The devotion of Kishori Amonkar

Salil Tripathi

Kishori Amonkar never got the Bharat Ratna, but she was India’s jewel

The human voice has a range—at its base, it is deep. The voice emerges from somewhere within, grounded firmly as if it were subterranean. Then it rises slowly and reaches the peak, at which point it becomes so sharp and clear that even when it has stopped, the sound reverberates in the silence. Kishori Amonkar’s genius lay in knowing the boundaries. She would then guide her voice along the contours of sound without knocking into the boundaries, making it seem astonishingly easy. The rest was silence.

She was a perfectionist. She did not like latecomers or disturbances of any kind at her concerts. She expected her accompanists to be accomplished—I remember one concert where midway through an aalaap, with which she initiated her performance, she turned around and instructed the accompanist what she must do, to provide the base from which her voice could soar. She often closed her eyes when she sang, her mind concentrating not so much on the words, because for her the lyrics were often immaterial, but on the architecture of the raga, so that she could meander through that open space within the bandish (composition) without getting lost, without hitting any wall, as her voice looked for and discovered the window through which she could leave those confines and float even higher, without breaking any rules.

Her annoyance with disturbance was real, and some mistook her temper (she was often called the diva) as a manifestation of her ego. On stage, however, it wasn’t her ego that was being disturbed; it was her willingness to submit, her devotion, that was being distracted, and she resented that. She was immersed in her raga: Like Arjuna, she was aiming at the target while looking at its reflection. She was focused on her bandish. At that moment, little else mattered—she could see her voice helping her travel towards perfection which was visible only to her, which lay within her grasp, and when she reached it, there was joy, satisfaction and gratitude, and her audience realized the power of her imagination.

She once told the journalist Sunil Sethi in an interview: “I must sing. I don’t sing for the gallery, I sing for him (referring to the divine).” When she sang, she became one with the swara (note) and the sur (key)—words didn’t matter, and peripheral noise was sacrilegious. She could see the note in front of her eyes, she said. She plunged into the language of the notes, to decipher the sounds, which may seem without meaning in any language, but yet were understood in every language. She could tell apart the effects of different notes in different ragas; she could inhabit the micro-notes, leading up to the playful jugalbandi, the virtuoso dialogue with the tabla player, or with a maestro like Hariprasad Chaurasia on the flute. The raga, the structured melody of classical music, became a live entity: formless yet real, fragile yet imperishable, fleeting yet memorable. She once said, “I surrender before the raga; I request him to show me the colours of notes.” She begged the raga to reveal itself, to go beyond its grammar, to realize the ecstasy that seemed so attainable and yet so distant.

I was lucky enough to have heard her live many times. Modern technology made her voice my companion on countless journeys, in all the cities in which I lived. Her joyous aalaap would provide bliss and even her plaintive notes could alleviate gloom. Her voice calmed the heat on blisteringly hot Mumbai summer afternoons; her raga Miyan Ki Malhar reminded me of a walk in the monsoon on Marine Drive even on a dark winter evening in New England; another raga, Yaman, offered warm comfort on the night snow fell lightly in New York; her rendering of the raga Bhoop erased the boundaries between my home in London and Mumbai, bringing back the vivid memory of her singing at the open quadrangle of St Xavier’s College.

I heard her a couple of times when she had a sore throat and you could feel her pain—her mind could visualize the landscape her voice wanted to inhabit, the frown on her face revealing pain because she knew she could not do what she wanted. But she would concentrate and try, and then her face would relax once inspiration had struck, a door was opened, and she had found another, softer, more melodious way out of the constraint, as she moved with the raga to a different scale, letting her voice climb a different peak. Then her eyes would open and if you sat close enough, you might even see her eyes glistening, and you could see the faint glimmer of a smile emerging on her face—in the battle between what her mind wanted and what her body offered, she had found a third way, bringing the two in harmony. It was as close as you could get to a divine experience.

The magic of Indian classical music is that no two concerts by the same artist are alike. Even if the accompanist is the same, the raga is the same, as is the singer, each performance becomes unique. You could have heard her raga Hamsadhwani at the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav in Pune, or at a concert at the Bhulabhai Desai Auditorium in Mumbai, but the two would sound different. We marvel at the variety today even within the same thumri, a form of light classical music: Thanks to the recordings on the Internet, three of her versions of the unforgettable Babul Mora are relatively easy to find.

She never got the Bharat Ratna, but she was India’s jewel. When she sang Sahela Re, she became our friend, as we met her, and through her, we met music, her friend.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

courtesy :

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches

My Brother Mohan

Gopalkrishna Gandhi

I have always been in awe of him.

Rajmohan is a full decade older than I. He is also that much taller. Someone just over six feet, dwarfs someone just under six feet. You have to look up to him when hearing him speak, or when speaking to him. And he must bend his head, just so, to help the process.

He is, has always been, at some height.

