Kishori Amonkar (born: 1931) is by far the most influential female Hindustani vocalist to emerge in independent India. She is the daughter and disciple of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana stalwart, Mogubai Kurdikar, but acquires her stature from her originality as an interpreter of the gharana’s musical wisdom. She jettisoned the classicism of her gharana’s style in favor of a marked romanticism, braved criticism from conservative opinion and triumphed. As a result, her revisionist style has now come to signify Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism, while its orthodox stream drifts towards history.
Kishori is not only a formidable musician, but also the chief ideologue of the romanticist movement -- by the power of her intellect, erudition, and excellent articulation in at least three languages, including English. She is, incidentally, known to possess one of the finest private libraries on musicology and aesthetics. She holds audiences spellbound at seminars and conferences, as much as she does on the concert platform.
Kishori Amonkar has been decorated with awards befitting her stature by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the President of India.
Romanticism in Hindustani vocalism
The first half of the 20th century saw the beginnings of romanticism, especially with Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (1897-1967), whose romanticism was not categorical. As a significant movement in Hindustani music, romanticism is essentially a post-independence phenomenon. Romanticism is happy to function within the limitations of the subject, while classicism attempts to transcend it. In classical music, it signifies a preference for explicitly endearing and evocative expression, along with relative indifference to the structural aspects of music. Classicism is characterized by an aloofness which “passively” elicits a response from audiences, while romanticism adopts an intimacy which actively solicits it.
The emergence of romanticism in khayal vocalism was “logical” when it happened. By the 1950s, the specialist singers of the Benares thumree – the original romanticist genre – had almost disappeared from the scene. Khayal singers tried to satisfy the audience need for emotionally rich music by adding thumrees to their repertoire. At the same time, ghazal singers also began enriching the melodic content of their poetry-dominant romanticist genre in an effort to fill the vacuum. These trends shaped sterling individual contributions to the art of the thumree by khayal singers like Bade Gulam Ali Khan, and to the art of the ghazal by the likes of Begum Akhtar and later Mehdi Hassan. But, as a category, neither the khayal-style thumree, nor the thumree-style ghazal could fill the void created by the disappearance of the authentic Benares thumree.
The cultural environment was apparently amenable to vocalists with the courage to attempt something bolder. At such a time, the movement pushing the khayal into the thumree territory was triggered off by musicians who had the romanticist temperament, and the courage to carve out a new artistic path. Kishori Amonkar is amongst the rebels against the formal aloofness of the khayal, who gave romanticism a respectable place in Hindustani music. The other two, who did so successfully at about the same time (1970s) were Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), and Jasraj (Born: 1930). Interestingly, all these pioneers of the romanticist khayal have been deeply involved with devotional music – an explicitly emotional genre – and none of them has shown any particular interest in the thumree, whose methods of musical expression they have incorporated into the khayal.
Childhood and grooming
While continuing to learn music, Kishori went through a normal childhood in formal education. She was a brilliant student, and was preparing for a career in medicine. She studied up to Intermediate Science at Jaihind College in Bombay, when an illness prevented her from taking her final examinations. Thereafter, she did not challenge destiny.
She tried her hand at playback singing with V Shantaram’s film, Geet Gaya Pattharon Ne. This turned out to be a dead-end street. Painful as the aborted bid must have been, neither Kishori Amonkar, nor Indian music lovers, are likely to regret it in retrospect.
Mogubai wanted Kishori to have a wider exposure to vocalist styles, and had her trained by several other musicians. Kishori thus studied, for various terms, with Anwar Hussain Khan of Agra gharana, Anjanibai Malpekar of Bhendi Bazar gharana, Sharadchandra Arolkar of Gwalior gharana, and Mohanrao Palekar. Balkrishnabuwa Parwatkar, the stalwart of Goa, also apparently had a profound influence on the flowering of her musicianship.
When Kishori was about 25, she almost lost her voice. Neither modern medicine, nor traditional therapies helped. When she was losing all hope, Sardeshmukh Maharaj, a saint from Pune, promised to restore her voice. It took two years of treatment to achieve success. During these years, she had the time, and the loneliness, to reflect on life and her music and crystallize the emergence of a new musical personality. Since then, Sardeshmukh Maharaj has been her spiritual mentor, from who she has also acquired considerable knowledge of Ayurveda and astrology.
