Kesarbai becomes Malkauns, Malkauns becomes Kesarbai

16 September 2014

In early September 1977, when the space probes Voyager 1 and 2 were launched by NASA to explore the interstellar medium, they carried with them a collection of gramophone records. On one of these discs was a recording of Kesarbai Kerkar’s Jaat Kahaan Ho, an interpretation of Raga Bhairavi and the only Indian selection among other works by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Kerkar, perhaps the most well-known of Indian women classical musicians, was born in Goa in July 1892 and began her training as a vocalist at the age of eight. She was a student of Alladiya Khan, the founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, and went on to distinguish herself as a singer of the khayal form, mostly associated with male vocalists.

She passed away on 16 September 1977, a few months after Voyager was sent into space with her voice on-board. To commemorate the anniversary of her death, publisher S Anand writes here of his experience with Kerkar’s music and magic.

Kesarbai Kerkar regards Malkauns her very breath. She sings it like her life, all life, depends on it. Malkauns is the only real love of Kesarbai’s life. Proof lies in the thirty-minute recording I have been listening to for the past few days, almost nonstop. I have been undeterred by the most sudden murder that awaits me at the end of these thirty minutes of pulsating life; each time, when brutally, abruptly, the song stops, life seems to end. Midnote. Unfinished. Snuffed out just when she is peaking towards a final flourish. Anyway, that has not daunted me, for there’s the story of life after. And here it is.

What we have here from Kesarbai is a voice that embraces the notes, makes love to them, just the five notes that Malkauns has to offer. Kesarbai becomes Malkauns, Malkauns becomes Kesarbai, they fuse. Kesarbai surveys the wide spaces between the pentatonic, for unlike in a seven-note raga, there’s a lot of space available between the notes here, sa ga ma dha ni, especially between sa and ga, and ma and dha, and she uses these spaces to get intimate with the fewer notes. Kesarbai finds new paths, new pathways to illumine sa ga ma dha ni through a warren of patterns only she can trace back; and we have to note that unlike other pentatonic ragas, like say Bhoopali, Malkauns is bereft of pa, the pancham, the point that is fixed, like sa; Malkauns does not have the shelter of pa where a singer can rest a while, before resuming her journey; and Kesarbai uses the opening created by the lack of pancham, and she glides, swims, runs, loops, slips, vaults, snakes, flies, flips, jumps, waltzes, weaves, bends, blends, punches, pulls, unwinds, winds and binds, and she arcs the five notes; she, without warning, hoists a five-coloured rainbow connecting land, sea and sky, and at the receiving end of this spectacle is the listener. As Kesarbai conjures a visual journey into spacetime by taking over our faculties, as she triggers a serious bout of synaesthesia in the listener, the hapless listener is easily astounded; he is astounded because he sees not only the five-coloured rainbow but also those spaces in between, where red merges with green, and green with blue, blue with yellow and yellow with black, and all these with white, and Kesarbai makes us look at the ways in which these colours merge. And in the middle of a series of manoeuvres after which she lands on sam, the certitude of the closure of a cycle of beat, teen-taal in this case, which is also the beginning of another cycle of the same beat, like Sergei Bubka lands his short frame on seemingly flat earth after vaulting past six metres (only to try and jump again and again, as long as he can, trying to get as far away from earth as possible), so she lands at sa, she stops in her stride. She stops singing, and Kesarbai says something to a person in the audience, surely a man. She suddenly looks at this man, till then she’s perhaps shut her eyes tight, making her way blindly so that she can negotiate a series of rash curves and sudden stops and spin the wheel in the air, her accelerations punctuated by commas, exclamations, ellipses, colons, stops and Dickinsonian dashes, each an expression of breath, that lead to beautiful ways of landing on the next note, novel ways of falling into the arms of the next note, the next colour, the next love, and so she shuts her eyes, Kesarbai does, in order to negotiate her way through a labyrinth of her own making, and after she’s nonchalantly effected a dizzying rollercoaster taan, she suddenly opens her eyes and registers this man gaping, open-mouthed at her audacity, her genius, her preterhuman ability, his eyes unblinking, his mouth unmoving, his tongue dry, he’s been frozen in time, and when Kesarbai opens her eyes to see this, this stunned man, somewhere into the twentieth minute of the recording where a heavily pixelated random but eyes-half-shut image of Kesarbai hovers if you care to watch the Youtube video, she is startled enough to say:

S Anand is the publisher at Navayana.