Kishori Amonkar did many things that should secure her a permanent place in the history of Hindustani music. She was among those women singers who fought for the artist’s rights and dignity in post-Independence India, and refused to be treated the way the earlier generations of women artists were. She also was uncompromising in her stance towards concert organisers and lazy audiences. Like Hirabai Barodekar and Begum Akhtar before her, she made Hindustani khayal and light classical gayaki a domain of full-fledged artistic assertion, women’s equality and independence.
More importantly, she absorbed the impact of Amirkhani revolution in khayal singing, and restructured the format and singing style of her gharana in a way that instantly influenced all the younger vocalists, male and female, of Jaipur-Atrauli gayaki. The sheer excellence and force of her gayaki set an example for others to follow. Initially the traditionalists resisted, but gave in after it became obvious that what Kishori Amonkar was doing seemed historically necessary, and if Jaipur gayaki has to evolve it better be along the lines suggested by her. In this sense she, like Begum Akhtar, belong to the rare category of great maestri.
Kishori always emphasised her devotionalism
In 1970s and 1980s, half a dozen great instrumentalists, a couple of percussionists and quite a few wonderful Pakistani ghazal singers ruled the roost, with audiences all over India under their total sway. Everybody would flock to hear, or exchange cassette tapes of, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar, Vilayat Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, Amjad Ali Khan, Bismillah Khan, Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, Mehdi Hasan, Iqbal Bano, Habib Wali Muhammad, Farida Khanum, Nayyara Noor and Ghulam Ali. In those ‘tough’ times, Kishori Amonkar and Bhimsen Joshi were two musicians who kept the flag of Hindustani khayal gayaki flying among the popular audiences. This was no mean achievement.
She had many prejudices and narrow revivalist instincts that her mother, Mogubai Kurdikar, was at least free from
Kishori always emphasised her devotionalism, did the literal interpretation of the bandishes she sang, soaked in bhakti, because perhaps that was her choice and in time her forte; it was also part of the package her listeners either endured or delighted in, depending on their personal orientation. For her ‘kaun gat bhayi mori aali, piya na poochhe ekahu baat’ was strictly about the intense longing of the gopis for Krishna—a form of not earthly but spiritual quest. She also tilted, very slightly, the balance towards ‘swara’, because, as someone said, sur-sadhana is transcendence, while laya and taal constantly remind one of mortality, the impermanence of things. In short, personal beliefs and private quests sometimes do help certain artists attain a level of excellence and greatness, as indeed is exemplified by Kishori.
Sadly, artistic excellence too is a package. She had many prejudices and narrow revivalist instincts that her mother, Mogubai Kurdikar, was at least free from – perhaps a part of her Maharashtrian modernity. Unlike Kumar Gandharva, she did not betray any antipathy towards Muslim musicians, but it nevertheless came as a shock to see her re-name Raga Jaunpuri as Raga Jivanpuri. The famous morning raga originated during the reign of Sharqi kings of Jaunpur, probably in the time of Hussain Shah Sharqi, who was a great patron of music, Jaunpur being the site of an early renaissance of Hindustani khayal. She perhaps found the association of Jaunpur with Muslim Sharqi kings of the medieval period disagreeable, and felt much better with her new and rather bizarre coinage Jivanpuri. Such is the revisionist mindset that has been the lot of quite a few musicians and musicologists since the days of Bhatkhande and VD Paluskar.