Kishori’s original style surfaced towards the end of the 1960s. From 1970, she ascended steadily to the top of the league of vocalists.
Commentators have often verged on poetry while describing Kishori Amonkar’s voice, and for good reason. Her voice has been described as piercing, hypnotic, mellifluous, full of painful melancholy, soul-searching, and as a beautiful amalgam of spirituality and worldly realism. Kishori’s is, in fact, an emotionally expressive and musically correct voice, ideally suited to the contemporary acoustic environment governed by electronic amplification and sound processing.
Kishori has made a departure from the elitist repertoire typical of orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalists. While she may occasionally perform a rare raga like Khem, or complex raga-s like Basanti-Kedar, Khat, Adana-Malhar and Sampoorna Malkauns, the core of her music revolves around common and mature raga-s, which provide vast scope for improvisation. Not surprisingly, her interpretation of even the commonest raga-s can often be controversial. In tune with current trends, she has adopted raga-s like Hansadhwani, imported from the Carnatic tradition. This departure attunes her khayal repertoire to contemporary audiences, and keeps her music accessible.
Like her contemporaries, but unlike her gharana seniors, she has relied substantially on a vast repertoire of Bhajans in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and even Sanskrit, to carve out a special place for herself in the hearts of audiences. She continues her mother’s practice of performing tarana-s, a genre not encountered in orthodox Jaipur-Atrauli vocalism.
Ustad Alladiya Khan, the founder of the gharana’s style, had reportedly to sacrifice an elaborate alap because of the damage his voice suffered, and to keep melodic action focused largely on medium and high density rendition. Kesarbai partially restored the alap to the gharana’s vocalism. Kishori went farther and adopted the alap as the predominant movement of a khayal rendition. Her alap is different from that of any other gharana or musician. It has shed the subtle pulsation of Jaipur-Atrauli alaps, and almost liberated melody from rhythm. It may not always exhibit the sense of structure evident in conventional khayal alap-s but may, instead, project an impressionistic quality that is unique to her.
An important facet of Kishori’s vocalism is the shedding of the aloofness characteristic of the Jaipur-Atrauli style until her arrival. This needs to be understood. She broke away from the subtle, but persistent relationship between melody and rhythm. She smoothened the sharp edges of melody, and made them soft and silky. She shed the austere melodic practices of her seniors, and made her phrasing ornate and endearing. In a sense, she brought into khayal rendition a melodic approach that was hitherto considered appropriate in the thumree, and popular genres. In this process, she might even have changed the established character of a raga, and invited controversy. This is, of course, the essence of romanticism.
It was natural that a musician with so radical a vision should be dissatisfied with traditional pre-composed material (bandish-es) as a vehicle for her music. When she has performed traditional khayal bandish-es, she has interpreted them individualistically. But, she has also composed a large number of bandish-es which reflect her own interpretation of a raga, and her own melodic sensibility.
Kishori’s departure from her gharana’s stylistic orientations has been significant enough to be considered the launch of a new gharana. However, most commentators have confirmed her own position -- that her music emanates from the accumulated musical wisdom of Jaipur-Atrauli. They have also compared her to Bhimsen Joshi who, despite his revisionism, is considered an exponent of Kairana vocalism. Despite dissenters, and by the majority of informed opinion, Kishori is considered an exponent of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana. The debate is, however, futile once we accept that Kishori Amonkar has virtually become a fountainhead of a new gharana.
An important feature of her music -- which partly explains her awesome influence -- is her fastidious organisation of musical material. She is one of the very few vocalists who sings her alap-s in four distinct phases -- sthayi, antara, sanchari and abhog. All improvisatory movements are neatly in their place with never a blurred separation between them. This feature of her music imparts an unusual transparency to her aesthetic intent.
She has personally groomed two generations of competent disciples in her idiom. But, more significantly, her music is the primary inspiration for literally thousands of female vocalists who have studied it through her concerts, recordings and broadcasts. The scale on which she has influenced female vocalism of the post-independence generation is matched only by the following Ustad Ameer Khan (1912-1974) commands amongst today’s male vocalists.
