Kesarbai Kerkar’s Music Is, In Fact, Out Of This World.

One of the greatest voices of the twentieth century belonged to Kesarbai Kerkar, the legendary singer of Jaipur-Atrauli tradition, who bestrode the narrow concert platforms of India like a colossus until a few years before her death in 1977. To listen to Kesarbai is to experience intellectual, emotional and artistic depth in a way that can hardly be matched anywhere else.

Nat Kamod

G.N. Joshi extolls Kesarbai’s style: “Her voice had a range of three saptakas, and she could move through the whole range with ease. Her presentations of khayals were models of graceful elaboration. She used to present all the glorious facets of each raga in her deep, full-throated voice. Her alap was always serene and dignified and it gave a fascinating outline of the raga which would follow in the bandish. The bandish was firmly rhythm-bound and one could also easily discern the salient features of the raga through it. The beauty of the long, interwoven themes, taans and palatas held the audience spellbound. She became known through the length and breadth of India for her unique style of presentation.”

— from Joshi: Down Melody Lane —

Gaud Malhar

B.R. Deodhar writes that Kesarbai “…never accepted an invitation for a recital in haste. She had to be sure that she was fit for the occasion and that she had sufficient time for riyaaz prior to the recital — and only then she would accept the invitation. her reputation meant more to her than concert fees. As soon as the date of the mehfil was settled the sarangi and tabla players were sent for. She would determine in advance which ragas and cheejs she was going to sing. She would spend a whole week practicing with her accompanists the selected pieces and then appear for the agreed recital. The secret of her invariably successful concerts lies in her systematic preparation.


I have attended her recitals innumerable times and at all times of the day — morning, evening and at night. Her tana cannot be classed as very quick but because the initial part of her khayal was presented in an unusually slow tempo, when she quickened the movement (eight, twelve or sixteen times), the tana gave the impression of great speed. She had a most attractive way of arriving at the sam. Khansaheb Alladiya Khan’s gayaki employs relatively few varieties of tanas but Kesarbai would interlink them so ingeniously that her arrival at the sam was invariably applauded by the audience. She presented all khayals in a leisurely tempo and I never heard her singing a fast-tempo trital. Her alapi was conducted in a playful rhythm. There was no bol-anga in her gayaki and she rarely spent more than twenty or twenty-five minutes on a raga. Every mehfil of hers was so exciting that the listeners would be in a kind of trance when the dispersed.”

—from Deodhar: Pillars of Hindustani Music —


Kerkar was awarded the decoration of Padma Bhushan by the government of India in 1969, and in the same year the government of the Indian state of Maharashtra conferred upon her the title of “Rajya Gayika.” Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is said to have been very fond of Kerkar’s singing. Her honorific title “Surashri” (or “Surshri”) literally means “excellent voice” (sur meaning “voice” and shri meaning “excellent), and was bestowed on her in 1948 by the Sangeet Pravin Sangitanuragi Sajjan Saman Samiti of Calcutta. In her ancestral village of Keri, the Surashree Kesarbai Kerkar High School now occupies the site of Kerkar’s former second home, and the house where she was born still stands, less than one kilometer away. A music festival called the Surashree Kesarbai Kerkar Smriti Sangeet Samaroha is held in Goa each November and a music scholarship in her name is awarded annually to a University of Mumbai student.



Mohan Nadkarni gives details of her lifelong training in “The Great Masters”:

“Kesarbai…began her musical training under the tutelage of Abdul Karim Khan, the founder-pioneer of the contemporary Kirana gayaki. A girl of eight, she went through the paces under the Ustad’s guidance and direction for ten months.”

After which, Abdul Karim moved away, and her study was put on hold for five years, until

“Ramakrishnabuva Vaze took her under his wing….the shagirdi continued for three years, during which she learnt the rudiments of voice control from him. Unfortunately the guru found it impossible to devote enough time to his student, resulting in another break in Kesarbai’s quest.”

In 1908, Kesarbai began studying from the sitarist Barkatulla Khan; during those six years, as Nadkarni puts it, “she learnt a number of ragas from him.”

Next up?

“With time, Kesarbai had yet another guru, Bhaskarbua Bakhle, one of the most renowned vocalists of his time, who had imbibed the best features of three diverse gayakis — those of Gwalior, Agra and Atrauli-Jaipur. This association was also fated to be short-lived.”


And, of course, her quest came to an end when she was accepted as a disciple by the legendary singer Alladiya Khan, the “Mount Everest of Hindustani Music.” Her relationship with him continued for twenty-five years, during which time (according to interviews) her lessons continued for six to eight hours a day. Even adjusting for exaggerative tendencies and the universal hagiographic impulse found everywhere Hindustani musicians discuss their teachers, it’s a very impressive feat of sustained learning.

Kesarbai herself was not known as a teacher. Dhondutai Kulkarni, who began learning from her when she was in her seventies, is perhaps the only person to have received rigorous taleem from Kesarbai.

Maru Bihag

A couple of years ago, I picked up Namita Devidayal’s book, “The Music Room” at the Granth bookstore in Mumbai. In a rare combination of personal memoir and dual biography, Devidayal gives a lot of anecdotal information about Kesarbai Kerkar and her ustad, Alladiya Khan — side by side with personal recollections of her own study with Dhondutai Kulkarni, one of the few musicians to have studied with Kesarbai directly.

