Memorable Moments with Kesarbai Kerkar
By MOHAN NADKARNI
The Illustrated Weekly of India, September 14, 1980
“Age cannot wither her voice nor custom stale her infinite variety ….” Her third death anniversary falls on September 16. An appreciation by an admirer.
In the past 40 years, I have been lucky to have heard several maestros of the older generation. I cherish the haunting memories of the great music of Ramkrishnabuva Vaze, Faiyaz Khan, Sawai Gandharva, Mushtaq Hussain Khan and Rasoolan Bai – to name but a few vocalists – and of instrumental titans like Allauddin Khan, Hafiz Ali Khan (sarodiyas) Bundu Khan (sarangiya) and Ahmed Jan Thirakwa and Kanthe Maharaj (percussion wizards)
You may or may not agree with me: but I feel that, with the possible exception of Faiyaz Khan and Hafiz Ali Khan, few could cast the kind of spell on listeners as Kesarbai Kerkar. Like every sensitive artiste, Kesarbai voluntarily retired from active concert life the day she felt her voice fading. That was early in 1965, when she was in her seventies.
Goa’s Precious Bequest
Kesarbai was Goa’s precious bequest to the Hindustani tradition. The superhuman demands for perfection that Kesarbai made on herself stemmed from a lifelong discipline. She learnt from great gurus like Abdul Karim Khan, Vaze Buva, Barkatualla, Bhaskar Buwa Bakhale and Alladiya Khan. But it was the Jaipur maestro, Alladiya Khan, from whom she received the longest and most fruitful grooming – it lasted well over two decades.
Although her vocalism might have been rather heavy for the “average listener’’, Kesarbai had come to acquire a permanent audience always ready and willing to walk miles to hear her. She never cared to lower her standards merely for the sake of reaching a larger audience.
Many laurels and awards from the princely durbars and honours in the post-freedom era came her way. Tagore hailed her as Surashri. She was the first woman to have received the President’s Award in Hindustani Music (1953) and the first Rajya Gayika of Maharashtra (1969), with a Padma Bhushan (1971), to crown it all. Rarely, however, did she use them with her name.
I first heard Kersarbai’s gramophone discs in 1944. She had condescended to cut half a dozen of them and that, too, after much persuasion and only after certain formidable conditions were fulfilled. The more I heard them, the keener was my eagerness to hear her “live”.
To me – then a college student at Belgaum – such an event seemed an impossibility. Moreover, the profiles of Kesarbai, which used to appear in Marathi journals those days, created an impression of a woman strikingly charming, endowed with an overwhelming musical talent, but moody and temperamental and even capable of canceling her recital halfway through.
The opportunity to hear Kesarbai’s concert came my way four years later, in 1948, at an evening programme in Bombay. The concert, sponsored by a music circle in the suburbs, had mustered a packed audience long before its scheduled starting time.
Kesarbai made an instant impact on her eager listeners by her very presence. Here indeed was a woman for whom the term prima donna could have been coined. Though nearing 60 then, Kesarbai was in amazingly find fettle. Moreover, in a profession known for its rumpled informality, her queenly, if somewhat forbidding, presence seemed to demand and obtain the willing surrender of her listeners even before she intoned her opening swara.
I sat stupefied as she proceeded to offer a delectable assortment of familiar and less-known ragas. Kesarbai sang for nearly four hours – with no hint of diminution in her august virtuosity, combustible power and phenomenal breath control even at that age – the kind of feat that left the listener breathless. And, whatever the raga, the singing revealed the same unerring insight into its beauties and the same command over its design and structure. In the process, each theme emerged as a marvel in sculptured sound, majestic in proportion, the impact of which was intellectual and aesthetic at the same time.
During the decade and a half that followed, I seldom missed her concerts. Indeed, a Kersarbai recital, to me, had become an event to look forward to with keen anticipation, doubly so because she seldom condescended to sing in public. And, whenever she did, it would always be on her terms. The terms in her case covered a curious variety – apart from the obvious condition of remuneration. To her, the microphone and the loudspeaker were taboo, as she rightly claimed that she had a voice large and loud enough to be heard without these gadgets. She was equally allergic to pressmen and photographers. Woe betide anyone entering the concert hall with a camera ready to click her!
