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The Last Titan: Mogubai Kurdikar

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The Last Titan: Mogubai Kurdikar

Mogubai Kurdikar can rightly be called the Grand Old Lady of Hindustani music. An intense and uncompromising purist in her singing, to her music is the aesthetic means to a spiritual end. Not the assorted concert fare that passes for classical music today. Not surprisingly, she sums up the contemporary musical scene in one word – bhayanak (horrendous).

MOHAN NADKARNI profiles the singer, who turns 80 on July 15.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, July 15, 1984


Mogubai Kurdikar

Our classical music, and more particularly Hindustani music, can be said to be as rigid as it is flexible – as a performing art. In fact its beauty lies in its relatively loose structure and in its emphasis on extempore improvisation. Thus the challenge faced by an exponent of Hindustani music is possibly far greater than that of a performer in any other system.

Mogubai Kurdikar, who turns 80 on July 15, is a musician who belongs to the fast-vanishing line of the greats in the field. As one of the foremost vocalists of our time, she has regaled discerning audiences all over the country for almost half a century. Yet music to her is the aesthetic means to a spiritual end of the kind that demands the most concentrated degree of listening, as all great music does.

Not surprisingly, such music cannot have popular appeal in the conventional sense and, probably for that reason, she did not easily condescend to sing in public even during the years of her prime. Which is also why, to those of us who were privileged to listen to her in her heyday, a concert by her was always an event to look forward to with a keen sense of anticipation.

Public recognition came to her rather late – in the seventies. But she had been hailed by rasikas all over the country as Gana-Tapasvini many years before because they found her singing intense, both musically and spiritually. Whenever she sang, she seemed to be longing for the ideal in music, and in the process, she also made her audiences feel that there was a healing touch in her creative ecstasy. She retired from her professional career fairly long ago. Yet she remains immersed in the worship of her muse, where the tanpura is her adorable deity and khayal, a symbol of her worship.

The story of Mogubai’s life and career is a rare case history of the dogged, industrious and eventually fruitful cultivation of genius. Born in a humble family at Kurdi, a small village in Goa, on July 15, 1904, she joined a drama troupe which was then one of the few forums where classical music had pride of place. She was endowed with a seraphic voice and her two mentors in the drama troupe, Balkrishna Parvatkar and the veteran vocalist, Chintoba Gurav, groomed her to be a singing stage artiste. During this period, she also learnt, dance from Ramlal Kathak, a leading guru of his time. It is said that she performed marvellously as a heroine in many roles in a number of popular Marathi plays.

Mogubai relaxing at the author's home in Mumbai (Photo: Dev Nadkarni, from the Mohan Nadkarni archive).

Mogubai relaxing at the author’s home in Mumbai (Photo: Dev Nadkarni, from the Mohan Nadkarni archive).

The story of Mogubai’s initiation into classical music is no less dramatic. It so happened that the touring troupe was camping at Sangli, then a small princely state in South Maharashtra. During the day, she used to rehearse her stage-songs with exemplary diligence. It was during such rehearsals that the maestro from the nearby Kolhapur state. Alladiya Khan, sojourning at Sangli for health reasons, chanced to hear her sing whenever he went past her house on his daily walk.

As Mogubai herself recounts with great nostalgia: “One day, as I kept rehearsing the popular stage hit Madiwari chala ga gade from the celebrated classic, Mrichhakatika, I was startled to see an elderly stranger entering my room. Not knowing who he was, I stopped singing. But he urged me to continue, telling me that he had been listening, to the strains of my songs for several days from a distance and that he was eager to hear me face-to-face and also know who I was. He seemed to be so impressed that he offered to teach me music and even began the first lesson right away.”

On the conclusion of the maestro’s stay at Sangli, the local musicians got up a function to bid him farewell and it was on this occasion that Mogubai discovered the identity of her guru, to her euphorious delight. She decided to forsake her promising stage career to move with Alladiya Khan wherever he went in the course of his concert and teaching assignments. Although, as a state musician, Alladiya Khan had made Kolhapur his headquarters, he used to have longer periods of residence in Bombay where he groomed, besides Mogubai, disciples of the calibre of Kesarbai Kerkar, and his gifted son, Manji Khan, who died prematurely in his prime.

