Raghu Rai on Kishori Amonkar

In a decade of having engaged with photography and photographers, it has always been the stories that have stood out for me. Why does someone do what they do? And what do they do, aside from what they do? Tales that tell me more, the insights of an idiosyncratic mind. From the story of one photographer who forgot his camera while assigned to photograph the then Prime Minister of India (and yet, got his photo) to the tale of another photographer who overslept, shooting merely two rolls of film instead of the thirty that he’d carried (and yet, got his photos). Stories, these. Stories, that make up history. 

And so, when I heard last night, that the legendary Hindustani classical vocalist, Kishori Amonkar, has passed away, I went back to my memories of her, a collection of old photographs. As someone who had never seen her perform, it was Raghu Rai’s evocative portraits that told me me more about the soul behind the soulful voice, much like his extensive documentation of other performers and musicians. Early this morning, Rai traced back his own memories, talking about a sensitive and amusing time when he had met Amonkar.

Photograph by Raghu Rai

“Kishori ji who provided a heavenly ladder to the Lord through her spiritual energy and her dedication to music was someone very unique. Also, she was a female vocalist of her generation who sang with a feminine voice, sensitivity and tenderness.

My first encounter with her was at Hotel Taj Mansingh Delhi, way back in early 1980s at a very special concert. I was sitting in the front row about 7-8 feet away from Kishori Ji. The seating was on the floor with gotakiyas and ashtrays all around. There was an old gentleman sitting next to me, he grabbed a gotakiya and reclined to feel a little comfortable, Kishori Ji saw it and she snapped ‘Sit straight!’… We are all taken aback. After finishing her Raga she went for a 15 minutes break, the moment she left I lit a cigarette as it was a little upsetting. As she turned up and saw me smoking, she snapped again ‘Don’t smoke!’, I stubbed the cigarette and said, ‘Since you were not there so I took the liberty, I am sorry.’

After the concert got over, Rajji bhai who had organised it told Kishori Ji that the guy in the front row, who you just snapped at is Raghu Rai who is a great admirer of your music. Feeling bad about it she said please call him I want to apologise, seeing me she said ‘Raghu bhai I am very sorry, when I perform even little bit of movement disturbs me.’ I apologised to her and I reminded her about something beautiful that she had said in one of her earlier concerts, ‘When I sing, for me, my audience is my God and I sing to my Gods. Similarly, Kishori Ji when I come to listen to musicians of your stature I consider you to be my God as through your meditative pursuit you connect us to the Lord. See Kishori ji what has happened! you are angry with your God and my God is angry with me.” To this she replied “Nai nai Raghu Bhai, nai!”

So may I say that when she was in her true spirits connected with the Lord, her voice was like a shower of blessings on all of us.”

– Raghu Rai

Republished with permission, from the photographer’s social media feed. From an upcoming issue of Creative Image, a Raghu Rai publication.

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