Manjiri Asanare Kelkar was firmly on home turf as she took the stage at the 85th Abdul Karim Khan Punyatithi Samaroh in Miraj in April. It was well past midnight, but as she made her way to the creaky, makeshift podium erected in front of the arched entrance to the dargah, the central courtyard and the elevated porticoes on either side of the venue quickly filled up with people.

In the audience were beggars, fakirs, families of the sitar makers that Miraj in Maharashtra is famous for, locals from the mohalla outside the dargah as well as some of the town’s elite. Behind this baithak, Hindu and Muslim worshippers sought blessings at the shrine of Hazarat Meerasaheb and his son Hazarat Shamsuddin Hussein. The area was bathed in the soft fragrance of incense and iridescent with multi-coloured string lights.

The two Sufi saints, it is said, migrated here from Mecca on the command of Allah. And every year, lakhs of people from across faiths visit the shrine to celebrate Urs or martyrdom day. Coinciding with these festivities, a three-day all-night music festival has been held in the dargah’s confines for the last 85 years in memory of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, the great doyen of the Kirana gharana. The ustad was cured of a grievous ailment on these hallowed grounds and lies buried in the cemetery behind.

Kelkar, like many greats over the decades from Bhimsen Joshi to Gangubai Hangal, had come to pay tribute to Abdul Karim Khan’s legacy. “I was born and brought up in nearby Sangli, so singing in Miraj and particularly at Khansahib’s punyatithi is a special blessing,” said Kelkar. “I can feel his musical vibrations here.”

Though her audience was quite unlike the genteel concert-goers of big cities that she is accustomed to, they were mesmerised by her voice. Kelkar followed Venkatesh Kumar, whose robust rendition of raag Bihag resonated long after he had finished. But despite his captivating performance, the fact that Kelkar could hold listeners in her grip with a delicate and thoughtfully delineated Bhinna Shadja was a testament to the sincere appeal of her music, and the reason why she is arguably one of the leading female vocalists in the country today.

Play
darbarfestival/YouTube.

Training days

Kelkar, 48, who is also a trained Kathak dancer, received her formative music education from CT Mhaiskar, a renowned local teacher. Under his tutelage she solidified her basic foundations of khayal gayaki. But it was Madhusudhan Kanetkar, a revered guru of many and a direct protege of the late Ustad Bhurji Khan, who groomed her in the stylistic intricacies of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana that is known for its jod or compound raags, complex note patterns and emphasis on maintaining a close correspondence between the note and the rhythm.

Kanetkar didn’t entertain dilettantes, but after hearing Kelkar sing at the age of 18, he agreed to teach her on a trial basis for six months. The association would last close to 20 years, during which Kelkar received intense taleem twice a day in the rigours of the guru-shishya parampara.

“He [Kanetkar] was firmly rooted in the Jaipur tradition, but his music was never dry and grammatical,” said Kelkar. “His aesthetic sensibilities were informed by a great many sources, including the likes of Gulubhai Jasdanwala, Master Krishnarao, Gajananbuwa Joshi, Bal Gandharva, Begum Akhtar and others.”

Play
First Edition Arts Channel/YouTube.

By the late ’90s, after only a decade of exhaustive training under Kanetkar, Kelkar emerged on the national concert circuit as a promising young exponent of pure Jaipur gayaki. She earned accolades and national scholarships, and also comparisons with the likes of the legendary Jaipur singer Kesarbai Kerkar. India Today described her voice as one “that spans not merely two octaves, but two centuries”.

But it was to Kelkar’s credit that she didn’t allow the trappings of fame to come in the way of her taleem with Kanetkar, which lasted right until his death in 2007.

“I felt a great void in my life after his passing,” said Kelkar. “For a few years after his death, I continued doing my own riyaz, but felt I had reached a point of saturation in my musical journey. I became acutely aware of my own limitations and knew I needed someone to show me the light. I couldn’t quite think of anyone other than Kishori [Amonkar] tai to give me what I wanted – a deeper, more subliminal understanding of sur, of which tai was a goddess.”

Manjiri Asanare Kelkar performs on the Indian Voices day at the BBC Proms 2009 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on August 16, 2009. Photo credit: Leon Neal/AFP.
Manjiri Asanare Kelkar performs on the Indian Voices day at the BBC Proms 2009 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on August 16, 2009. Photo credit: Leon Neal/AFP.

