Remembering Kishori Amonkar: ‘She was loved for her music and feared for her unpredictable moods’

Veteran vocalist Kishori Amonkar who passed away in Mumbai on Monday represented a legacy of classical music that underpinned India’s syncretic evolution while defying its ascendant narrow interpretation. She was 84.

Born on April 10, 1932 to Madhavdas Bhatiya and legendary vocalist Mogubai Kurdikar, Ms Amonkar was loved for her music and feared for her unpredictable moods, not unusual for the more established stalwarts who ruled the musical firmament as gods. South Indian flutist T.R. Mahalingam would sit with contemplation before an expectant audience and go away without playing a note.

Ms Amonkar would often begin her concerts by giving an earful to the erring organiser if luck so chose.

Several strands of Indian culture blended in her music. One of her more popular compositions was a bhajan to Lord Krishna. Mharo pranam in Raag Yaman borrowed its dialects from Rajasthan and the Brij region of western Uttar Pradesh, not an easy ask given Ms Amonkar’s Konkani and Marathi moorings. She also broke from tradition by singing for a movie despite disapproval from her purist mother.

She made a concession here, however, performing the love song within the framework of classical music. ‘Geet gaya pattharon ne’ was as a good a composition in Raag Durga as any in the lighter genre of Indian classical music.

The idea of a supreme power that removes obstacles or difficulties in one’s path is incarnated in different cultures with equal devotion. There is a concept of mushkil kusha among many Muslims. In Uttar Pradesh this takes the form of monkey god Hanuman.

He is regarded as sankat mochan, which nearly means the same thing as mushkil kusha or remover of obstacles. In Ms Amonkar’s own region of Maharashtra, Lord Ganesh or Ganpati is worshipped as vighna haran, which again is another variant of sankat mochan.

Ms Amonkar’s rendition of Raag Hansadhwani, delicately adapted from the Carnatic family, weaves magic with an invocation to Lord Ganesh: Ganapati vighanharan, gajaanan.

Having said that, her musical school, the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, was founded by Ustad Alladiya Khan, a Muslim. The Khan sahib who wore a dhoti and a Maharashtrian headgear, taught many musicians in the genre of Marathi natya sangeet.

His great contemporary Ustad Karim Khan, originally from Kirana in Punjab, also sang Marathi songs and taught his illustrious children and disciples the complex art of singing in Marathi musicals together with the grammar of khayal.

Ms Amonkar’s mother, Mogubai Kurdikar, was one of the more groomed disciples of Ustad Alladiya Khan. As a contemporary of the formidable Kesarbai Kerkar in Alladiya Khan’s school, Mogubai inherited a rare musical repertoire, which she passed on to her daughter.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed grief on Ms Amonkar’s death. “Demise of Kishori Amonkar is an irreparable loss to Indian classical music. Deeply pained by her demise. May her soul rest in peace,” he tweeted.

He also posted a link to a documentary film on Kishori Amonkar, Bhinna Shadja, with the caption, ‘The works of Kishori Amonkar will always remain popular among people for years to come.’

In the prime minister’s praise of the musician’s art there was an unspoken and possibly unwitting acknowledgement that Indian music, including the genre represented by Ms Amonkar, punctures the false if ascendant belief that Indian culture is circumscribed by any single religion or province.

Ms Amonkar will be sorely missed for her singing prowess and for the occasional attitude.

Above all, however, Ms Amonkar will be remembered for carefully and faithfully transmitting her syncretic legacy to a new generation of singers she has groomed, who must confront the challenging times that Indian music’s enviable legacy now faces.

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