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Kishori Amonkar: The last Hindustani Prima Donna

Gloriously individualistic and intensely private, classical music legend Amonkar was the last of a dying breed

A file photo of Hindustani vocalist Kishori Amonkar. Photo: Hindustan Times
A file photo of Hindustani vocalist Kishori Amonkar. Photo: Hindustan Times

On the night of 3 April, Hindustani vocalist Kishori Amonkar passed away in her sleep in her Prabhadevi home. The classical music world has responded with sadness to the news of her demise, at 84.

Kishori, hailed as the high priestess of melody and rhythm, had a long, illustrious musical career. Born in 1931 to the Hindustani veteran vocalist Mogubai Kurdikar, her training in music began early. Mogubai was one of the prime disciples of Ustad Alladiya Khan, the founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana and she was reputed for adhering to the strict musical patterns prescribed in her gharana. But Kishori, her daughter, was an avant-gardist in her approach. The only other musician who could possibly fit into that category was Pt Kumar Gandharva, who was many years her senior, both in age and his music.

Kishori dared to make music her own. In the prime of her career, she was accused of deviating from the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana style of singing. The fact is, the various gurus she learnt from inspired her. There was Ustad Anwar Hussein Khan of Agra, who taught her early in her career. Then there were others such as Anjanaibai Malpekar, Sharadchandra Alorkar and Mohanrao Palekar. She also acknowledged the veteran Balakrishnabuva Parvatkar, from her native village in Goa. It was foolish of the world, she said, to assume her music should be of one style or temperament. In many later interviews, she said that while the basic structure of her music remains the Jaipur-Atrauli style, she did incorporate other elements.

Among her peers, she was the quintessential prima donna. Her male contemporaries found themselves falling short of her musical expression. The only vocalist who could match her musical virtuosity was the Carnatic legend Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishna and both performed several top quality jugalbandis. Among women of her age, Kishori was an unparalleled genius.

Kishori was also a deeply devout and spiritual person, which was reflected in the music she made. Her devotion to Guru Raghavendra, the Madhwa saint of Mantralayam in Karnataka, led her to record an album, Shri Raghavendra Baaro (2007), as an offering. Her Marathi abhangs — songs of the saints of Maharashtra — were very popular with her audiences. Her rendering of Meera bhajans had an unsurpassably emotional quality. Though she recorded it over 40 years ago, you can still hear her Mharo Pranam Banke Bihariji wafting around in the air in the lanes of Vrindavan and Mathura. Kishori’s music was captivating because of the extraordinary gentleness with which she handled the notes. Few would know that she also sang in V. Shantaram’s 1964 drama film, Geet Gaya Patharon Ne.

Known to be a diva, music festival organizers often accused her of throwing tantrums, being arrogant and having eccentric mood swings. On her part, Kishori always maintained that she was an extremely private person — she kept her public interactions minimal, even with her own fraternity. She believed in a sense of stillness and contemplation to bring about the best in her art. Her music reflected the same meditative mood.

As her age advanced, she became more and more elusive. Her notorious temperament gained a reputation over her divine music, something she was aware of but didn’t care much about. This was also the attitude she had towards all the awards and recognition that came her way. In an age where PR and marketing was becoming important to classical musicians, Kishori held on to old world values with grace and charm.

She led a healthy and disciplined life and performed to packed halls up till a few days before her demise. With the exit of Kishori, we have lost the last of the prima donnas of 20th century Hindustani vocalism.

Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and culture critic.

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