When I was reading José Saramago’s Death at Intervals, I had paused after the first epigraph wondering about the people I should put on the list of “never to let die”. Tai (Kishori Amonkar) was indeed the first name. But then, I knew that she would be opposed to that idea. She would have said, “There is no place for me in this commercial world. A price tag without any divinity is the world of music today! I wish to depart. Don‟t keep me bound.” Before I could even think of launching a rebuttal, she would have reached another level.
In fact knowing Tai’s propensities, I could imagine her criticising Saramago for not quite meeting the challenge of exploring original images and new linguistic fields while dealing with death as a realistic character. I could vividly hear Tai giving a parallel with her inherent confidence, “See how re is applied in the ascent while singing Bhoop and how ga is sung directly after sa while skipping re in the ascent in Raga Deskaar? That’s an original approach – unlike your mono-dimensional character of death.”
My imagination had taken a tangential route just as Tai would do very often while discussing any subject other than music. She had opinions, very strong ones – about current events, political developments, books, cinema, television serials, fashion, pollution, cuisine, corruption – absolutely anything under the sun. Her favourite sharpening stones were changing values and contemporary sensibilities. Tai had no fondness for the younger generation; her negative adjectives used for them were in superlatives. And if I would even attempt to present my contrary views, she would lose her cool. I was left with no choice but to resign to her.
In hindsight, over three decades of our acquaintance, I think we had more discord than concurrence. The contrast often perplexed me. While on the one hand I worshipped her music, on the other, I tolerated her perspectives on life, which were completely incongruous with mine. She despised modern art and when I would explain my attraction for non-representational forms in art, she would ask me to keep mum.
She did not like the fact that I painted abstracts in oil – to the extent that she refused to visit my solo exhibition in Mumbai. I could never tell her that the abstraction in her music was the most captivating element for me. Her ornate bol-aalaps, her poised gliding from one note to the other, stirring experimentation with jod-ragas transcending the traditional Jaipur gayaki, her rousing master strokes presented every time on the stage, her rendition of speedy phrases with aplomb – beyond and through all this, what I would take home was the abstract imagery which would stay with me for days after. Had I gathered the courage to share all this with her, I would have been reprimanded, “Just see if my emotions reach you or not.”
One morning, Sandhya [Gokhale] and I were summoned to her residence for her riyaz. This was the ultimate privilege since apparently she allowed no one to be present during that sacred time. “Take a shower before you come,”she had instructed me. I knew that this was going to be something exceptional. I had seen her worshiping in front of her devghar, painstakingly arranging flowers, adorning the deity with sandal wood paste, all in an immersed state. My atheism never precluded me from appreciating her beauty in that state. From the movements of notes that few of her disciples were practicing, Sandhya told me, “It’s going to be Raga Lalit.”
As Tai settled down, everyone felt restive with her despotic cough. I don’t know when a meditative and serene state had fallen upon me, where I could not feel her presence – it was just pure music. After about an hour, I felt almost dehydrated. I was exhausted. I felt like all was absorbed in the craft while I stood alone in the midst of a hurricane. I could not handle the experience any further. I had to walk out. Later, when she came out of the room, she noticed my completely surrendered state. “Do you still think God doesn’t exist?” She definitely knew how to win in all respects – and all the time! After that encounter, I decided never to challenge her ritualistic belief or her faith in Raghvendra Swamy or whosoever. That day I also realised the serious limitations of “processed/amplified sound”, whether heard during a live concert or through a super fine instrument. Music stops being a performance in the absence of any gadgets. The omnipresence of her voice that day will never be erased.
Thus our association was mutually antithetical in many respects and yet I deeply shared her core as an artist. I decided to focus only on her artistry when I made the documentary, Bhinna Shadja, on her. Had I not taken that decision, there could have been a lot of clatter in her depiction. “We lack the caliber to make a film on her,” was Sandhya’s reflexive reply when I shared the proposal initiated by Tai. I disagreed with her because I did not feel the hierarchy that Sandhya, as a student of music, felt. I never felt restricted by the grammar of music, which probably allowed me to remain uninhibited by her aura as a musician.
Gender was yet another layer which I somehow disregarded even in her presence.
I’m sure she would not have liked to hear this from me. “Do you see me as a skeleton? In fact if you do not see me, you must be a robot.” I imagined her dialogue. I do recall Sandhya telling me once that Tai’s habit of wearing the same sari for all her concerts was an attempt to deflate her gender. Just like she always carried that awful, red handkerchief in one hand, Tai’s close disciples thought that her superstitious beliefs were behind the sari.
Ironically, now that she is no more, I am analysing the layers of my relationship with her. I deliberately did not wish to dissect her as a human being and chose to remain an onlooker throughout Bhinna Shadja. Why is she so bitter about life? Is she really unhappy with herself? Why is she competing with others? Why can’t she perceive her superiority without cynicism? Why does she feel cheated upon by most? Is her anger a weapon or a shield? Why is her world so intensely insular? Is it our fault as an audience that we bestow pious, classical values upon an artist and use those to judge her? Was she as a woman, equal to her art? Was her intellectualisation of music contrived? These and many more academic, as well as personal questions were left decidedly unanswered and deliberately – probably because of my uncontested acceptance of her for who she was. It is owing to all her idiosyncrasies that the narratives around her did not become hagiographical.
At 11:30 pm on April 3, Sandhya got a message, “The filigree of Jaipur gayaki is orphaned!” Her departure was as unpredictable as her being. Yet her mellifluous voice has continued to fill my musical universe.
Tai, you have no clue how abundantly you have given to an audience for whom music is an imperative need. Through your immortal musical phrases, we have survived the absurdities of life; we have encountered the Freudian oceanic feeling of being in love where the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Your emotive, but intricate music is the indissoluble bond that we all will cherish forever. Your ingenious renditions will always be eternal for generations. Thank you, Tai for giving us all the strength to exhaust the limits of the possible. It is this unique power that you possess to transmute your pain into art that ultimately gave people like I, the strength to survive the Sisyphean curse.
How can all this be redeemed?
Amol Palekar is a nationally and internationally acclaimed actor and director who is active in the fields of performing and visual arts for last five decades. His social commitment and contemporary progressive sensibilities are commendable.
Sandhya Gokhale is a writer