Kishori Amonkar, the goddess of sur

Kamla Popli

It is a typical Mumbai apartment complex whose staircase I ascend with trepidation, for I am to meet no ordinary person, but a resplendent star in her field and supposedly a temperamental, imperious empress. I am ushered into a tastefully done up living room with a beautiful Sankheda swing near the large bay window. A teaching session is in progress in the adjoining room.

Soon, the door opens and Kishori Amonkar, the doyenne of Hindustani classical music, walks in. Clad in a simple, white, floral cotton sari, her visage bespeaks her curiosity and wariness of this pertinacious stranger who has sought an audience with her. ‘What do you know about music?’ comes the opening shot. Seeming somewhat satisfied with my reply, she fires again, ‘For how long have you been hearing me?’ ‘For more than three decades,’ I say. A hint of a smile appears and she launches on her — I am not clear which — monologue or soliloquy.

‘I believe in only sur, nothing else. Get your sur right, for that is the essence of music. Do you know, I can visualise the notes as tangible beings. I speak to them, I beseech them for their nectarine qualities. And yes, sometimes, they do heed my imploring and which you people say is great music.’ I am struck by the similarities in utterances of three other great musicians.

The reclusive ‘Sitar Samrat’, Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan has said, ‘There is only sur and lay — nothing else in music. Cultivate them.’ The ‘singing doctor of Kurnool’, that redoubtable centenarian, Dr Sripada Pinakapani had told me, ‘Swara is the heart of music. I would notate songs with swaras while cycling to college. I could see these swaras as physical entities and when I befriended them with incessant practice, they gifted me with invaluable musical riches.’ I remember Dr Balamuralikrishna saying that he saw musical notes floating around like colourful butterflies with whom he could converse.

The characteristic oscillations of the notes, the gamakas of Carnatic music greatly impress her, she says. A serendipitous message about a flight delay affords more time for talk on musicology, Sanskrit texts on rasa theory and the Upanishads. As I get up to leave, a large photograph of saint Raghavendraswamy on the wall reminds me of the words of that other sage, Kamalesha Vitthala, who asks Raghavendraswamy whether he was not satisfied with the blessings of the Lord and, therefore, desiring solitude, sought refuge in the Brindavana at Mantralayam.

Kishori Amonkar, too, has perhaps sought that blessed silence and presence of her master by ending her earthly sojourn. ‘We must meet again,’ were her parting words. Alas, this meeting was only after her demise, through the radio broadcast of her recordings relayed by AIR in a special national programme. Kishori Amonkar’s ragas yaman and the rare Khambavati still resonate in the ears of music lovers.

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