Posted on RMIM by Rajan Parrikar as part of Great Masters Series
Source: Down Melody Lane" (1984) by G.N. Joshi
Goa is world famous for its scenic beauty as well as its mineral
wealth. Besides this, it has given to the world extraordinarily
gifted musicians, sculptors, painters, poets, writers and
singers. From the beginning of this century the Goan wealth of
artistry has flowed in a stream towards Bombay. Wealthy Gujaratis
and Parsis vied with each other to welcome and patronize these
artists. As a result Bombay has become a haven for many of the
artists migrating from Goa.
Kesarbai Kerkar, from the village of Keri in Goa, was one of
those who settled in Bombay. Gurudev Ravindranath Tagore honoured
her with the title 'Surashri'. The Indian government awarded her
the Padmabhushan, and Maharashtra adorned her the title Maharashtra
This brilliant singer died a few years ago at a ripe old age.
It is indeed difficult to do full justice to her illustrious
career in a brief account. She was the disciple of such eminent
gurus as Ramkrishnabuva Vaze, Bhaskarbuva Bakhale and Ustad
Alladiya Khan. She studied music under these masters for no
less than 25 years, and became a proficient exponent of the
gayaki of the Jaipur gharana. Her voice had a range of three
saptakas, and she could move through the whole range with ease.
Her presentations of khayals were models of graceful elaboration.
She used to present all the facets of each raga in her deep, full
throated voice. Her alap was always serene and dignified and it
gave a fascinating outline of the raga which would follow in the
bandish. The bandish was firmly rhythm-bound and one could also
easily discern the salient features of the raga through it. The
beauty of the long interwoven themes, taans and palatas held the
audience spellbound. She became known through the length and
breadth of India for her unique style of presentation.
Kesarbai had a very dignified and regal personality. Perhaps
that is why she was patronised by the royal houses of Kashmir,
Baroda, Kolhapur, Jaipur and Jodhpur. She was fully aware of her
talents and abilities and she always performed with self-confidence.
This was why she was sometimes misunderstood to be
conceited and proud. She was always very particular to ensure that
she got the honour and homage due to her and which she fully
deserved as an artist par excellence.
Whenever she came to our studio for recording we always treated
her with the respect that was her due. Vases with beautiful
fresh flowers adorned the studio, rose water was sprinkled all
over, and she was given an elevated seat. These decorative
surroundings added to the charm of her most enchanting music.
True to her nature, she nearly always entertained Maharajas.
She never sang for the ordinary public. She thus had made it
a rule to sing for people of a certain class and calibre. At
a period when other artists hankered after publicity and were
always willing to perform on the radio, or cut records, she
never cared for the media. Money and fame came to her without
any effort on her part.
When we began making LP recordings I naturally wanted her to
sing for an LP, but she refused to do so. There was an
interesting reason for this refusal. Around 1954-55 she had
recorded some 78 r.p.m. discs. In those days we used to get
sample copies for approval and out of respect for the artist
we always consulted him or her. Accordingly I sent Kesarbai
the sample copies for her approval. Out of the ten sides she
had recorded, she desired to re-record four because, in her
opinion, they were not up to her standard, In deference to
her wishes we held back the issue of the four sides and
requested her to re-record them. When, for over 8 months, she
did not do so on grounds of ill-health, my boss became very
restive and wondered that Kesarbai, a mere artist should have
the audacity to disregard the wishes of the world-famous
gramophone company (HMV). One day he called me to his room and
virtually ordered me to carry a message to her. 'Make it clear
to her', he said, 'that if she does not come for re-recording
within a fortnight we will publish the records as they are. We
cannot afford to wait any longer'.
I tried to make him realize that this was not the right way
to deal with an artist of her stature. But the boss refused
to see the wisdom of my reasoning, and in a fit of temper,
told me to convey his exact words to her. This boss was the one
Begum Akhtar had described as 'Kudhon ke Badhshah'.
The next day I went to Kesarbai's residence and requested her
to come and re-record but she again declined to do so on grounds
I had no other alternative now but to give her the message in so
many words. I said to her,'I am directed by my boss to carry a
message to you. Before I do so I must make one thing very clear.
When I give this message I am speaking in "my Master's voice"'.
I hated myself for doing it but as I was working with HMV I had to
give her the message.
It naturally made her furious and she went red in the face. For
a minute or so she was quiet; then she said to me in a hard
tone,'Go and tell that fellow that Kesarbai will never again
enter the precincts of your studio'.
And true to her word, she severed all relations with the company.
Luckily she was magnanimous enough to understand my position
and did not blame me. My only fault was that I had been indiscreet
enough to convey the fatal message to her. My relations with her
remained very cordial till the end but the company suffered the
irreparable loss of an artist of rare quality. In retaliation
she wrote a letter to our company withdrawing from us the right to
play her gramaphone records from any station of All India Radio.
Accordingly, AIR had to suspend the playing of her records. Her
records, however, continued to be broadcast by Goa Radio. Goa was
then Portuguese territory and she, having originally come from
Goa had innumerable admirers there. After independence, the people
of Goa, who now came under Indian jurisdiction, were deprived
of the privilege of hearing her on the radio.
I have always regretted that we could not make even one LP with her.
We tried to make up for this by issuing an LP of the 78 r.p.m.
recordings of her which we had issued previously.
Somewhere around 1942-44 Kesarbai honoured me with a visit to
my house in Dadar. I was glad to see her and was pleasantly
surprised when she told me the reason for doing me this honour.
She had just come back after an engagement with the prince of
Kashmir. While there, she was asked by the Maharani to sing
a devotional song. She therefore requested me to suggest a
suitable bhaktigeet. I sang a few bhajans I knew and one of these
she liked very much. The story of the bhajan was this: Radha
prays to god that she may be transformed into a flute so that
she might get from Lord Krishna what as Radha she would never
get. The bhajan then described how the flute was played morning,
evening and night, and how she was rewarded by Lord Krishna.
The tune I gave this bhajan was very appropriate and was also
in perfect classical style. The mukhada was in Rag Tilang and
the three antaras had the tunes of fitting morning, evening and
night ragas. Kesarbai got the song written out and made me
sing it several times. I unfortunately did not have the good
fortune to hear her sing this composition in her incomparable
voice and style. Maybe it was only heard within the walls of the
royal palace in Kashmir.
A year before her demise she was completely bed-ridden. Sur
Singar Samsad decided to honour her at her residence. I
accompanied our president Mr. V.S. Page and director Mr. Brij
Narayan to her residence and we paid our homage to this
'Gantapasvini' (a lady singer totally dedicated to her art).
She very endearingly asked me to sit near her and sing to her
one of my popular songs.
Soon after this, while I was away on a visit to America,
Kesarbai breathed her last, and Indian Classical Music was
left poor and forlorn. While extolling Kesarbai's artistic
genius, I have one regret. She kept her exemplary talents
to herself alone. In her long life of nearly 90 years she
did not have a single disciple who could carry further her
inimitable gayaki and tradition of the Jaipur gharana. Maybe
she did not come across a disciple worthy of receiving her
art and blessings.