It was my first posting in service after my internship. Place was a godforsaken corner of rural Delhi, a dismal wasteland of cheerless shrubs and trees. It housed a surface-to-air missile unit. Missile had long gone senile and awaited its formal burial.
All buildings were in an advanced stage of ruin. Crowd at the unit was as washed-out, disgruntled that they had been short-changed by the organisation; This tenure being their ‘Delhi-posting’, a once in a lifetime offer.
There was no work at dispensary. Ten to twenty patients came every day with vague, imaginary, uninspiring ailments; probably out of boredom rather than due to the suffering. My day’s work finished in an hour. I read some book desultorily. I watched peacocks strutting in the unkempt garden. I looked at the clock ticking away slowly on the wall painted dull green. I tried to hold on to a past that was fading fast; and wrote long inland-letters to friends I had left behind.
I was the lone resident of the officer’s mess. On weekends I visited the mess bar. I drank Old Monk in the company of the barman. Stiff barman in his white mess uniform, standing erect behind the counter and trying to look busy amidst the boredom of serving the lone occupant of the bar, only heightened the gloom. Rum helped me to sleep better, but I avoided bar on weeknights. I feared dependence on alcohol to fill my melancholic moments.
I was lonely, miserably lonely. I needed something to occupy the long dreary hours. I thought of music. Indian classical music seemed the right option. I bought a few albums of well-known Hindustani classicists: Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, etc. Shop-owner seemed to understand music and would often give me tips. On an evening as I struggled to choose the right music, he pulled out a cassette from the rack, ‘Beta, listen to this. You will like it.’ I looked at the name of the artist and hesitated momentarily. I could recollect Kishori Amonkar’s name only vaguely. ‘Take this on my recommendation. Don’t pay now,’ volunteered the elderly man, as I vacillated.
It now feels universe contrived that fateful evening to put the album comprising Kishori Amonkar’s best compositions in my hands. These were her immortal renditions, her most celebrated creations: ‘Sahela re aa mil gaayen’ in raag Bhoop and, ‘Aaj sayiyo na jaaye’in raag Bageshri. My ignorance of classical music was dense and has remained thus, since. But that night I listened to Kishori’s album mesmerised; lying on the cot in my dingy room, in a rundown military base in the backwoods of southwest Delhi. I rewound the album again and again. Sleep had abandoned me. Leave alone the nuances of Hindustani music, I couldn’t discern Sa from Ra. I had heard only a few classical singers then and that too in an effort to cultivate an interest that seemed a remedy for the emptiness in my life then. But I felt Kishori’s singing was in a different league. I was hooked. And thus, began a passion which after passage of three decades, throbs with the same vitality with which it was born that lonely night.
I visited the shop the very next week and bought all Kishori Amonkar’s music it had. I listened to her day and night. Her music bound me in a spell. It had come to me when I had felt vulnerable due to an unbearable solitariness. Kishori’s music had appealed to some hidden craving in my mind. It was devastatingly beautiful. I find it ironic that by invoking the profound longings and the deep pathos of the human heart, it became the balm for my restless mind.
Time which had sat heavy on my chest, began to lighten up. Hours melted away in the heat of my new passion. Memory of the past lost a little of its sting.
A famous Jazz musician was once asked by a woman, ‘what is Jazz?’
‘Lady, if you gotta ask, you will never know.’ He is said to have quipped.
Does music have a language beyond its formal structure? A language that a person with an innate liking for a particular music can understand instantly without the knowledge of its form. Like beauty that is said to reside in the eyes of the beholder, does music too dwell in the ears of the listener?
I cannot write two coherent sentences on Kishori’s music. I can only write about the way it moves my heart. Bageshri and Bhoop quicken my pulse every time I listen to them. These are universally accepted her masterpiece. Raag Bhimpalasi leaves me utterly overwhelmed. Its drut portion is extraordinarily mellifluous, ‘Rang so rang milaaye, saanjh saj chaaye, mayee ri, ankhiyan singar laaye.’ Kishori’s singing of raag Hamsadhwani and raag Vibhas is the purest articulation of devout emotions I ever heard. In Vibhas’ ‘He Nar Narayan’ existence of the singer seems to dissolve in her plaintive entreaties to the supreme. ‘Pratham sur saadhe,’ Kishori’s another composition in raag Bhoop is breathtakingly flawless. Her Alaaps in Drishti, a movie directed by Shekhar Kappor, are the truest expression of human sorrow and longing carved in musical notes. They tear at one’s heart with their unfathomably deep, mournful, and yet placid tones.
I read, Kishori believed her music was not for entertainment. It was her effort to connect to God. Her notes, she stressed, were born in this quest. My reason did not acquiesce in this belief. But my senses led me there as I heard her. Her music invoked such intense emotions that I felt it was not of this world. I wanted to believe in transcendence, in a soul that could be freed of the material body.