Meanwhile, I took to freelance writing on music around 1948 and started my career with a series of profiles on eminent masters, past and present. While living maestros of the old guard, like Ustad Allauddin Khan and Pt. Omkarnath Thakur, as also popular celebrities of the day, like the late Pt. D. V. Paluskar, Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, gladly privileged me with their interviews, Kesarbai Kerkar would not – and she did not, till the last.
Our First ‘Encounter’
I vividly remember my first “encounter” with her at her Shivaji Park residence, Parag, in 1950. Although my self-introduction in the mother-tongue (Konkani) served to establish immediate rapport with her, she did not fail to show her allergy to the writing material I was carrying with me. With characteristics searching questions, she “sized me up” for my knowledge of classical music. I could immediately realise that what was in progress was my interview by her and not the other way about!
The ordeal was over much sooner than expected and she seemed to be happy with my “performance”. A new mood was soon in evidence on her mobile, sensitive expression. It was one of kindness, understanding, even affection. Like a true hospitable hostess, she served me refreshments. As I rose to leave, she asked me to come more often – only to talk about music but not “to scribble”.
It was during such casual visits that I could get glimpses of her uncommon personality as an artiste and also as essentially a human being. As it happened, I had to rely on my memory to record the impressions of my meetings with her. I could commit them to writing only on my return home.
Another occasion I vividly remember was my official visit to Kersarbai to bill her for performance at the second Mumbai Rajya Sangeet Nritya Mahotsava in 1957. I was somewho (or perhaps advisedly) assigned the task of tackling the rather ticklish assignment of enlisting Kesarbai and her celebrated gurubahen, Moghubai Kurdikar, for the soiree. While I could obtain Moghubai’s consent without much difficulty, I had to use all the powers of persuasion at my command to bring Kesarbai round, keeping in mind the long list of her “do’s” and “don’ts” with which I had by now become rather familiar. And I succeeded.
One more occasion I will cherish for ever is when I hazarded a request for an autographed photograph. The late Gopalkrishna Bhobe, then music critic of The Maharashtra Times, was with me at that time. Surprisingly, Kesarbai spared a copy of her photograph – but not without asking me with a grin in Konkani:
My dear boy, you do your writing in English, don’t you? Do you think I can’t write in English? You’re wrong. My autograph will be in English won’t you be surprised? Let me have your pen.
I could not help smiling rather impishly (she saw through it) as I took out the well-concealed pen with which she signed her autograph in English. The photograph remains one of my most precious possessions.
I last heard Kesarbai in 1964. It was a morning concert on a Mahashivratri Day. Reports of her contemplated retirement from her professional career lent an added significance to the programme.
Predictably, the Grand Old Lady of Hindustani Music held the stage for well over three hours. She sang in an unusually effusive mood and we witnessed plenty of muscle still behind her voice – physical, musical and emotional. After the traditional fare came two “surprise” items–doubly so from a dyed-in-the-wool classicist – to round off the recital. The first was Wajid Ali Shah’s mystical theme Babul mora, and the second a prayer to Lord Shiva – both lighter pieces in Bhairavi. There was in them the verve and the grace of a felt emotion.
So deeply moving was the finale that when; after the recital, I met and expressed my respectful admiration to her, Kesarbai clasped my hand, as though in deep gratitude. Her ageing face assumed a childlike glow as she exclaimed: Do you really think I can sing them so well?
End of An Era
Three years have gone by since Kesarbai Kerkar passed away and, with her, a great era in the annals of Indian music has come to an end. The history of Hindustani music can also be said to have turned a fateful page. For posterity, she had scant respect and she seemed determined not to leave any trace of her gayaki. But, for those of us who were au fait with her music, the abiding memories of her greatness continue to gain in strength.s
Kesarbai has reportedly bequeathed a rich treasure of her privately taped music for use in commercial discs. If this is true, will the executors of her estate implement it quickly?