework of raag Malkauns on the way up and Darbari Kanada on the way down. Both of them incorporated the flat 3rd (ga) and flat 7th (ni) in their structure, but with a slight variation in their frequencies. The accurate interpretation of Kaunsi Kanada thus required a musician to show four mildly different shades of the two notes. Only an artist of Amonkar’s dexterity could do that, and consistently so, through a 40-50 minute performance.
Amonkar’s obsession with the accuracy of the shrutis may also have been a fundamental reason why the tempo of her music slowed down in later years, says Dravid. “She felt the real rasa of a raag was hidden in the shrutis. It could not be drawn out by singing electrifying taans. It required a gentle caressing of the notes to come out.”
In fact, in her later years, Amonkar almost began to brush aside the taans, which were such an integral ornamental insignia of her gharana. Her presentation became heavily tilted towards the smooth, steady elaboration of the alap, the gradual technique of improvisation in the slow tempo. She also largely chose to perform the established paramparik raags on the concert circuit, rather than the packaged Jaipur specialties that wove the rhythm and notes more categorically into one another.
“When she did perform the Jaipur varieties, such as the various Nats and Kanadas, she didn’t change their character,” said Dravid. “A clear mark of the gharana discipline was retained, but she brought a degree of subtlety to them.”
This wasn’t the case, though, with the conventional melodies. Much to the horror of purists, she rebelled against what were considered sacrosanct grammatical raag frameworks to take slight deviations ever so often. Dravid played two distinct examples of this – Shuddh Kalyan, in which she added a touch of the augmented ma and ni in the ascent and Bageshri, where she applied a pa that was commonly omitted.
“She was bold and defiant, and determined to explore beauty in every way possible,” said Dravid. “Her argument was that if the splendour of a raag could be enhanced by going just a little outside the established perimeter, she would do it. She didn’t care for the detractors, as long as her listeners found utter joy in what she was creating. Her genius lay in understanding just the extent to which she could breach the convention, without destroying the soul of a raag.”
Amonkar also paid special attention in her later years to understanding raag bhaav. This, she said, came not merely from repeating its trademark phrases or chalan, but by ensuring that the meaning of the words in a bandish, which most consider incidental to classical khayal presentation, matched the mood of the melody. She was also very particular about the enunciation of words and created several of her own bandishes or changed words in the existing ones because they didn’t correspond with the overall disposition of the raag.
Dravid meticulously illustrated these finer nuances by playing out spliced up recordings of Amonkar’s creations, and the raags that she had composed, such as Barwa Malhar, Sawan Gandhar, Nandashree and Lailt Bibhas. He also played her Maru Bihag, a common raag in the concert repertory, which Amonkar sang only twice in public because she admitted it hadn’t yet ripened to her, and Durga, which she never performed publicly despite having composed a bandish in it. While the clips provided valuable support in illustrating the talk, it would have helped to juxtapose older and newer versions of the same composition to highlight her stylistic evolution in the later years.
Nonetheless, the presentation revealed several new dimensions about Amonkar’s music. It was also richly peppered with anecdotes, such as one about how Amonkar would compose only the first two lines of a bandish before becoming impatient with the process. It was then left to Dravid to finish off the antara. The biggest challenge for him was in matching the words with the mood of the sthayi.
Dravid has painstakingly recorded and preserved several of Amonkar’s public performances since the 1960s. Amonkar fiercely guarded her recordings from commercial interests, for fear of being shortchanged, and had entrusted them to Dravid. As a result, he has a treasure trove of vintage Kishori recordings of around 100 seven-inch reels and about 100 audio cassettes. He played excerpts from this stash during the presentation, after having digitised it into a catalogued archive.
“What’s floating around on YouTube are mostly recordings from the last 20 years,” said Dravid. “What I possess is pristine music from her heyday. But at some point I will have to donate it to a large, dependable organisation like NCPA, or the ITC-Sangeet Research Academy to safeguard for posterity. But the big question is: how do we make it available to as many future generation music lovers as possible?”
Given the legal tangles that others who put her recordings online have got into in the past, Dravid is wary of doing the same. But he has handed over a copy of the entire archive over to Amonkar’s younger son Bibhas, in the hope that it will be officially released by the family for public consumption sooner rather than later.