Kishori Amonkar © Avinash Pasricha
One of India’s greatest classical vocalists, Kishori Amonkar, died peacefully in her sleep on April 3 at home in Mumbai, aged 84. She was known for singing khayal and thumri, both forms of vocal music requiring considerable skills in improvisation.
Amonkar was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) and lost her father when she was aged just six years old. She learned to sing at an early age from her mother, Mogubai Kurdikar, also a well-respected classical singer. Taught according to the Jaipur gharana, she had a vocal
range of three octaves, but saw the finesse of singing in the emotion and micro-tonal details. Amonkar was someone who took her art very seriously and received two of the country’s highest civilian awards. She was more of a musicians’ musician, hugely respected in India, rather than an international star.
All the same, Jay Visva Deva of Sama Arts worked with her in London several times, notably for an all-night concert at the Royal Festival Hall and a Navras recording at the Kufa Gallery in 1998. “Her journey was a spiritual one in search of her inner soul,” says Visva Deva. “She had the capacity to exude the emotion laden beauty of her chosen raga unfolding note by note with words, expressions and phrases very well laid out, so you could simply absorb the music without really understanding it. She made sure the listener felt her music.” She last performed in London in 2007.
Her performance was unquestionably one of the highlights of the Bengal Classical Music Festival in Dhaka in 2014, where I saw her. Cradling her swaramandal zither, she looked slightly witchy and cast a spell that made time stand still. We were led by her voice along a weaving and beguiling path until two hours had suddenly vanished.
In Bhinna Shadja, a documentary about Amonkar by Amol Palekar and Sandhya Gokhale, tabla player Zakir Hussain says: “Her music is like a painting that embodies every detail of someone’s life. There is great happiness, great sadness, great anger, frustration, the desperation. It all comes concentrated in a little piece.”
She recorded many concerts for Navras and her double album Divya (2007) was particularly well reviewed in Songlines.