Prima Donna of Indian Classical Music: Kishori Amonkar

Whether one is a classical musician or a music enthusiast, there is hardly a soul who has not been touched by the soulful voice of the legendary classical Hindustani vocalist Kishori Amonkar. One of the longest standing voices in Hindustani classical, Kishori Amonkar held her own position in the world of classical music. With a career spanning 70 years, Amonkar was one of the most distinctive voices in Indian music.

Born in 1931, Amonkar was trained in the highly format-driven Jaipur-Atrauli school of Khayal music, one of the two main genres in Hindustani music. Initially trained by her mother Mogubai Kurdikar, one of the prime disciples of Ustad Alladiya Khan (founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana), Amonkar later went on to learn from a varied group of tutors. She said in an interview to NDTV in 2000, “My mother wanted me to learn all the aspects of music. Different colours of music. She wanted me to learn a little bit of Marathi songs, a little bit of bhajans. For that, she had appointed some masters.” Her fluid approach towards learning personified her music throughout her career, as she broke free of the gharana concept and added her own innovations to the timeless barriers of the Jaipur gharana. Amonkar’s experimentations were seen as deviation from the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana style of singing, a charge that she was accused of till she won over her most stringent critics with her singing prowess.

Even while she was mesmerizing her audience with classical renditions, Amonkar was wooed by the Bollywood music industry, which saw her singing for Waheeda Rahman on Geet Gaye Patharon Ne in 1964 and four songs for the 1990 film Drishti. She later in an interview to IANS in 2011 revealed that she would never sing in a Bollywood film again. “I don’t think I’ll sing in films again because, for me, the language of notes speaks much more. It can take you to ultimate peace, it can give you a lot of knowledge of life. Adding that to words and rhythms lessens the power of a note.” In spite of her refusal to sing for films, Amonkar went on to sing several bhajans in her lifetime. A deeply devout and spiritual person, she recorded an album in 2007, Shri Raghevandra Baaro, as an offering to Guru Raghevandra- the Madhwa saint of Mantralayam in Karnataka. Her Marathi abhangs- songs of the saints of Maharashtra- were very popular among her audiences, as were renderings of Meera bhajans, which held a hypnotic sway on her fans.

Kishori Amonkar

Admittedly a contradicting personality, music festival organizers often accused Amonkar of throwing diva-like tantrums, being arrogant and having eccentric mood swings. In spite of this, she remained one of the most sought after concert singers till the very end, even while remaining steadfast to her principle of not singing for entertainment. “People have to understand that music isn’t entertainment. It is not to be sung to attract the audience, which is why I never play to the gallery,” she told The Indian Express in 2016. An extremely private person, Amonkar kept her public interactions minimal as she believed in a sense of stillness and contemplations to bring the best of her art. Even as the word praised and exalted her as a virtuoso, she remained aloof to all the awards and recognition that came her way.

With the exit of the prima donna of Hindustani classical music, the world has lost one of the most influential singers of the 20th century; a loss that will be felt greatly in the world of music.

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