The several tributes to Kishori Amonkar on her 80th birthday, including the beautiful film made by Amol Palekar titled Bhinna Sadja, show her to be a great musician of emotion.
Everyone agrees on the astonishing beauty of her music, its range of expression, and its meditative quality. Listening to Kishoriji’s Raga Jaunpuri or Bhoop or Todi or Lalit or Deskar is an intense experience, an aesthetic experience that touches the deepest part of our being, the substantial centre of our subjectivity. This is because her music goes beyond rapturous delight.
The idea that music speaks to our spiritual potential and arises from spiritual aspiration and introspection is not new. But in Kishori Amonkarji’s music, the spiritual yearning is inexhaustible. These are the roots of her lyricism. And this is the source of her profound seriousness. With a deep shudder, she asks her interviewer in the documentary Bhinna Sadja, “Do you know the slavery that notes have to suffer at the hands of words?” She asserts that “a serious musician has to be on guard against the bewitchment of words as well as feeling”, be at her most skeptical when she feels that the raga is forcing her to enhance this or that note. Given this carefulness, it is odd that music scholars have criticised her for ‘emotional interpretation’ of ragas. Her originality, or rather the force of her askance individualism, comes from an intermingling of both the certainty and delicacy of her transformations.
So, the emotional intensity of her music does not spring from ‘feeling’, but rather has its source in her intellectual virtuosity and her intense thinking about music as a form of meditation as well as expression. It also emerges from her many struggles, won point by point, by her courage. Kishoriji lost her voice completely in 1968 for several years, and one can imagine the deep wounding that this must be, especially for a musician. But during this time she turned to studying music even more seriously, and her thinking was enlarged. During this time, she sang soundlessly, “with her soul,” as she puts it. As she says that after this suffering her music “became more introverted”.
Ustad Zakir Hussain says of Kishori Amonkar: “Every fibre of her is musical. Listening to Kishori Amonkar is like looking at a painting in which is embodied every detail of someone’s life: great happiness, great sorrow, great anger, frustration, desperation.” I don’t interpret him to mean that Kishoriji represents these emotions in her music; nor is he referring here to emotions of human life. What he is suggesting is that Kishoriji’s music reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being. This sentiment is famously expressed by Schopenhauer who says that classical music “never expresses this or that particular affliction, pain, sorrow... peace of mind, but their essential nature.” Our mind hears the music, and our imagination is able to understand it perfectly in its extracted quintessence.
As a lover of pure form, she explores every nuance and possibility, but she never strips the rule of its meaning. Rather her endeavor is to read through the language of the rule into the mind of the author and in this way renew the thread of tradition. “Patterning notes is not my ambition,” she says, “rather it is to awaken the aesthetic emotion of the raga in its richest intensity within the listener.” As Deepak Raja points out, by extending the alap rendition of the Jaipur Atruli gharana and by continuing her mother’s — the illustrious Mogubai Kurdekar’s — practice of performing taranas and shedding the aloofness characteristic of the Jaipur-Atrauli style and by softening the sharp edges of melody, Kishori Amonkar has made something new that some say is a new gharana.
Because she cares about her listeners, Kishori Amonkar never ‘performs’ for her audience. She takes them far too seriously for that. No preliminaries. No coziness. No smiling reassurance that the audience seeks. People find it hard to come to terms with her fastidious and formidable seriousness, and what people call her ‘difficult’ personality. But for me, just watching her austerities for a concert is in itself an aesthetic experience. After bowing to the audience, she sits down, wraps her sari tight around her neck, and shuts her eyes tight. For emotion to be elevated to form, human emotion must be dimmed. It is the peaks that she seeks, not the warm hills. And what she invites the audience into is a journey of aesthetic contemplation. An artiste who sits in the Green Room meditating and waiting to get in the right frame of consciousness so that she can sing her best is, I would say, an artiste who loves her audience. It is quite true that she is a demanding artiste but it is of herself that she demands the most. It is beyond herself she wants to go, beyond the narcissistic self.
Kishori Amonkar’s imprint on Hindustani music is deep and her quest for perfection is an answer to all serious musicians everywhere. For months, I have been listening to her Todi, Mere Man Yaa. I am only a lay listener, and all I can say is that it feels like being knocked out by an enormous blow, an elemental blow, from which you don’t really recover.