Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Kishori Amonkar: A tempestuous diva

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Before a great music patron like Sumitra Charat Ram I saw Kishori Amonkar turn from a ferocious feline to a docile kitten

Business Standard, April 8, 2017 

“Sit up,” she shouted into the mike, her voice a shrill rasp. A front-row member of the audience was lolling on a bolster. Looking up while tuning her instrument she went for him again. “Sit up!… I said SIT UP!… Did you not hear me!”

The evening screeched to a standstill before it started. It was a first up close view of Kishori Amonkar, the tempestuous diva of Hindustani classical music, who quietly passed away in her sleep, at 84, this week a few days after her last concert.

The occasion was an ill-starred performance at an odd venue in the early 1980s — the Taj Mansingh in Delhi trying to connect culturally with a traditional baithak in an opulent chandeliered hall. The photographer Raghu Rai, also present, recollects this week her sharp reprimand when he made the cardinal mistake of lighting a cigarette. Among her legions of fans, he later captured her gaunt features and something of her obsessive performing style vividly in black and white images.

My encounters with her were the result of a friendship with Delhi’s greatest patrons of the performing arts, the Shriram family. From a young age, my brother and I were taken to the Shriram Shankarlal Festival each spring, then held on the open grounds of Modern School on Barakhamba Road. This was a sort of late-night mela with hundreds streaming in and out before a vast stage on which the musicians came and went. Often carried home in the early hours, our joy was when our mother announced, “All right, no school tomorrow.” The (not the holiday) was among their many gifts.

The 70th edition of this annual festival, now held at its permanent home, the Kamani auditorium, and featuring such greats as Girija Devi and Rashid Khan this year, has just ended. It is the bequest of the late Sumitra Charat Ram who put her husband’s fortune to good use by gathering the great and the good among India’s legendary performers. Her legacy, glowingly enhanced by her daughter Shobha Deepak Singh, is unique: Neither ticketed nor sponsored, the festival, as she points out, is sustained by avid followers.

On the numerous occasions I sought an interview with the irascible, mercurial I was dismissed. On one occasion she was downright rude.

In 2000 she was the festival’s star performer. On behalf of NDTV I importuned Ms Deepak Singh to help. She was understandably non-committal but added, “Mummy is giving a lunch for Kishoriji. Come if you like and we’ll see if we can persuade her.”

Sumitra Charat Ram’s was a remarkably benevolent and calming presence. In her simple cotton sari, large bindi and mangalsutra she presented a picture of the vanishing courtesy and grace of Uttar Pradesh — made more disarming against a backdrop of museum-quality treasures that filled her grand home. (For an unusually frank appraisal of Sumitraji’s life, read her son Siddharth Shriram’s birth centenary tribute to her in Business Standard, November 15, 2015).

Utterly humble before her, turned from ferocious feline to docile kitten.

She promptly agreed to the recording; in the candid interview she spoke movingly about her life and art. She recalled the hardships her mother, Mogubai Kurdikar, faced as a young widow. “She had to travel to concerts in third class compartments. I would often go to sleep in her lap as her accompanist. We lived in a one-room chawl. She needed every penny to educate me and my siblings.” She dwelt on how she sought to create “an architecture of sound” by exploring the colour of each note. “For me the audience also becomes the raga.” Later, off the record, she was unsparing about playback singing, and her rejection of film after singing for Geet Gaya Pattharon Ne, a 1964 potboiler by V Shantaram.

Of the ameliorative power of her my best recent example is of two young women — my daughter and her close childhood friend — going through a taxing time in foreign capitals. It was a time of tedious struggle; when verbal succour failed, I sent them a link to a composition by Kishori Amonkar, a profound solace to me in times of sadness or stress.

This is a 48-minute-long khayal in the Raga Hamsadhawani, an invocation to the Remover of Obstacles, whose fame is so universal that when Barack Obama, after his India visit, was asked what he brought home, he delved into his pocket and produced a little Ganesh. The piece is largely devoid of the soaring taans and shrutis (virtuoso and micro-notes) that are hallmarks of her style. In an unruffled contemplation of Ganapati’s playfulness and prescience she draws eternal truths. Namita Devidayal, author of the bestselling musical memoir The Room (Random House; 2007) concurs that it is possibly one of her most inspiring pieces.

Kishori Amonkar’s greatness was that, from her troubled life and temperament, she produced of transcendental healing.

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