Why oversimplify? Pt. 2: Kishori Amonkar: icon, diva, world-wary genius?

According to Indian critic Suanshu Khurana, the great Hindustani songstress Kishori Amonkar (1932-2017) “represents the gold standard of musical genius in the country”. She is also regularly described as the ‘diva’ of Indian classical music – which, though a Western term (with etymological origins in the uber-dramatic world of Italian opera), seems to have taken on some cross-cultural resonance.

Amonkar has variously been headlined as a “tempestuous diva” (Business Standard), an “elusive prima donna” (Wire.in), “a diva…ferocious feline…unique all the way” (Pune Mirror), and “the reigning diva of the Hindustani classical stage” (Scroll.in), while celebrity editor Shobhaa De’s ‘How to be a Chick’ column described her as “fiery, mercurial, magnificent, majestic, [and] moody”. You get the picture – partly because these terms have a familiar ring (…echoes of Nina Simone?).

While the limits of these margins don’t allow for a detailed rundown of such a complex creative figure (maybe an article for another time), I couldn’t help but notice how many of the same dynamics seemed to be at play for Amonkar as for female singing stars in the West. Particularly, how the idea of the ‘diva’ can mask the real traumas and struggles faced by female musicians in a male-dominated sphere.

Well-substantiated tales of Amonkar’s uncompromising antics range from scolding politicians for their cultural cluelessness to repeatedly shouting “sit up” at front-row dignitaries who were slumping mid-raga. Fiercely protective of her time, she rarely gave interviews – no-showing to those she did agree to, and on other occasions quizzing the journalist on abstruse aspects of raga geometry before proceeding (“How will you interview me if you don’t know classical music well?”). Scornful of standard critical accolades, she dismissed the validity of the Bharat Ratna – India’s highest civilian award – on the basis that it had also been given out to a mere cricketer: Sachin Tendulkar.

“She was once about to perform at the Gulmarg Golf Club in Kashmir, where the audience included then Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. Someone began passing a platter of pears around. Amonkar refused to sing further. When an industrialist’s wife once ordered a paan during her performance, Amonkar screamed, ‘Am I a kothewali to you?’ From editors and politicians to industrialists and famous artistes, many have faced Amonkar’s wrath during concerts…” (Suanshu Khurana: The loneliness of Kishori Amonkar)

Clearly, these tales are more entertaining than actually very damning (especially when compared to Chaplin & co…). Anyway, we kind of want our creative heroes to be rough around the edges, as if such people must necessarily move in jagged sequence to the world around them (especially if this includes yelling at slobbish politicians). And if the world hails you for your vocalistic genius, then why shouldn’t you place a high value on your own free time to practice undisturbed?

On the other hand, these innovators aren’t really ‘such people’. Nobody is born into their adult personality, and even scattered fragments of biography tend to ring together in some way. I’m not here to judge whether Kishori was or wasn’t a ‘diva’ (who cares?) – or what the term ‘diva’ really entails. Again, it’s just worth looking a little closer. So – why might Amonkar have ended up acting like this? Is it that she’s a ‘difficult genius’ by irrevocable nature? Or were her temperaments greatly exacerbated by circumstance?

Amonkar grew up learning music from her mother Mogubai Kurdikar, who, though widely admired as a singer, did not witness the everyday respect she deserved as a human. Suanshu Khurana again: “[Kishori] wells up as she recalls the way organisers would treat her mother: speaking down to her, paying her little, and making her stay in someone’s home and not at a proper guesthouse. She was denied the respect a classical musician desires and deserves. ‘I saw this shoddy treatment of a legend like her. It hurt me deeply. But my mother had three children to bring up, so she continued. I decided that when I become a musician, I would never allow any of this. And I don’t’.”

After losing her father aged 6, the family faced economic challenge: “We lived in a one-room chawl. [My mother] needed every penny to educate me and my siblings”. Two decades later, already a star of the khayal scene aged 25, her voice mysteriously failed – silencing the musicality she relied on for sustenance, and had spent the majority of her waking life developing. It took her two years to properly regain her abilities (it is said, via the aid of an Ayurvedic mystic) – but she returned with a fresh, boundary-breaking approach, soon becoming recognised as an all-time great.

If you’d been through all this – fighting to keep your creative spirit burning amidst such harsh injustices and setbacks – then wouldn’t you jealously guard your own limited time left to sing? And wouldn’t you want to yell at the drowsy, inattentive corporate sponsors and duplicitous, dynastically sexist politicians taking up the front row of your concert? Why should any self-respecting musician pretend to prefer playing in their presence?

In her own words: “People say that I am arrogant and temperamental. I just don’t understand why. Have you ever seen me laugh at a concert, talk to my audience? I want to get involved and focus on the abstract. I have to forget my body then. For that I need my audience’s help, not their interruptions. People have to understand that music isn’t entertainment.”

“To know Smt. Kishori Amonkar is to know genius. She has in her a concentrated essence of the good, the bad and the beautiful that any genius could boast of. I have known Kishoritai now for many a year, yet I find that the passage of time does not help me to bind in words her elusive and many dimensional personality. It is one thing to know her and another to write about her. Like a great poet, she can say ‘Yes. I contradict myself. I contain many’.” (Vibha Purandare: Perfectionist and a Dreamer)

—Also see Pt. 1: Unraveling easy archetypes with Chaplin, Jeff Buckley, JFK, & James Blunt

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