b. 1892- d. 1977
A deep, resonant and strident female voice with a tonic at approximately Saphed 5 (G), would seem unimaginable to many music lovers today. Most women singers of yesteryears had such voices, but Kesarbai Kerkar’s voice was marked by its clarity, projection and open quality, all of which were rewards of a long learning stint with Alladiya Khan (1855-1946), the founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli style.
However, Kesarbai Kerkar’s musical journey went through many twists and turns before she had access to Alladiya Khan’s training. Her story is indicative of the trials and tribulations musicians and students had to undergo in those days.
Originally from Keri village in Goa, Kesarbai grew up listening to bhajans and kirtans sung in local temples. At the age of eight, she stayed in Kolhapur and learnt for a period of eight months from vocalist and Kirana stalwart Abdul Karim Khan (1872-1938). On her return to Goa, she trained with eminent vocalist and veritable storehouse of compositions Ramkrishnabuwa Vaze (1871-1945), during his visits to Lamgaon.
Meanwhile, Mumbai (earlier also known as Bombay) with its burgeoning trade and industry in the second half of the nineteenth century provided performers with alternate sources of patronage in the absence of major support that had come from princely rulers until the curtailment of the latter’s powers by the British colonial government. Musicians from Northern and Central India and from Goa and adjoining areas migrated to Mumbai as a result. Kesarbai followed suit and moved to Mumbai at the age of sixteen with her mother and uncle.
In the city, Kesarbai pursued her passion for learning music and with the help of wealthy businessman Seth Vitthaldas Dwarkadas, arranged to study with Barkatullah Khan (c.1850/60-1928), an eminent sitar player of the time. During the two years of this teaching, Barkatullah Khan taught her occasionally between his stints as court musician at the Patiala durbar. In 1912, Kesarbai requested Alladiya Khan (1855-1946) to her teach her, when he stayed in Mumbai for a short period. He agreed to teach her, but she could not grasp much of his vocal style in the limited time. He was forced to leave for Kolhapur due to ill-health, and subsequently, Kesarbai continued her study with Barkatullah Khan who spent his vacation from the Patiala princely court in Pune and would visit Mumbai periodically. But, this training also did not last for long, as Barkatullah Khan took up service at the Mysore princely court and his time was, therefore, divided between Patiala, Mysore and Pune. Kesarbai then learnt from Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale (1869-1922) for four and a half months, but even this training was terminated when Bhaskarbuwa moved to Pune to take charge of the Bharat Gayan Samaj, a major music club for music education and performance. Kesarbai was once more at a loss, but she learnt from Ramkrishnabuwa Vaze for a short while thereafter.
Kesarbai’s training was thus intermittent and interrupted until 1917. A turning point came in 1918 with her unimpressive recital in a concert series held to felicitate Lala Dulichand (c.1850-1921), a patron of music visiting Mumbai from Kolkata. It was then that Kesarbai finally decided to learn from none other than Alladiya Khan, as his style had impressed her during her earlier tutelage with him, and as he was respected for his knowledge and style by other senior vocalists. Consequently, she made efforts with the help of several sources including Lala Dulichand, to convince Alladiya Khan to teach her, but met with no success. It was only in 1920-21 that she managed with the help of Seth Vitthaldas Dwarkadas to convince Alladiya Khan to teach her. A written agreement was drawn up detailing conditions that were required to be fulfilled by her. These were:
1. A pre-determined amount was to be given to Alladiya Khan at the ganda-bandhan, a ceremony held to symbolise initiation into the master-disciple bond.
2. A monthly salary was to be paid to him.
3. The training would continue for approximately ten years.
4. Salary was not to be cut in case of his absence from tuition due to ill-health or if he were not in town.
5. She would have to travel to any town or city he chose to move to and continue training with him there.
The ganda-bandhan took place on January 1, 1921. After learning from him for a month in Mumbai, Kesarbai traveled to Sangli for training, as Alladiya Khan was recuperating there after a bout of illness. The training continued on their return to Mumbai, with the morning session typically starting daily at 8 a.m. and continuing until 1 p.m. The second session for the day would begin at 4 p.m. and continue until 8 p.m. In addition, Kesarbai had to do intensive practice in the lower octave from 5.30 a.m. to 7.30 a.m. Practising for long hours took its toll and tired her voice, but it was only in extreme cases that Alladiya Khan allowed Kesarbai to rest for two to three days, as he believed in an unbroken practice regimen. This strict routine continued for eight years. Later, Alladiya Khan took up other tuitions in Mumbai and taught Kesarbai only in the mornings. He also traveled for fourteen months with Shankarrao Sarnaik’s drama company to teach Shankarrao.
Kesarbai’s career as a performer after her prolonged training with Alladiya Khan began in the 1930s, and she soon rose to fame as a vocalist with a phenomenal presence on the musical firmament that lasted close to four decades.
Interestingly, Kesarbai was extremely careful to maintain an uncompromising performance stature that made organisers and audiences alike hold her in high esteem. The strict discipline she followed was as apparent in her career as a performer as was it in her music. She never agreed to a programme offer if experiencing indifferent health. Accepting an engagement was followed by planning the repertoire for the concert and regular practice of the same with her accompanists prior to the concert. Conscious of her prestige as a performer, she decided to retire the moment she found that her voice was failing her. During her career, Kesarbai commanded respect from musicians and the cognoscenti and was one of the most highly paid artistes of her time.
In recognition of her contribution to Indian music, Kesarbai received numerous awards, significant among which were Surshree conferred upon her by Sangeet Pravin Sangitanuragi Sajjan Saman Samiti (Kolkata) in 1948, Pramukh Acharya by Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1953, Padma Bhushan by Government of India in 1969, and First Rajya Gayika by Government of Maharashtra in 1969.
Prof. B.R. Deodhar, Thor Sangeetkar, (Marathi), Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Mandal, Mumbai, 1973.
Susheela Misra, Great Masters of Hindustani Music, Hem Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1981.
Prof. S.R. Mehta, “Kesarbai Kerkar” in The Record News, The Journal of the Society of Indian Record Collectors, Vol. 11, July 1993.
Biographical note prepared by Aneesh Pradhan
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