Looking back, it would appear that Moghbai’s studentship with Alladiya Khan was no smooth sailing. She had her many ups and downs, during which she had to seek guidance from veterans of other gharanas, like Basheer Khan and Vilayat Hussain Khan of the Agra gayaki. Apparently, Alladiya Khan had become a tool in the hands of more powerful vested interests, resulting in a series of interruptions in Mogubai’s shagirdi. She began learning from the Ustad in 1919 but it lasted for only two years. After a brief break, there was an apparent reconciliation, which helped her resume her lessons with him, but only for a year. She points out that all that was happening during those crucial years of her career was much against his will.

Ultimately, the Ustad placed her under the tutelage of his younger but equally gifted brother, Haider Khan, for five years from 1926. Haider Khan’s untimely death again left her forlorn. Finally her single-minded dedication proved to be rewarding and Alladiya Khan accepted her, once again, as his full-fledged disciple, and gave her the benefit of his vidya for twelve years till his death in 1946. Which is not to say that this period was not beset with breaks, but they were few and far between.

Now, to come to the much-publicised rivalry between the two celebrated shagirds of the same Ustad. Of Kesarbai and Mogubai, who is the greater artiste? This was one question that was continuously debated, often hotly in the general listening milieu, more specially among the rival camps representing their respective adherents. The controversy, the embers of which are still kept alive by interested parties even after Kesarbai’s death in 1977, have often turned acrimonious and marked by systematic character assassination. And Moghbai has been a silent sufferer in the needless drama.

I have been au fait with the music of both Kesarbai and Mogubai for well over three decades. No doubt, they provide an interesting study in comparison and contrast in many ways. In the ultimate analysis, they are to me separate conjugates of greatness, who have, in their own way, contributed immensely to the enrichment and popularization of the Atrauli-Jaipur gharana.

Kesarbai was undoubtedly endowed with a striking stage presence – truly a focal point of queenly dignity. Few, indeed could cast the kind of spell on listeners by sheer stage appearance as she. Temperamental and moody, she was the subject of much ire and admiration – a woman for whom the term prima donna could well have been invented! She was tempestuous, unpredictable and ruthless, and capable of canceling her concert halfway through.

Kesarbai’s voice was, without exaggeration, one of the monumental voices of the century in the Hindustani tradition. With no hint of diminution, her broad yet luminous. Sonorous voice could swoop from a splendorous, high taar saptak to a deep, resonant low mandra saptak with an incredibly uniform volume, and loud enough to be hears without a mike in an audience of thousands. While her vocalism was representative of her gharana, it also reflected her vivacious, slightly abrasive personality. She was curiously allergic to the radio, press and camera alike, but she was a much sought-after artiste by the princely darbars and the aristocratic homes of old. Public and national recognition in the form of a President’s award came her way soon after political freedom.

Yet Kesarbai was an artiste who took a dim view of posterity and was determined not to leave any vestige of her music for future generations. The only disciple she condescended to groom and, that too, in the last few years of her life, is Dhondutai Kulkarni.

But Mogubai always carried herself with the somber dignity of a middle-class housewife, humble and impeccable in her deportment on and off stage. Her voice still retains that delightfully familiar feel of old-world velvet, although it does not have as big a volume as Kesarbai’s. But it is sensitive and also brilliant from top to bottom. The music she created at her concerts was truly glorious in content and structure and one was struck as much by her subtle insight into the niceties and beauties – bol-baant and upaj ang which one missed in Kesarbai’s music. She turned introvert in the process of her creative endeavour, when every swara, every alap, every prastar came as a vivid pledge. Unlike her senior guru bahen, who, in her later years, often sang light classical numbers to supplement her khayals, Mogubai has not swerved a whit from the path trooden by her two Ustads.

Mogubai has also rightly realized the need for both the preservation and enrichment of her gharana’s magnificent heritage in two ways. IN the first place, by composing and tuning a variety of drut bandishes to the extensive vilambit-oriented khayals of her gharana. Secondly, she has nurtured two generations of disciples who include, besides her gifted daughter Kishori Amonkar, Kousalya Manjeshwar, Kamal Tambe, Padma Talwalkar and last but not the least, Vamanrao Deshpande, the eminent musicologist and author, and several others. Each one of these protégés have been perpetuating, according to their lights, the basic ideology of the gharana.

