Kishori Amonkar: Recounting a meeting with the 'temperamental' vocalist

Kishori Amonkar, one of the most revered voices of Indian classical music, was what a journalist would call a rarity. In a profession that encourages fearlessness to be able to pursue the toughest of stories, Amonkar was one of those celebrities that most journalists feared to interview. The weak would prefer to pass on the opportunity to interview her.

Amonkar carried the reputation of being a difficult interviewee, partly justified, because she had no patience for frivolous interviewers, who would come and ask her about her favourite actor, favourite breakfast, favourite pet, or worse still, 'could you please tell us about yourself' sort of questions. She was a woman of immense depth who had assimilated the very grain of her craft in her being, and always expected an informed person to talk to her. If someone needed her valuable time, they better come good on it.

Kishori Amonkar passed away on 3 April 2017. She was 84. Image courtesy: YouTube

Kishori Amonkar passed away on 3 April 2017. She was 84. Image courtesy: YouTube

An opportunity to interview the legendary vocalist first presented itself to me in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. The year was 2001, and she was slated to present a recital at my alma mater, Rajkumar College (RKC), one of the oldest and renowned public schools in the country, on 1 November 2001.

The new state of Chhattisgarh had just been carved out of Madhya Pradesh and Raipur declared the new capital. There was a sense of pride in the air, and there couldn't have been a better name to immortalise that occasion than a vocal recital by Amonkar at one of the most famous landmarks of Raipur.

Personally, this was an opportunity that I would have given an arm and a leg for in normal circumstances. But Amonkar, the tough nut to crack? I started doubting my ability to rise up to her standards with my questions. Should I let this opportunity pass? No, I shouldn't.

As an old boy (of RKC) and a reporter from Hindustan Times (the only national English daily that had its edition at Raipur), I got an appointment with Amonkar easily.

I was asked by her son Nihar Amonkar, who doubled up as her manager, to be at the hotel she was staying at, next morning at “9 am sharp”.

But my elation over getting the appointment was short-lived and my fears were made worse by an incident that took place on the evening she was supposed to sing. It was the first foundation day of Chhattisgarh. Amonkar went up the dais on the sprawling lawns of RKC, with the magnificent illuminated brick red palatial school building — a symbol of the British Raj — in the backdrop.

After 15 minutes of her rendition (Khyal), suddenly there was hooting from among the large gathering. Some uninformed members in the audience, unaware of her stature as a Hindustani vocalist, demanded that she sing popular film numbers.

And it proved to be the death knell for the evening’s programme. Amonkar immediately stopped singing, got up and walked off the stage. That’s when the organisers (Chhattisgarh government) realised something had gone terribly wrong.

RIP Kishori Amonkar: Raag Bageshri to Bhoop, listen to her best performances available online

After innumerable apologies and requests by heavyweight Congress leaders of Chhattisgarh, including Shyama Charan Shukla (former CM of MP), the Mayor of Raipur and many others, she was finally pacified and agreed to return to the stage to sing.

Given this background, my colleagues and friends exclaimed in pity over my impending interview with her the next morning. There was a sense of 'beware' in their exclamations.

Next morning, I reached her hotel at 8 am — an hour before the scheduled time. While waiting at the hotel lounge, I was shivering — not due to the cold winter but at the very thought that I would be the first journalist who would face her after the debacle of the previous evening. The local press had already written a lot about the show down.

While I was mentally trying to arrange my questions, Nihar came and asked me to follow him to Amonkar’s suite.

Within five minutes, a bespectacled Amonkar — draped in a fine cotton saree, with her signature big ‘bindi’ on her forehead — appeared. I almost jumped and stood up with folded hands to greet her.

Baitho beta. Kahan se aaye hain aap? (Sit down son. From where have you come?)”

Her warm demeanour infused some courage in me. After introducing myself, I apologised (on behalf of Chhattisgarh) for the previous evening’s fiasco.

“Yes, it was bad incident and the way a section of the audience reacted. But people of Chhattisgarh are good, so I continued with my recital,” she said.

Her answer made me confident of conducting the interview. With a smile, I asked her, “Madam, can we begin the interview?”

“No,” came the stern reply from Amonkar.

I immediately froze and was reminded of what my colleagues had warned me about her.

“First of all, don’t call me madam. They call me ‘Tai’. Second, I am sure you haven’t had your breakfast. So, first have it and then do the interview,” she told me, while ordering the breakfast.

It was an out-of-the-blue moment for me. I couldn’t believe my ears. The myth, the fear, the wrong impression I had about her of being a ‘highly temperamental’ singer evaporated in a fraction of a second.

Over breakfast, we exchanged notes. But more surprises were in store.

The photographer accompanying me was busy capturing the moments and his camera flashed blinked every few seconds.

That got to Kishoritai. Enraged, she scolded the photographer and asked him to squat in the corner from where he was clicking photos.

“Wahin baithey raho aur wohan se ekdum hilnaa nahi jab tak interview na ho jaye (Remain seated there and don’t move at all till the interview gets over)."

The interview got over after an hour and a half! She then addressed the photographer, still squatting in the corner. She said, “Beta yahan aakar baitho (Come and sit here)!” And offered him tea and snacks.

Also read: Kishori Amonkar's music was all heart — and that's why it was so easy to fall in love with

By then, I was at ease with Kishoritai and her son. I gathered courage and requested the exponent of Jaipur Gharana (musical tradition), who excelled as a doyen of Hindustani classical genres Khyal, Thumri and Bhajan, to sing a bhajan (devotional song) and a song from the 1964 Hindi movie, ‘Geet Gaya Pattharon Ne’ in which she done playback singing. She happily agreed and I recorded it on my pocket recorder for posterity.

Then, almost in an order, she asked us to have lunch with her as we had spent more than three hours, keeping many scribes and visitors waiting outside. We left with a promise that next time her wish would be fulfilled.

Almost after five years, I again got another opportunity to interview her and this time it was over lunch — as promised by me.

Kishoritais death — six days ahead of her birthday (10 April) — suddenly took me down the memory lane to Raipur days and how an encounter with her broke the myth about her of a ‘temperamental classical vocalist’.

Updated Date: Apr 05, 2017 11:18 AM

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