A lyrical, compassionate conversation and an exploration of the essence of Gaanasaraswati Kishori Amonkar, her music and teachings, with Swarnima Gusain, who comes across as a symbol of her guru’s eternal presence.
"Thumri gayegi ? (Will you sing thumri?)"
When world-renowned vocalist, Vidushi Gaanasaraswati Kishori Amonkar popped this question suddenly, it wasn't meant to provoke. Its timing and emotional weight in the guru-shishya parlance, however, did clash with a comfort zone — 11 years of grueling lessons — primarily in khayal singing. The person on the other side of the conversation was her disciple. Noted Mumbai-based vocalist and Amonkar's disciple, Swarnima Gusain says, "She put this question to me about a year and a half before she left us."
"Gaanasaraswati" is how Amonkar was known for her genius, grace and grandeur. For her disciples and musicians in the fraternity, who adored her, she was "Tai".
Swarnima Gusain eventually packed her years and preparation in a suitcase for another destination — towards the learning of thumri — from Navi Mumbai to Kolkata. She says, "Thumri and dadra were my first love, I used to listen to a lot of compositions sung by Shobha Gurtu ji, and Shubha Mudgal ji, but when Tai started teaching me khayal, she wanted all my focus to be on khayal and (cultivate) the mindset required for khayal. She used to get irritated. Isko chhor tu (leave this alone) khayal hai asli (khayal is real), it has depth."
India's classical music heritage stands where it is today owing to the gurus and the guru shishya parampara. The search for the guru, that one right teacher-mentor- performer-parent-friend, all rolled into one, decides the direction some musicians take before becoming one of the greatest living legends.
I am bringing out this article for one reason. I wanted to know how Gusain, who reached Amonkar after a tiring vacuum of wait in the first place, is now navigating her performance in her guru's physical absence by adhering to lessons previously received from her. Most importantly, I wanted to know about Amonkar — the guru — from Gusain.
Gusain, over the years, had quietly developed the skill of knowing Amonkar's silence and words. For more than a decade of a learning music from this guru, Gusain had quietly kept aside the possibility of exploring thumri during a performance. Amonkar, on the other hand — a valued preserver of her own experience as a guru and shishya — knew what was whirling at the back of Gusain's mind as they opened many khayal performances together — vein by vein, year after year.
At the time when Amonkar enquired if she would sing thumri, Gusain's learning space and curve were soaring towards two destinations: musical thought, and khayal, in particular. She was also learning abhangs and bhajans. Amonkar suggested that Gusain's attention should lean towards Vidushi Girija Devi — the queen of thumri. Why suddenly? "I have no idea why Tai thought of it at that point of time. May be, something made her sense things beforehand."
Gaanasarawati Kishori Amonkar and Vidushi Girija Devi both passed away last year and their legacy of shishyas continue. I wonder, though, if any of them has really been as fortunate as Gusain, who experienced learning under both gurus, and is now able to hold her own while singing both the styles.
Was Amonkar reading Gosain's mind all those years? "She was like a lie detector. She knew that at the back of my dedication to khayal, there had been the constant wish to learn thumri." The guru was constantly working up that path for Gusain.
Amonkar, within their private space of riyaz and outside of it, was known for bringing about a cerebral shift into the singing of khayal. She was sculpting her own path through khayal and bhajans, extending her repertoire even at the pinnacle of her journey in music. It defined her pursuit for perfection as a woman, vocalist, scholar, thinker, and guru. She wanted Gusain to start stepping onto a similar path.
Eleven years ago, this juncture in her singing was unimaginable to Gusain. She was oscillating between restlessness and hopelessness, unable to find the guru that her voice, talent and practice deserved. She was new to Mumbai then and many of her friends suggested that she must think about approaching Vidushi Kishori Amonkar. "Tai was the last person I would think of learning from," adds Gusain.
Tempting as it may be to look for her guru's voice in Gusain's singing, it is notable that she displays an exploration of Amonkar's voice while developing her own. A chunk of Amonkar's own intellect in her approach to voice and raga, khayal and bandish, shows in Gusain's singing. She uses her voice not only as a voice while singing but also as a sculpting tool for transforming the composition.
Gusain is not a late bloomer. Though not born into a gharana, she started learning music early — at the age of nine — in Dehradun (Uttarakhand). She learned from Vasudevrao Deshpande briefly. From Dehradun she landed in Delhi, to learn from Shubha Mudgal, and later, from a Delhi-based renowned musician, Ustad Sabri Khan. "When I came to Mumbai I experienced kind of a vacuum. Bhatkan bahut ho gayee thhee. I had wandered a lot," Gusain adds.
Finally, one day, she found herself standing in front of Amonkar.
During their first meeting, at the beginning of their spiritual collaboration, Amonkar asked Gusain: "Who has sent you here?" There are times when people in the fraternity, including rasikas, connect a guru to shishyas. It was not so in Gusain's case. "I told her Bhagwan ne bheja hai mujhe aapke paas (God has sent me to you)," she says.
Gusain chose to sing raag Todi at her introductory interaction. This session of singing was to break the ice. It would also give the guru an idea about where Gusain stood at that point — in singing, practice, and preparedness. "Tai had penetrative eyes," she adds, "she heard me and said where were you for 25 years, I was waiting for you..."
