Partho Datta
A SONG IN SPACE: KESARBAI KERKAR by By Neha Singh. Illustrated by Shubhshree Mathur Pratham Books, New Delhi, 2023, 20 pp., INR 85.00
November 2023, volume 47, No 11

This is a good introduction to the celebrated vocalist Kesarbai Kerkar and a story about how her recording of Raga Bhairavi ‘Jaat Kahan Ho’ was included in a disc that was sent into space. In the 1970s, Carl Sagan the famous astronomer and scientist was in charge of a project to put together sounds and music from earth and wanted a representative selection of the greatest musicians across cultures. It was Robert Brown who alerted Sagan to Kesarbai’s recording and that was how her track was included. This was put in the Voyager that NASA was sending into interstellar space; the hope was that it would encounter other intelligent beings who would be able to discover the wonders of the earth.
The inclusion of Kesarbai in the Golden Disc may have been a matter of chance, but there is no doubt that if there was one voice that exemplified the achievements of the Hindustani classical tradition, this was it. Her authoritative vocalism, confidence and musicality have remained unrivalled. Most of her recordings were made on discs ranging from seven to eight minutes and the more conventional format of three to four minutes between the late 1930s and 1950s. Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan have issued her early recordings as a CD through their Underscore label and most of her other recordings for HMV are available now on YouTube, Spotify and other platforms. Her music circulates and continues to mesmerize. She set very high standards and few can emulate her vocalism today. Her speciality was chiselled taans and a breathtaking ability to hold the sam at bay. Critics and enthusiasts never stopped marvelling at her even tone, technical dexterity and aesthetics.
The conventional way to place Kesarbai is to invoke the dedicated training she received from her teacher, the maestro Ustad Alladiya Khan who is well known as the founder of the Jaipur gharana. It is true she received training for many years and mastered the difficult repertoire of the Jaipur tradition especially the jod ragas for which it is famous. Linking her to the established male ustadi tradition of raga music has been a way to incorporate and legitimize her place in Indian music history. However, Kesarbai also represented an alternative tradition of women from the singing communities who always had a significant and autonomous place in the traditions of raga music. These women were the first to embrace modern technology like recording and played an important role in modern theatre and cinema. They learnt from ustads but also incorporated their own songs and compositions which have become a part of the tradition of classical singing. The early recordings by Zohrabai, Gauharjan, Malkajan, Kashibai are now classics. Kesarbai and her contemporaries, Mogubai Kurdikar, Siddheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai, Begum Akhtar, Hirabai Barodekar, Sundrabai Jadhav and Indubala carried forward the legacy. They commanded and set important precedents for public performance which male vocalists had to acknowledge.
There are legendary and delightful stories (in memoirs by Sheila Dhar, DN Joshi, Kumar Mukherjee, and Namita Devidayal) of Kesarbai’s imperious dismissal of contemporary vocalists and patrons. All those who had a brush with her powerful personality came away chastened but with their admiration doubled. Rabindranath Tagore hailed her as ‘Surashree’. When All India Radio inaugurated the National Programme of Music in the 1960s, she was one of the vocalists invited to open the series. Like all great artists, she chose to retire voluntarily when her vocal prowess declined. Hopefully, this book will encourage a new generation to connect to her music.