Kishori said, while singing a raag, her endeavour was to find the right note, the appropriate swar. Once she had attained this feat, raag followed effortlessly. Even after listening to her incessantly for more than three decades I cannot claim that I understand a word of what these statements imply. But I feel the truth of these. Her music feels timeless. The ineffably beguiling composition ‘Ali palak na laagi’ in raag Rageshri, ‘Chaila na rang daar mope’ in Lalit Pancham, ‘Jab se tum sang laagli preet’ a drut in Bhoop, are just few of these. They inundated me in a deluge of joy. I felt each grain of my body pulsate with ecstasy.
I had listened to Kishori for two decades now. I learnt that on a Sunday she was scheduled to perform in SPICMACAY’s ‘music in the park’ series. I reached Nehru Park, the venue in Lutyens’s Delhi, an hour before the show was to begin. I was surprised to note that it was empty. I had expected half of Delhi to be there.
It was the autumn time. A pleasant chill descended as dusk engulfed the park. Mild fragrance of Champa floated in the air. Mattresses covered in white sheets were spread facing the dais. I sat in front, cross-legged, waiting with baited breath for Kishori to take the stage.
Night had fallen when Kishori walked on to the stage. She tuned her Swar-Mandal and Taanpuras of the accompanying singers for long. Initially she seemed to hesitate over the raag. Presently she seemed to have found the notes. She gained full control of the raag and sang effortlessly now. She was now the magician weaving an illusory web of musical notes in the cold dark night. I closed my eyes. Her voice rose higher and higher, as she pulled her characteristic taans. Disembodied and entranced, I floated in a world of dreams. I heard not the raag Kishori sang, but the strains of Bhoop, notes of Bageshri, ‘Babul mora naihar chooto hi jaaye’ in Bhairavi. I woke up from the reverie with the loud applause of the audience.
A mild noise in the audio disturbed Kishori incessantly as she started the second raag. When she realised this was due to a recording being done surreptitiously by a photographer, her rage hit the roof. She pushed the instruments aside and got up to leave the stage. It took all the might of the organisers and audience to placate her frayed temper. Kishori had always asserted that during a performance her deference was due only to her music. On stage she was not performing for the pleasure of the audience. She was contemplating the abstract through her notes. Music was her worship, her sadhana. Audience had an obligation to let her achieve the loneliness she needed for this.
Crowd had thinned considerably when Kishori agreed to sing again. She urged us to move nearer to the stage. I felt I could touch Kishori if I extended my arms a little. She then sang raag Shree. This time she seemed to gather her bearing within a few minutes. And she sang ethereally. Notes of her music acquired a physical dimension and hovered in the deep dark night. You could not only hear them but feel them around you. You wanted to soar with them and pluck them from the skies. She seemed to be at ease now and sang for an hour. I was dreaming in the first part of the concert. Now I enjoyed her performance wholeheartedly. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I’m sure many eyes would have been wet in the audience. I drove back to my place, forty kilometres away, in euphoria. ‘How good it is to be alive,’ I thought again and again.
I heard Kishori in Nehru Park on two more occasions. The last was in 2016. She sang raag Bageshri then. It was heavenly. My rapture knew no bounds. What more could I have asked from life? Most men die with measly desires unfulfilled. I had lived to hear Kishori sing Bageshri in front of my eyes.
Kishori died on 03 April 2017. She was eighty-four.
I had seen her perform live, thrice. I had known her through her music. This was still around me. But an ill-defined change seemed to have descended into my world. I suddenly felt very old. Kishori’s music had been a companion of my growing-up years. It came into my life when I was a callow young man, just expelled from the clean protected environment of a college into a large chaotic world. I had now stepped into my sixth decade; callow still, but hardened a little by life’s vicissitudes. It had not occurred to me that Kishori too was growing old as was I.
Music critics unanimously agree that Kishori’s music has to be felt, not only heard. None knows this as well as me. An unlettered blockhead in Classical music, yet a dyed-in-the-wool fan, could have known her music only through his heart. I listen to her often. It continues to colour the mundane moments of my life vividly.
Kishori’s music – in spite of my scepticism regarding duality of human existence; soul and body – transports me effortlessly into a universe of unearthly emotions and hair-raising otherworldly feelings. For fleeting moments, I experience that, capacity for which, nature has endowed only on humans; ability to experience the spiritual and the timeless through our material and transient brains.
And my heart whispers into the dark crevices of my mind- when all else will perish, notes of the immortal song will hover in the nothingness.
सहेला रे, आ मिल गाये
सप्तसुरन के भेद सुनाये
जनम–जनम को संग न भुले
अब के मिले सो बिछूड ना जाये
सहेला रे, आ मिल गाये
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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