It was with great trepidation in 2014 that she mustered the courage to call Amonkar, who in her signature sardonic manner asked Kelkar why she had thought of coming to her so late in life. “I told her I missed my guru very much,” Kelkar recollected. “That was enough. She instantly asked me to visit her the next day.”

Amonkar had always admired Kanetkar’s depth of knowledge about his gharana. She would never tire of telling Kelkar that it was her responsibility to keep the flag of Jaipur flying. “‘Never leave your gharana, your guru has given you a lot,’ she would tell me,” said Kelkar. “She had even clandestinely sneaked into one of my concerts in Bhopal in the dark and told me how much she had liked what she heard of my singing.”

While the fact that Amonkar had taken such keen interest in her progress might have been some reason for solace for Kelkar, starting afresh as a student in her mid-40s when she already had a flourishing concert career going, was no easy feat.

Play
Omkar Parab/YouTube.

She would take an early morning train from Nashik to Mumbai every Saturday and spend the weekend immersed in taleem with four to five other senior disciples of Amonkar. Pedagogically, it was a balancing act that involved learning and unlearning. Kanetkar and Amonkar came from two diametrically different streams of thought. While the former was a strict adherent of the gharana discipline, the latter was a rebel who always sought to transcend established boundaries.

“I had to go there with a clean slate,” said Kelkar. “It was very difficult initially to grasp the flight of her ideas and her sweeping intelligence. But she’d gently ask me everyday: ‘Manjiri, are you getting what you want from me?’”

Learning curve

Unfortunately Kelkar could train for barely for two and a half years under Amonkar’s stewardship. Her taleem was cut short by the latter’s unexpected demise in April 2017. But in this brief period, she developed new dimensions to her craft: from a minute understanding of how to intonate words for effect, to techniques of unfolding a raag creatively rather than just grammatically.

Play
First Edition Arts Channel/YouTube.

“Tai [Amonkar] was adamant about not playing around with the structure of compound Jaipur specialties, such as Kukubh Bilawal or Dagori,” said Kelkar.“But with expansive raags such as Yaman, she’d give me one phrase – sa, ni, dha, ni, re, sa for instance – and ask me to exhaust it with a hundred different permutations and combinations. She said this gradual flowering of a raag was how you coaxed the swaras to begin revealing themselves to you.”

Sharing the podium with Amonkar as an accompanist was also an invaluable learning curve. Unlike Kanetkar, who wasn’t a performing artist, Amonkar was an imposing persona when she appeared on the concert stage. From her meditative posture and meticulous tuning of the instruments to the process of deciding which raag to present on what occasion, there was great thought applied to every action. “Compromise, I learnt, wasn’t an option,” said Kelkar.

At a personal level too, there were revelations. Amonkar defied her public persona as an imperious, temperamental genius who functioned at her own whim, to reveal a generous, more loving side to Kelkar.

Play
ASIAN MUSIC CIRCUIT/YouTube.

“She would stay up till 12.30 am in the night on Sunday, waiting for my phone call to inform her that I had reached Nashik safely,” recalled Kelkar. “She even convinced her neighbour to rent out their empty flat to me over the weekends, so that I could fully concentrate on music and not waste more time commuting. Which guru does that?”

Kelkar’s gayaki today is an aesthetic amalgam of both her gurus. With a clear, distilled voice, she strikes a rare balance between the scientific, grammatical discipline of her gharana and the emotionally rich, meditative khayal that was the insignia of Amonkar’s music. Despite her abundant talent, it is a shame that she isn’t heard as often as she should be at the big calendar events, which are increasingly held captive by a close coterie of superstar performers, dishing out mediocre stuff.

But then, Kelkar isn’t greatly enticed by popularity or fame. “I have confidence in the strength of my music, and the fact that someday it will reach more people,” she said. “My focus remains solely on continuously improving my craft. In this infinite ocean, the quest for knowledge never ceases.”

Also read: The legend of Baiju Bawra: Was there ever a musician who could melt marble with his singular voice?

What made Kishori Amonkar’s music sublime, complex and radical? Her foremost disciple explains