Mogubai stubbornly remained miles away from princely courts and the aristocracy even during her prime, not did she long for recognition though, as mentioned earlier, it came rather late in the day, the President’s awad in 1968 and Padma Bhushan in 1974 and fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Academy a year later. Belatedly though, she also came to share honour with Kesarbai, as Rajya Gayika of Maharashtra state. True to type, she has seldom cared to use them or flaunt them.

Mogubai’s deep commitment to her profession is seen in her active participation in the countrywide agitation that followed the introduction of the so-called audition policy of the Government of India in 1952. She spearheaded the boycott movement as president of the Bharatiya Sangeet Kalakar Mandal, which was established as a national body to pose a powerful concerted challenge to the draconian measures initiated by the broadcasting authorities for screening even the top-notchers in the performing field. In this self-imposed task, she was assisted by her senior and most devoted disciple Kousalya Manjeshwar and received overwhelming support from the musical fraternity. The agitation was called off after the authorities relaxed its policy, but not before encouraging ‘defections’ among some prominent members of the mandal.

At 80, silver-haired Mogubai still retains the brightness of her hawk-like, penetrating eyes and the mobility of her expression. She has her faculties intact. Her memory still works like a computer and she known by heart hundreds of khayal and tarana compositions – she would reel them off before you with all their distinctive virtues with great aplomb. You will always find her humming a tune or counting beats – no matter if she is busy in the kitchen or engrossed in her embroidery or needle work, which are among her many other diversions. Apart from reading books on religion and mythology, daily newspapers and radio listening are a ‘must’ in her daily routine.

An early riser, this Grand Old Lady of Hindustani music, despite gradually failing physical health, makes her own tea, has a bath at dawn and performs pooja for one hour. She also takes time off for teaching on a selective basis. Her senior disciples keep coming to her for guidance which she readily affords them, as always, keeping the rhythm herself on a dagga while her shagirds sing.

Her speaking voice is as musical as her singing voice and to hear her talk about the changing trends in music is both interesting and enlightening. She sums up the contemporary musical scene as bhayanak (horrendous). She is not enthused over the accumulation of talent, presently seen in the field, because in her view, it lacks a spirit of discipline and dedication and a willingness to inspire each other with mutual admiration. She asserts that without discipline and dedication, classical music can have no significance and meaning.

An uncompromising purist and firm believer in the gharana ideology, it is natural that she does not take kindly to the eclectic spirit that is catching on in classical music, in keeping with the changing times and tastes of the people. Not for her the format that characterises the present-day concert fare – an assortment of khayal, thumri and bhajan and the like – all tailored to the supposed preferences of mixed audiences.

Isn’t she, then, unhappy that Kishori, the enfant terrible of Hindustani music, has emerged as a leader of the avant garde movement (along with Kumar Gandharva) who does not scruple to assert that tradition is rigid and gharana ideology outdated? Replies to such posers come from her only through a discreet but meaningful smile, with a twinkle in her eye. As though maternal love can get the better of deep personal convictions.

Applause or adulation has never humoured her, nor have detraction or criticism soured her disposition. She does speak of the raw deal she had always had from the elite sections of her own society in Goa, but nonetheless passionately loves her place of birth. Unfailingly she pays her annual pilgrimage to her family deity. Lord Ravalnath, where she offers her prayers through abhangs, bhajans and devotional songs that are out of bounds for her on the concert platforms. With equally religious fervour, she makes her annual visits to the dargah of her Ustad at Charni road, in central Bombay, on his death anniversary.

Besides Kishori, her eldest child, she has another daughter, Lalita, a housewife married to a police official, and Ulhas, who is in the business profession. She shares her stay with her children, but with music on her lips. A Gana Tapasvini in the true sense of the word. To her, her 80th birthday is like any other day, with no functions, no felicitations in her honour.


1 Comment

  1. Kindly create a directory where we can shuffle through and search all the articles that are available on the website. Right now only 4 articles can be seen in the writings section. Please update it. Thank you for your contribution to the indian classical music.

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