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Kesarbai was a Hindustani classical singer. Born in the village of Keri in Goa under the Portuguese, she is regarded as one of the founding artists of the modern genre. She began to learn music at the age of eight under Ramkrishnabuva Vaze in Lamgaon. At the age of 16 she came to Mumbai and after many complications realised that only Ustad Alladiya Khan (1855-1946), the founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, could teach her. Unusually, she signed a contract with him in 1921 which laid out in minute details the terms of their agreement; he was to teach her for ten years, and was to be paid a salary, and she would have to follow him to any town or city he settled in. She also studied under Bhaskarbuva Bakhale.

She was particularly known for her range, the depth, resonance and clarity of her voice and the elegant elaboration of her gayaki. By the 1920s she was a well known singer, and Rabindranath Tagore, a fan, conferred the title ‘Surashree’ on her in the 1930s, meaning ‘ornament of music’. The refinement and classicism of her style was highly appreciated and she sang before many of the royal houses of India, including, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kashmir and Baroda.

Although her singing was highly sought-after, she made only a few recordings in the 1950s for the HMV and Broadcast labels. A subsequent disagreement with HMV led her to withdraw her music rights from them, and she also forbade them to play her music on All India Radio. As Goa was a Portuguese territory till 1961, Goa Radio was the only medium that she would allow to play her songs. Her methods of singing were highly unique and therefore she was particular about how her work was represented. She felt that the booming popularity of recorded music would kill Indian classical forms. A standard Classical recital was too long to be represented in full by the technologies of the day, and it depended moreover on close interaction between the signer and the audience. This was not possible through mechanical reproduction. Hence she never embraced modern methods of recording and commercialisation. Her art remained the privilege of a few.

She was designated a Pramukh Acharya by Sangeet Natak Academy, and received the Presidential Award for Hindustani Classical Music in 1953. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the central government, and was the first awardee of the title of Rajya Gayika by the government of Maharashtra, both in 1969. The Surashree Kesarbai Kerkar High School now stands in place of her second home in Keri, close to the house where she was born. The Surashree Kesarbai Kerkar Smriti Sangeet Samaroha music festival is held in her honour in Goa each November. The University of Mumbai also has an annual scholarship in music in her name. Kersarbai’s rendition of ‘Jaat Kahan Ho’ in Rag Bhairavi is on the gold-plated copper disc containing music selections from around the world, which was placed aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts in 1977. It was recommended to NASA by the ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown.
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