Did she fit the general perception that rasiks had built around her temperament? "She was just the opposite of what I had heard." Then, the lessons came into flow. "It became like an army drill. She would get very angry when I would not turn up for the class. She would get angry and give it off to me."
Amonkar wiped away her singing and previous influences. Gusain says, "Tai's music was technically difficult." She mentions the familiar: "For vocalists in Maharashtra, Tai had become a reference point. She knew that everyone tries to copy her. As a teacher, she wanted one thing: jo unka gana hai wo mere galay se aaye (that her singing emanates from my throat). So much so, she even asked me to copy her voice."
It was much later that Amonkar showed acceptance for Gosain's own voice. It happened slowly. Another goal was to get the aakaar (a crucial aspect in improvisation) of Jaipur Atarauli from Gosain's throat. "to get it, one has to break the shackles within. Kuchh bandhan thhe mujhmein (I did have some knots within me). The main element I had to master to reach there was discipline. Tai ensured that."
Gusain's strenuous wandering before she reached Amonkar "was indeed a blessing". According to her, the time she spent on practice under other gurus before reaching Amonkar, shaped her for the ultimate nature of lessons. It provided the basics: intelligence, patience, preparedness.
When I heard Gusain earlier this year at a concert in Delhi, the breaking of "shackles" for the Jaipur Atrauli aakaar she had mentioned in our conversation, appeared in her alap.
Some observations on Gusain’s performance: discipline sits between each swar. There is crystal-clear clarity and a controlled flight in the laying of each set between two beats. Her seasoned voice — emboldened further by this control — takes over the task of being the moderator between the raga and the mind (she sang Kedar, and her conversation with madhyam and dhaivat invoked Amonkar's influence on her singing). There are other aspects in her singing that point to Amonkar's influence.
The guru's heritage - aspect #1: As in other aspects in her presentation of khayal, the taans, too, carry the sign of her continuing learning curve. The unnerving, repelling, gallop of skills in singing that charges towards a discerning listener at most "expectation-ridden” concerts (which Gusain is inevitably prone to), is absent in her singing.
This can be a risky approach in today's concert format but it presents a concert that is surely refreshing. The art of selection and omission during singing is her strength.
The guru's heritage - aspect #2: Gusain's singing reflects her temperament towards her art goals. She doesn't want to box her singing into a format. She, so many times in her conversation with me, mentioned "baandhna" (tying) and yet, she chases value-bound artistic freedom.
The guru's heritage - aspect #3: She does worry about how the slate would look towards the end. This and only this is my reason to keep following her. In her engagement with thinking, there are the rare glimpses of Amonkar sitting in the make-shift green rooms, where she would be seen immersed in contemplation.
The guru's heritage - aspect #4: The gamak is part of her treasure. "Tai's taans, the gamak in the taans, stayed with her for nearly 35 years of performance. I have learned that gamak only for 11 years," she says. She leaves her singing free and floating. As a result, you won't witness a picture perfect and manicured performance.
The guru's heritage- aspect #5: Gusain pursues material. She keeps self at the centre of her sadhna. This automatically makes her distant from the flashiness in presentation of material. She takes her own pace with the sequence in the format. Her singing of khayal seems guided by the same or similar dedicated pursuit of bhava, which her guru wanted to inculcate in her.
The guru's heritage- aspect #6: No lightening strikes your ear when she is maneuvering the saptaks, what touches you is the soft glow of gold — toughened over the flame of practice.
What moves me is her adherence to the guru as the benchmark for progress from here on. She adds, "I pat myself sometimes for picking on what was possible in those eleven years. Wo darwaze ke andar ghusna mushkil thha, ghus gaye to tiknaa mushkil thha, tik gaye to galaey se utarana mushkil thha (it was tough to get in there - into her space; once there, it was tough to stay; staying on - it was tough to sing as her disciple)."
Here is what she thinks about her stature in music, "It is important to know an artist — whether you are growing or not. Ye zaroori nahin hai ki aapka naam ho jaaye (it is not necessary that you make a name)."
Amonkar and Gusain would have discussions on diversification. She adds, "She had done fusion herself. During her times. But she wanted us to have that sight — where we see but are able to judge when to get off. Dekh ke andekha kar dena. She did not want me to wander during my years of sadhana."
Gusain's art is grossly underrated in the cruelly-termed creative arena called "market". So is her engagement with singing and swar aesthetics. She is currently one of the few "upcoming artists" who have their mind firmly immersed in khayal and thumri. "When it comes to composition, words, improvisation, bhaav, Appaji (Girija Devi) and Tai had the same core. Their core was bhav — and the aesthetics. They were great observers of nature."
Gusain does her talking about her guru through her singing. There is a glimpse of imperfections that are crucial to her growth as a vocalist. They remain embedded in her continuous sculpting for perfection in her singing.
Gusain, I can say with conviction, has the key for locking and unlocking of pain, of rasa. She turns that key around with patience. That's her weapon to providing solace. She adds, "Tai would even say at times that it was not necessary to sing so many taans. I would tell her that it might not work for me. She would say that as musicians, and singers, we are expected to provide solace and not to excite the listener. It is the core that gets you towards the destination in art."
Amonkar, perhaps, wanted to leave behind a mark — her own — outside of her own records, voice and memory. That key to aesthetics and practice, to truth and patience, in Swarnima Gusain's own art, is the symbol of a guru's eternal presence.