To my amusement, I discovered a section fairly late in the book in which Dhondutai tells her disciple, “Did you know that Kesarbai’s music is in outer space?” Devidayal’s skepticism is evident as she recounts her reaction: “I gave my teacher a bemused look, but suspended disbelief for the story that would follow, for I knew it would be charming, even if apocryphal.”

Actually, of course, the story is perfectly true. The Voyager 2 spacecraft carries a specially designed phonograph record (and playback instructions) that carries a wide selection of music from Earth — biased toward Western Classical to some extent, but including a satisfyingly wide range of global expressions. Including Kesarbai:

Kerkar has the further distinction of having one of her recordings, “Jaat Kahan Ho”, duration 3:30 (an interpretation of raga Bhairavi) included on the Voyager Golden Record, a gold-plated copper disc containing music selections from around the world, which was sent into space aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts in 1977.

But here’s how Dhontudai tells the story of this beautiful human information attached to an interstellar vehicle. A traditional, rather insular and very past-oriented person transforms a piece of contemporary science into something that could have happened in any Indian city in the middle of the twentieth century.

“Many years ago, an American space scientist decided to send a time capsule into orbit. The idea was that if ever planet Earth were to get destroyed in some galactic outburst, some memory of it would be saved. The capsule contained random objects including a sheet with mathematical principles, photographs of famous monuments, art works, and — as far as this story is concerned — some music recordings.

“Now, this scientist had once heard a haunting recording of Kesarbai Kerkar’s Bhairavi and wanted it to be included in the capsule. He deputed his assistant to source that recording. No one seemed to know where to find it. Everyone insisted that there were no published recordings available because she had not allowed it. Finally, after scouring music libraries and stores, the assistant chanced upon a dusty hole-in-the-wall Indian store in New York.

“She found a sleepy man behind the counter, wearing a purple and green checkered shirt.

“He disappeared into a back room and brought out a carton, also covered with the same kind of checkered cloth and dumped it on the ground, sending off a cloud of dust. The student sneezed and shrank back, then knelt down and started sifting through the box. It contained stacks of old shellac records. The covers of some of the 78 RPMs crumbled in her hands and she sneezed again. Finally, amidst the dust and scurrying spiders, she saw a picture of a lovely woman, with her hair parted on the side, and a string of pearls around her neck. Underneath, it announced: Bai Kesarbai Kerkar. It was an HMV record. The assistant pulled it out and wiped it with the checkered cloth. She was in luck. It featured Kesarbai’s searing Bhairavi.

“The woman asked the shop owner how much she should pay him. He mumbled a ridiculously low price. She pressed double the amount into his palm and ran out of the store, clutching a smiling Kesarbai in the crook of her arm.”

Namita Devidayal — The Music Room, pages 237-238. Copyright 2007. ISBN 978-81-8400-012-2.

At which point, presumably, they tossed the gramophone disc into the space capsule and sent it up into orbit.

The “space scientist” is a terrible incongruity in this tale. Everything else: the sleepy shopkeeper, the dusty box, the checkered cloth, the sudden discovery of the sought-for gem — all of it could still happen today in any city or sizeable town in India.

How did Kesarbai’s music actually get selected? There were probably selection panels featuring musicologists from multiple genres, including an ethnomusicologist or two.

Wikipedia states that

The recording was recommended for inclusion on the Voyager disc by the ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown, who believed it to be the finest recorded example of Indian classical music.

There was more on the Voyager spacecraft than Kesarbai Kerkar’s singing, needless to say. The total list is really something.

Actually, the recording of Kesarbai’s “Jaat Kahan” wasn’t hard to find. It, along with a batch of her other 78 rpm recordings, had been reissued on lp in the late 60s or early 70s. It was part of a great many Indian collections; I got my copy in 1978, and it had been around for quite a while.

Here it is. I bet Robert Brown really was haunted by it. I know I am.

Good post.
Thank for sharing

Very glad to encounter you here, Prateek!

7 Sep 2016, 6:35am
by prateek kerkar

I am Smt Kesarbai’s great grand son
Its a honour to read about our family patriarch


3 Sep 2015, 1:09am
by Anindya Sen

This contains the Chaiti. Hope you will put it up on your site.

Kesarbai Kerkar learnt from Alladiya Khan for nearly 8 hrs/day for most of 1921 through 1930. Afterwards, she learnt from him periodically and whenever it happened, it was for approximately 4 hrs/day. Incidentally, her Bhairavi recording in the Voyager is rather terrible and is a poor representation of this regal vocalist.

4 May 2012, 4:30pm
by Gayatri Ugra

great post. Do add Chaiti, Saiyyan bhaila jogiya, probably the most moving, second only to this Bhairavi

4 May 2012, 1:54am
by govind

great piece, if you like i can send you her “saiyyan bhala jogi – chaiti” which is one of my favourites

Excellent post… loved the anecdotes and the videos that you have put up in youtube.

wicked site thanks for writing this.


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