Kesarbai Kerkar (July 13, 1892 – September 16, 1977) was an Indian classical singer of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana and one of most eminent khyal singers of the 2nd half of the 20th century. She was a very famous singer in upper-class arena. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore was very fond of Kesarbai’s singing. Owing to her melodious voice, she was called as “Surashri”.
She was born in the village Keri (Ponda taluka of North Goa), but moved to Kolhapur at the age of eight and studied for eight months with Abdul Karim Khan. After her return to Goa, she studied with the vocalist Pt. Ramkrishnabuwa Vaze during his Goa visits.
Later she again went to Mumbai at the age of 16 and started her musical study under Barkat Ullah Khan (sitarist and Patiala State court musician). She was then trained under Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale and Pt. Ramkrishnabuwa Vaze for short phases. But at last, she became Ustad Alladiya Khan’s disciple (founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana). Her training under him was traditionally hard for the next eleven years.
As Kesarbai had no liking for teaching, she taught only one disciple, Dhondutai Kulkarni from 1962 to 1971. In 1962, Kesarbai had published a newspaper interview invitation of her training offer. After examining Dhondutai through a bitter analysis, Kesarbai accepted her as a disciple, but never accepted any fee for her training.
Kesarbai was a perfectionist and would always insist timekeeping. She would teach Dhondutai everyday for 3 to 4 hours, covering 2 or 3 ragas. After two years of musical training, Kesarbai moved back from Dhondutai’s training for about a month and initiated Dhondutai’s voice cultivation with a certain technique for superior breathing-energy-vowel pronunciation-constant voice tone through two full octaves. This schedule continued for several months. At the same time, Kesarbai would take the student to her concerts as an auxiliary. Though Kesarbai retired in 1965 from public singing, yet the training continued until 1971. In Dhondutai’s words, Kesarbai was like the Niagara Falls.
Ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown admired her recording, “Jaat Kahan Ho” (raga Bhairavi) as the finest recorded example (on the Voyager Golden Record with music selections from around the world) of Indian classical music and so sent it into space aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft in 1977.
‘Surashri Kesarbai Kerkar Smriti Sangeet Samaroha’ (a music festival) is held in Goa each November, by Goa Kala Academy, in which a music scholarship in her name is granted to a University of Mumbai student by National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) via Kesarbai Kerkar Scholarship Fund.
She was awarded the ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi Award’ in 1953, followed by ‘Padma Bhushan’ in 1969.
You can also read about more female vocalist of Indian classical music below :
Kesarbai Kerkar Desi Mhare Dere Aao