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Voices in Time and Space

The Lost Recordings of Kesarbai Kerkar —


Kesarbai Kerkar passed away on 16 September 1977 at the age of 85. She never knew that the Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched on the 5th day of same month, carried a gold-coated copper phonograph record with samples of her voice, as recorded in April 1953: ‘Bhairavi Hori – Jaat Kahan Ho’. It was the only Indian music the Voyager contained.

By the time Kesarbai died, she had long forgotten about her own disc recordings and no longer listened to them. Her dispute with HMV—for releasing her work without approval—had culminated in letters to Gramophone Company and radio stations requesting they not sell or play the records. Thus, the discs were not known to many, even in India. It is then interesting to learn how this disc was chosen for the Voyager mission. Today one can listen to that music at the click of a mouse.


Carl Sagan wrote about his own story of obtaining a copy of the 78-rpm HMV disc at the last minute of the project.

Kerkar_PortraitKesarbai Kerkar (1892-1977)

Suresh: I came across her disc records in 1962 when I was a schoolboy of ten years old, just beginning to develop fascination towards gramophone discs and machines. Noticing my love for the format, my father used to buy 78-rpm records at quarter rupee per kg in our old paper shop in Pune in western Maharashtra. My brothers and friends and I would play them, mishandle them, often break them, especially black label ones! But a few gold colour discs were precious to me and I handled them very carefully. The play time was quite comfortable—about seven minutes per side and the fast tempo ‘taans’ towards the end were particularly catchy to my young ears. After 20 years, I at last came to know to whom I was listening and what the music was all about.


Sakhi Mohan – Desh

‘Sakhi Mohan – Desh’ was recorded in 1934-35 along with five more songs amounting to about one hour of recording. The Broadcast Record Company was in business from 1932 to 1941 and produced over 3000 discs in collaboration with the British Company. Wax masters were sent to London for pressing the discs. Its owners, the Mehta brothers, were also diamond merchants and likewise, their label was a glowing crystal emerging like the sun from the sea, radiating musical notes! They exclusively recorded north and south Indian classical music.

Kesarbai completed ten years of rigorous training (from 1921-30) with Ustad Alladiya Khan and began to give concerts. Her earliest discs were probably sponsored by her patron (or ‘boyfriend’ in Western terms – but does not suitably explain the relationship), Seth Vitthaldas Gokuldas of Bombay. It seems that she had rehearsed very well for these recordings, which were made at Blatavski Lodge, French Road, Bombay. Like her later discs, each recorded song is a ‘marvel of sculptured sound’. It is not known how many copies were sold or who listened to them.

Around 1940, Kesarbai found broken copies of these discs thrown on footpath quite close to her house in Bombay. She was very upset and decided not to record again for any gramophone company. And yet, around 1944-45, she was in the prime of her recital career. These were mostly private concerts and not easily accessible for casual listeners. Around this time, Mr. G.N. Joshi of HMV approached her about making new recordings. At first she refused but Mr. Joshi eventually persuaded her with the assurance that the recordings would be released only with her complete approval. She recorded twelve songs between October 1944 and November 1947. They were issued on 12” shellac discs with play times of 4-5 minutes per song—twelve ragas sung in the Jaipur-Atrauli tradition, and again, apparently very well-rehearsed. The discs themselves had saffron-coloured labels (‘kesar’ means ‘saffron’) and gold lettering. They sold quite well. Kesarbai claimed she was pleased with these recordings.[1]

During 1953-54, she recorded another round, producing fourteen songs to be issued on seven 10” 78 RPM discs with same saffron-coloured labels. She had asked HMV to wait for her approval and re-record four songs. Sample copies were sent to her but she did not respond for eight months for health reasons. Finally, the exasperated management decided to release discs without her and sent Mr. G.N. Joshi to her residence to convey this message. She listened to Mr. Joshi quietly but then became furious, declaring that she would never again step foot on The Gramophone Company premises. When the discs were released and appeared in the record shops, she wrote letters to HMV and to radio stations explaining that she did not want them broadcast. She never gave any concert to any radio station and with such attitude her discs were, until 1960, never played, except by Portuguese-controlled Goa Radio (as she herself hailed from Goa).

Kesarbai maintained good relations with Mr. Joshi till the end of her life. Selected discs were again re-issued on EP (1961), LP (1963) and audio tape (1989). However, her recorded music remained confined to a small circle of listeners. It is rumoured that some owners of orchid farms played her discs as a music therapy, and got a greater yield.


In December 2004, Underscore records, New Delhi, India reissued her entire repertoire of Broadcast label discs on one CD. Kesarbai’s grand-daughter, Mrs. Churi, attended the release function in Mumbai and remarked that she never knew that Kesarbai was such a great singer. Meanwhile the Gramophone Company also reissued her records on their Golden Milestones CD series.


In 2012, Ian Nagoski reissued eleven tracks on LP with a detailed booklet providing song translations in Roman and Devnagri script. This disc was received well by music lovers and most of the tracks are now available on YouTube.

From the Canary/Mississippi /Change LP issued in 2012. Digital edition available here at Canary Records.

Sound and notes by Ian Nagoski with Suresh Chandvankar.
Cover by Eric Isaacson.

‘What was her greatness?’ asked the late musicologist Dr. Ashok Ranade. ‘Authority? Yes. Was it a sweet voice? No. Was it a good voice? Yes. Was it resonant? Yes. How was the Aakar? Powerful? Yes. But was power the only thing? No. She was modulating her voice while singing through the pronunciation of words. She was a deviationist in so many things and is evidenced in her recordings.[2]

But Kesarbai’s greatness was also in her range and delivery. She sang in seven primary notes with soaring excursions into secondary tones at almost every phrase. Her voice ranged three saptaks, an ability that allowed for both a dignified and conservative rendering of, and creative elaboration within, each raga. Her alap was more schematic rather than improvisational, and often foreshadowed the structure of the bandish, whose literature was woven with long and complex taans and dramaturgic phrasings. Though we will never know the details of her private performances, one would assume they were even intense than the recordings. We now have only the fading 78 shellac discs, scarce compilation LPs, and also, thankfully, a cleaner reissue curated by Ian Nagosky.

Timothy Ferris, producer of the Voyager Golden Record says, ‘The raga heard on Voyager is formally designated for morning performance, but its popularity has led to its use as a closing number, a kind of encore, for concerts day and night.’ The words of the Bhairavi are those of a mother asking her child not to go out to a festival of colors because she is still too young to face the reality and cruelty of outside world. The mother knows that the child won’t listen and shall probably never return. This song has now travelled almost eleven billion miles away from Earth.


On September 12, 2013, NASA announced that Voyager 1 had crossed the heliopause and entered interstellar space. Along with 116 images and sounds, this song was included in Voyager Golden Record disc to show the diversity of life and culture on planet Earth—for any extra-terrestrial life-form, should they ever encountered the spacecraft.


[1] http://hindi-movies-songs.com/sirc/Vol-11-Single-PDF-File-July-93.pdf, pp. 12-30.

[2] http://hindi-movies-songs.com/sirc/TRN-2004-Single-Page-PDF-Page-66-to-129-Part-II.pdf, p. 109.

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