Kesar Bai Kerkar was one of the greatest vocalist. She specialised in kheyal gaiki with a little bit of thumri, dadra and bhajan thrown in. She died more than 50 years ago. Still, the purity of her note has a resonance all its own.
She was principally a kheyal gaika, and had as her contemporaries some of the greatest kheyal gaiks.
One wonders, whether during the golden era of music, when dhrupad reigned supreme, what was the contribution of female vocalists? The famous names have all been males. That may be considered as the golden era of our grand musical tradition because most of the legends belonged to this era. Name them and they were around — Baiju Bawara, Tansen, Ramdas, Surdas, Swami Haridas, Chand Khan, Suraj Khan.
The only female name that comes to fore is of Meera Bai. Her entire history is stuff of legends. One does not know for sure who she was and why she rebelled against mainstream living. But her name has survived – primarily because of her association with music. There is the Meera Bai Ki Malhar and many bhajans which are attributed to her. They have travelled down through the traditional oral transmission of musical knowledge (seena ba seena) and are sung in many forms — some the way bhajans are sung now; some in other forms, like kheyal and geet. A few have even found their way into films.
Ravi Shankar also composed music for a film made on Meera Bai by Gulzar. The bhajans in the film were sung by Vani Jai Ram and the compositions and the orchestrasation and the score (if it can be called so) was by Ravi Shankar. If one recalls, the film did not do well at the box office. The score too was of moderate success. Perhaps, because, bhajans of Meera Bai sung by Juthika Roy earlier were more popular with connoisseurs than the score of Ravi Shankar.
One wonders, what was the role of women in performing arts, other than that of Meera Bai? Did they have a role at all? What did they specialise in? Why have their names not survived the ravages of time?
It can be said with a level of certainty that the names of only those musicians and vocalists have survived who belonged to the major tradition of music. It was in the centuries when dhrupad prevailed, and probably none excelled in dhrupad, or even if they did, it was not properly recognised as such.
Women of the traditional families of musicians, the hereditary musicians, did not perform. Since they were daughters of musicians, they were repositories of musical knowledge which was not meant for public performance but only to educate their male heirs to become performers. The women were not supposed to become performers. They were only mothers. They were carriers of traditional knowledge to be passed on to the next generation.
The next generation or the subsequent generations of women, especially during the kheyal ascendancy and dominance, produced great vocalist. That included, Hira Bai Barodkar, Gango Bai Hangal, Roshan Ara Begum, Maggo Bai, Rassolan Bai, and Girja Devi. Then closer to our times were Parveen Sultana and Kishori Amonkar, to name only two.
It is said that the first person to be recorded in the subcontinent was Gauhar Jan in either the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century. It is also said that she performed for King George when he, as the Emperor of Hind, held the court known as Delhi Darbar in 1911. It is difficult to say what was the caliber of Gauhar Jan as a vocalist of kheyal but she was considered to be an excellent thumri and ghazal gaika.
It is possible that during the golden period of our music, that is the many centuries when dhrupad dominated, from the 15th-19th century, the female vocalist specialised in what is generally classified as lighter forms of music, like the ones that are sung or must have been sung in salons. This form of music may have accompanied a dance performance as well or some other kind of enactments not purely musical (like mime). These forms were not taken seriously or not seen as autonomous hence not properly recorded or documented.
It is possible that there were many outstanding performers of ghazal and other forms that may have preceded thumri but, as fatalities of history, their contribution has gone unregistered in the more conventional sense.
By the middle of the 19th century, many specialised in thumri, dadra and ghazal. Then they started to make an impression in theatre and subsequently in the films.
Several musicians and singers from North and Central India, facing declining patronage from princely states, started migrating to Bombay in the 19th century. After a brief tutelage under Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Kerkar, too, moved to Bombay. A wealthy local businessman, Seth Vitthaldas Dwarkadas, helped her study under Barkat Ullah Khan, a sitar player and a court musician in the Patiala state. He taught her intermittently for two years, during his visits to the city. However, when Khan became the court musician at Mysore State, she trained under Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale and Ramkrishna Bua Vaze for short periods, eventually ending up as a disciple to Ustad Alladiya Khan, the founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana. Beginning in 1921, she trained rigorously under him for the following 11 years. Though, she started singing professionally in 1930, she continued to learn from him till his death in 1946.
Kerkar achieved wide renown. She performed regularly. In time she became an accomplished kheyal singer of her generation. She seldom sang light classical music that is often associated with female vocalists. Her success as a public singer/vocalists was away from singing at mehfils or private gatherings that women of previous generation had to settle for.
Kerkar was awarded the 1953 Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, followed by the decoration of Padma Bhushan by the government of India in 1969. In the same year, the government of the Indian state of Maharashtra conferred upon her the title of ‘Rajya Gayika’.
Rabindranath Tagore was said to have been very fond of Kerkar’s singing. Her honorific title ‘Surashri’ (or ‘Surshri’) was bestowed on her in 1948 by the Sangeet Pravin Sangeet Anuragi Sajjan Saman Samiti of Calcutta.
Kesar Bai Kerkar died on September 16, 1977.