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Surashri Kesarbai Kerkar
A Profile

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 Rajya Gayika.

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 of ill-health.

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.

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