There has never been a time when I have not known him to be meant for a purpose higher than his surroundings offer, bigger than the opportunities that have come his way.

Our maternal grandfather, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari regarded him as a natural born leader. He narrated, at a public meeting in Bombay, once, as to how the Mahatma complained to him that in naming their grandson Rajmohan, he, Rajaji, had placed his own part-name, Raj, ahead of Gandhiji’s, Mohan. ‘No, Bapu, it is not quite like that’, Rajaji quickly rationalized. ‘His name is, and will be yours –   Mohan ; Raj will be merely an adjective’.

And so Mohan he has been in the family.

‘Raj’, in terms of office or power, has always eluded him.

He is himself to blame, of course.

Our father was editor of The Hindustan Times when a first and fatal heart attack carried him away in 1957. Mohan, then twenty-two, had just then finished an internship with The Scotsman in Edinburgh and moved towards Frank Buchman’s Moral Re-Armament movement. Ghanshyamdas Birla asked him to join The Hindustan Times’ senior editorial staff, with the clear prospect of taking, at not too distant a date, his father’s position in the paper. But no, fixing the world’s mildewed moral plumbing was priority. For the next decade Mohan travelled the world giving MRA a stature it would never have dreamed of getting without his intellectual rigour, his shining veracity and his inspiring commitment.

In the general elections of 1967, many persons urged Mohan to stand for the Lok Sabha. The Swatantra Party was then a force to be reckoned with, though not as strong as it had been, in 1962. Rajaji was excited at the prospect of Mohan contesting and offered his party’s backing even if he chose to stand as an independent from Saurashtra. It is my belief that had Mohan not opted out of that election, he would have won that election handsomely and been in the Lok Sabha during the critical Indira Gandhi years, offering a leadership alternative of enormous appeal.

The written and spoken word were then, and remain, his forte. Starting in the mid-Sixties, from Bombay, with the late Russi M.Lala, a brave weekly called ‘Himmat’ Mohan engaged with Indian affairs very intimately. The weekly was read widely, admired hugely, for its outspokenness, its high-quality writing, its appeal to individual and collective consciences. The Emergency frowned on him, on Himmat. ‘Picked up’, with our third brother, the philosopher, Ramchandra Gandhi, on October 2, 1975, from a prayer gathering at Rajghat, by the police, the two could have been ‘in’ for many months. But I think Prime Minister Indira Gandhi must have been advised that two Gandhi-Rajaji grandsons in her jail would bring her the world press’ growl. They were both released within hours.

In a sense that Emergency episode brought Rajmohan to the heart of mainstream Indian politics as a liberal democrat, with a passion for Hindu-Muslim amity, probity in public life and  civil liberties. Unsurprisingly, Vishwanath Pratap Singh sought Mohan out, in the post-Bofors phase to contest against Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi, in 1989. The future Prime Minister motored to Teen Murti House where Mohan was working in the  archives, to urge him to do so. After some reflection, Mohan agreed to do so and by so doing gave the country its most defining election, that year. The incumbent Prime Minister was not to be defeated easily but the panic created by Mohan’s entry in the field led, I believe, without any sanction from Rajiv himself, to a brazen and shameful rigging on poll-day. Mohan lost, not all that badly, but the national outrage created by the Amethi rigging led to several elections in the subsequent rounds elsewhere in the country going against the Congress.

Mohan was brought to the Rajya Sabha by a grateful V P Singh and was slated to be inducted in his cabinet during a re-shuffle when the V P Singh government fell.

The loss to politics by Mohan’s political absence has been the gain of history-writing. From his uncompromisingly fair pen have emerged the life-stories of Gandhi, Rajaji, Patel, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Each one of those books has been hailed as about the best, if not the last word on the subject.

If the reader of this tribute by a younger brother has not read Mohan’s description of the Mahatma’s assassination in ‘The Good Boatman’, he or she is urged to do so. A more moving and epiphanic account is not to be found anywhere. Paradoxical as this might seem, the Mahatma comes alive in that description.

His little book on eight Muslim leaders of the sub-continent has done more to increasing India’s understanding of its Islamic legacy than any other book has. His work ‘Revenge and Reconciliation’ on the sub-continent’s conflicts must go down as a moving argument for civilisational redemptions coming from mutual respect.

His latest book on the history of the Punjab from the time of Aurangzeb to Mountbatten will be a reference work for all time. The response to the work in Pakistan has been incredible.

Mohan is, as always, taller than the circumstances that surround him. That enables him to cast a look that is much longer than and goes well beyond short-term horizons. His standing from the East Delhi seat for the Lok Sabha in the elections that are to take place in the coming days is consistent with his life-long passion to imbue India’s public life with ethical standards, valuational norms  and civilisational redeeming of a kind the world will respect.

He is today an elder statesman.

If he loses, political philistinism will win.

If he wins, political grossness will be put in its place.

March 30, 2014 

courtesy :

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches