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:

क्या खाओगे मेरे को?... मूह फ़ाढ़ के देख ... ह्हेह्हहेह्हे ... डर गयी ... हहाहहहा

Kya khaoogey merey ko? … Muh phaadh kay dekh… (hhehehhhehee) Darr gayii! (hhahhha)

Oh no, will you eat me up? What are you gaping open-mou… (hhehhehhehee). You scared me! hhahhha

Kesarbai does not lose her composure … she is chortling. She goes back to the song where she left it, undisturbed by the man’s jaw-dropping wonderment. The amusement adds to the atmosphere. Seconds later, another man in the audience says, बहुत अच्छे। Bahut acchhe. Very well. Keep going. From the way the audience participates, and the way she interacts with them, they are likely sitting very close to her, it’s an intimate circle, it’s the way the planets regard the sun, we could even say they are at slapping distance, that is, if Kesarbai wanted to slap them she could, without having to get up or even stretch herself. And a few seconds later, someone says (is it the man who was gaping, who snapped out of the spell, that too with a comeback line?),क्या खुद को समझती हो? Kya khud ko samajhti ho? What do you think of yourself? Who d’you think you are? The ho lingers longer. (Hindi speakers will get it.) What do you think of yourself, eh? And this man, this blessed man, this lucky man, he looks like he’s seen and heard something he can’t believe. He’s been transported body and mind into another space, in fact into space, aboard the Voyager where Kesarbai’s voice will soon get a ride; and our man, this man in love, who is perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties, I infer from his voice, he clears his throat to offer a poor imitation of the assertive gamak-studded taans that Kesarbai has just executed—and will execute many more times in the next few minutes (gamak being the acknowledgment of attraction between one note and another, the pull of gravity from both ends and the decision of the notes to stay in their fixed orbits despite such strong pulls, just like the planets stay their assigned course; the negotiation of gravity is what gamak is)—this man mimics Kesarbai, as if to say she sings as good as any, he may even have meant as good as a man, and men, men that they are and hence delusional, have believed that the gamak is the forte of men, and women are meant to be mellifluous, which is to say if you are a woman you are not expected to have the combination of grace and recklessness that comes with sheer mastery, and such a coming together is so astounding that suddenly it becomes universal, it becomes universal for an American ethnomusicologist (a terrible name for an aesthete, a connoisseur), Robert E. Brown, that’s the name Wikipedia gives us, a man who pioneered “world music,” this Mr Brown decides that another of Kesarbai’s musical journeys, a three-minute-thirty-second recording in Bhairavi, a slice of music he regards as the “finest recorded example of Indian classical music” must play in space along with Bach, Chuck Berry, Stravinsky, the Night Chant of the Navajos and Beethoven’s Fifth. Now, despite the cautious caveat—for caveats are nothing but precautions—recorded example (for who knows how many great voices and musicians have passed unrecorded, unheard by Mr Brown who likes to play safe, though his appreciation of Kesarbai only means he likes to throw caution to the winds, go with the flow), despite this caveat, Kesarbai’s voice, her music, for Mr Brown, was to be among the selections made from around the world to be sent into space aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft in 1977—voyages headed nowhere yet somewhere. Carl Sagan chaired the NASA Committee that selected, among many other things, ninety minutes of music on a phonograph record—“a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth” to be ideally played at 16 2/3 rpm. And the year her singing was sent into space was the year Kesarbai died, on 16 September. Having completed eighty-five years on this planet, she was ready to explore new realms. (She left behind no great disciples, though Dhondutai Kulkarni is counted as one.) And in the song in Bhairavi, called जात कहां हो, Jaat Kahaan Ho, she asks, as if she was destined to ask herself in third person, Where are you headed? Where are you going? A very important question that the song seems to pose for itself as it floats in space.


This song in Bhairvai—unlike the Malkauns I have been singing about—uses almost just about every note, and variation of each note, in a seven-note raga. There’s no musical sound that eludes Bhairavi, it rides two ri-s, two ga-s, two ma-s, two dha-s, two ni-s, it’s a beloved who two-times all her five lovers at the same time at least twice. She’s grand and beautiful, there are many ways around her, but she does not have the sparse splendour of Malkauns, the fidelity it ruthlessly commands, and Kesarbai goes to space because she can reign over both ragas with equal regality.

You have to agree with Mr Brown that if there’s one piece of music that must play along with the boundless and unstruck music of the universe, along with thirty other sounds made by human genius, it is Kesarbai Kerkar’s Jaat Kahaan Ho; it must be played in space where gravity will not come into play. What would happen to the notes of her raga, when heard in space? Would these notes fall the same way in space, where there’s no atmosphere, like they do on earth, offering you, as Kesarbai Kerkar does, a glimpse of space, a little time travel in three-and-a-half minutes?

By September 2013, the Voyager had left the heliosphere and entered interstellar space. Wikipedia tells us, “In about 40,000 years, it and Voyager 2 will each come to within about 1.8 light-years of two separate stars: Voyager 1 will have approached star Gliese 445, located in the constellation Ophiuchus; and Voyager 2 will have approached star Ross 248, located in the constellation of Andromeda.”

If you listen carefully, the song’s line slowly unfurls as जात कहां हो अकेले Jaat kahaan ho akele? Where are you headed, alone? Kesarbai knew where she was headed. Alone.

S Anand is the publisher at Navayana.