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Kishori Amonkar: A Beauty Personified

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Music is not just about words and beats. It is also about the emotion behind the rendition.
If the last half century of female voice in Indian Carnatic classical belongs to M.S. Subhalakshmi, then Hindustani classical has no other parallel than Kishori Amonkar. Her vibrant, rich and mellifluous voice; her larger-than-life stage presence and the powerful and emotional appeal of her music have kept her at the vanguard of Indian classical music for many years. What's probably most interesting is the manner in which she marvelously synthesizes the ancient traditions of classical singing with new forms of rendition. She has developed a unique style, sometimes perceived by the public as moving away from her Jaipur Gharana school. But as a mature artist her approach is regarded as individual, and an alternative and supplement to the model she belonged to in her early days.

There have been other female exponents of Hindustani classical, including Girija Devi, Shobha Gurtu and Siddheshwari Devi who operate more in light classical forms like thumris (songs of longing and desires). Gangubai Hangal and Hirabai Barodekar are mostly into bhajans (songs in praise of God). But what differentiates Amonkar from her peers is her staunch purist approach towards raga (scales), mostly an endowment from her teacher and mother Smt Mogubai Kurdikar, another classical great in her time. Though Amonkar's voice doesn't have a rage and frenzy mostly found in other female vocalist, the predominant emotion associated with most of her renditions is a painful melancholy, a soul searching eminence and beautiful amalgamation of spiritual and wordless realism.

What also sets her apart from other singers is her soulful interpretation of the Khayal style of singing. Khayal bases itself on a repertoire of short songs which are used for free improvisation given the scales and musical boundaries. A typical Khayal performance uses two songs, one slow (vilambit) and one fast (drut). The slow song, the bada khayal or great khayal, comprises most of the performance; the fast song (chote khayal, small khayal) is a used as a finale.

Amonkar was born in 1931 and with music being a part and parcel of her birth, her talent was recognized at a very early age. In her early years she absorbed the approach and repertoire of her distinguished mother's teacher Ustad Alladiya Khan. Blessed with a naturally melodious voice, she has literally stunned many an audience with the sheer ease and grace with which she renders a raga. Amonkar's interpretation of the music tends to lean more towards the romantic aspect (shingar ras) and thus does not strictly follow the traditional Jaipur Atrauli style. She's one of those rare singers today who uses sarangi for accompaniment. Again, those who have seen her perform acknowledge the importance that she gives to playing the tanpura.

As a result of her captivating voice she has often times been referred to as "Gana Saraswati, a name given her by the Jagadguru Mahaswamiji of Sringeri Matt. Significant awards bestowed on her include, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1985), the Padmabhushan (1987) and the much-coveted Sangeet Samradhini Award (considered as one of the most prestigious awards in Indian Classical Music) in 1997. It's interesting to note that her mother Mugubai Kurdikar was also awarded "Padma Bhushan by the Indian Government, which is a rare double distinction in the same family.

Being a forefront name in Indian classical circles didn't come easy. But, after numerous performances over decades, countless recordings and great appraise and awards; Amonkar refuses to be a show-biz artist. Her voice is still captivating, sublime and awe-inspiring. Indian classical music is not just considered an art to entertain audiences and listeners, but a sacred and intelligent way to connect to the divine, a meditation of self and a way of life for many. And in Amonkar's own words, "Music is not just about words and beats. It is also about the emotion behind the rendition. Words turn into music when emotions are weaved 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."


Selected Discography

Kishori Amonkar, Born To Sing (Navras, 2005)
Kishori Amonkar, Sampradaya: Carrying Forward a Tradition(Navras, 2003)
Kishori Amonkar, Prabhat (Navras, 2000)
Kishori Amonkar, Live in London (Navras, 1998)
Kishori Amonkar, Maestros Choice (Music Today, 1991)

Photo Credit:
Courtesy of Kishori Amonkar

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