In the case of Kishori as well as Ameer Khan, the key to their musicianship is the music making “process” that shapes the musical “product”. In today’s environment, the vast majority of their followers have access only to their “product”, and none to the “process”. It may be a sad commentary on the present-day musical culture that two of the most original vocalists of the 20th century are represented – frequently mimicked and occasionally even caricatured – largely by unoriginal vocalists.
Or is this lament entirely out of place, because stars like these are destined to shine forever in their solitary glory, with no satellite capable of reflecting their light?
(c) Deepak S. Raja 2011
“I believe in the Guru-Shishya parampara. I don’t believe in learning from texts or cassettes. Students now-a-days learn dead music. Learning from a Guru is live learning. It is learning with a soul. It is a give-and-take of souls. Our music is the fifth Veda. The Vedas teach you Bramha Vidya. You cannot learn that from a machine. If you go on contemplating and meditating upon the divine art, I am sure you will achieve the ultimate destination in your music – which is bramhan. I am trying to reach that… I want to gain moksha with my music. I will do anything to reach there in this life. I don’t want to be born again to do that.” (Interview with Lakshmi Viswanathan. www.hinduonnet.com/folio. December 03, 2000)
“We have given an entertainment value to music. Singing is different, practicing is different, performing is different. These are three different aspects of music. I give importance to singing. What is singing after all? It is talking to your soul. It is an inside communication with (who) you are. When performing, trying to throw (it) out, naturally it will diminish in value.” (Interview with Lakshmi Viswanathan. www.hinduonnet.com/folio. December 03, 2000)
“Music is not just about words and beats. It is also about the emotion behind the rendition. Words turn into music when emotions are woven into them. And, the notes – not just the basic seven, but the hundreds of other mini and micro-notes help to bring out the soul of a music composition”. (Source: Bhaskar Gupta. www.allaboutjazz.com)
“To express music faithfully, you have to be very intense. Unless you are intense within, you cannot perceive the feeling clearly. And, if you cannot perceive the abstract existence of a particular feeling, you will not be able to color the notes with that exact feeling… Every intensity has a very small space; a laser sharp focus It gets compressed and comes to a point where nothing but the truth remains. Art becomes simplified and condensed with the intensity of feeling. The beginning is not art, nor is the end – it is the thread linking the two that emerges as art, whether on canvas, or in stone… I ask my students to concentrate on the notes; practice on one note for hours together. It is like meditation; only instead of a mantra, you have a note. Unless you sing a note correctly, you cannot fathom its nature… In our shastras it is stated that every note has its own fragrance, color, form, and character. It has a home it originates from, and an abode as its final destination. The ancients had a high meditative level and they concentrated on a subject with single minded purpose. But, now the music that is taught is to produce public performers”. (From a seminar paper. Quoted from: The Great Masters: Mohan Nadkarni).
“Formerly, my mehfil performance tacitly accepted the tonal picture enshrined in the traditional framework. But, after some time, I realized that listeners are more fond of music which touches their hearts than intellectually satisfying music. As I began to pursue tonal purity assiduously, I was also able to look at the entire world of tonality more closely… I surrendered myself completely to swara, not to the “swara chitra (melodic picture or design)… When one dives deep into the swara, one’s artistic presentation becomes more rounded, deeper and simultaneously, one’s egoism also begins to wane. Then, the quantity or frequency of ornamental work on one’s musical presentation automatically declines and with that the music becomes more profound.” (From an essay: “Myself in my own words” and “Music as a Medium”, Rudravani, Diwali issue 1977. quoted from “Between Two Tanpuras” by Vamanrao Deshpande)
“I am a purist, and will always try to remain one, in the sense that I will remain faithful to the feel of a raga. The generalized rules are of great help to beginners and also for the meticulous performer-musicologists. An artist of originality understands and delineates the raga according to his or her genius, which is probably the right thing to do.”( Quoted from: The Great Masters: by Mohan Nadkarni).
“The base of my music is still that of the Jaipur gharana. Jaipur gharana is like a mother to me. I may have given up some of the special features of that tradition, for instance, I have incorporated alapachari which that tradition does not recognize, and which is divorced from rhythm or I may have discarded the identity between laya and swara; but take away the Jaipur base from my music, and see how it collapses” (Interview given to Vinay Dhumale: Manus, Diwali, 1977 issue, quoted from “Between Two Tanpuras” by Vamanrao Deshpande)