Classical vocalist Kishori Amonkar is known to speak her mind on Hindi film music. In a 2014 interview, she called it a nuisance. “Film music has now become only rhythmic noise,” she said.
Born on April 10, 1932, in Mumbai, Amonkar received her first lessons in classical music from Anjani Malpekar, from the Bhendibazaar gharana, and her mother Mogubai Kurdikar, a heavyweight maestro of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana. Amonkar’s training was in khayal songs set in traditional raags. Bhajans and thumris were her forte.
Kurdikar reacted strongly when Amonkar declared her intention to sing the title track for V Shantaram’s Geet Gaya Patharon Ne in 1964. Kurdikar warned Amonkar never to touch her tanpuras again if she opted for playback singing.
Amonkar went ahead and sang the solo Geet Gaya Patharon Ne, written by lyricist Hasrat Jaipuri and composed by Ramlal. The track had shades of raag Durga, and Amonkar had to blend her knowledge of swar bhaasha (musical notes) with shabd bhaasha (lyrical notes). Despite the track’s popularity, Amonkar decided to snap ties with film music.
Amonkar did return to playback singing 26 years later, for Govind Nihalani’s Drishti (1990). The film dealt with marital discord and featured Dimple Kapadia and Shekhar Kapur as the troubled couple. Irrfan appeared as a young, classical singer in one of his earliest roles. Amonkar agreed to sing for Drishti because she was allowed to compose the tunes.
Drishti proved to be a challenge for Amonkar. She had to find a synthesis between the Jaipur gharana’s inflexible musical style of rhythm, ornamentation and structure – all of which are in actuality free-flowing, depending on a performer’s improvisational skills – and blend these elements within a film score that is time-bound.
Amonkar sang Ek Hi Sang, written by Vasant Dev and composed in raag Bhopali. It has notes similar to Jyoti Kalash Chalke (Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan, 1961), based on raag Deshkar. Amonkar sings the lyrics, “Ek hi sang hote jo hum tum, kaahe bithura” (We should have been together, why this grief?), giving voice to the film’s central theme. Her striking alaaps and cadence are deeply reflective of the rasas (emotions) that embellish her performance.
Meha Jhar Jhar Barsat Re is composed in the style of raag Malhar, punctuated by exquisite alaaps celebrating the arrival of the monsoon. Drishti features a number of alaap tracks recorded in Amonkar’s voice and used in the background. One such prologue featured in a lovemaking scene, infuriating Kurdikar. Amonkar has not returned to film music since.