Where do you wander?

By Audio Pervert - 7/07/2022

Kesarbai Kerkar was a 20th century Indian classical singer, highly revered for her command of the 'Khayal'. The Voyager One has crossed 14.4 billion kilometers across space as of now. What's the correlation here? Time, Space and Music. Kesarbai's voice and the Voyager One are on a maiden voyage together. Little known is that fact that Kesarbai's song recorded in 1950, is part of the 'Golden Disc' mounted on the Voyager One. Kesarbai's tune "Jaat kahan ho" (where do you wander) has faded into history and the Voyager One sends far and few messages back home today. The story of Kesarbai Kerkar's tune ending up on the 'Golden Disc' is dimensional, migratory and eerie. Relevant as a space-time transgression, stretching more than a hundred years and still ongoing.

Kesarbai Kerkar was born in Querim Goa in 1892. Then colonized by the Portuguese, in 1902 her parents migrated to Maharashtra, in search of better livelihood. Her mother encouraged her to sing from an early age. She picked up her singing lessons in Kohlapur, with local meastro Abdul Karim Khan. In 1911 Kesarbai's father opted to move to Bombay, a rapidly growing city - the British empire's leading port. At this point Kesarbai faced the usual pressure to get married. Having ritually followed ten years of formal training, she insisted on moving to Jaipur to study further. She pledged to learn from Ustad Alladiya Khan, the founder of the Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana. Twelve years later, Kesarbai would begin singing professionally, however staying close to her teacher, who suffered prolonged illness, leading to his death in 1946. Her concerts (1931-1941) were patronized by imperial visitors, small maharajas, the business class and petty royalty. She abstained from light classical, and the "mehfil" culture. 1947, at the brink India's independence, Kesarbai appeared in Bombay, about to step into a male dominated classical music sorority. Her insuperable command of the Khayal, backed by almost two decades of training, reached an urban audience, with performances on radio and record pressings by HMV (1949-54).

During one such session in 1950, she sang "Jaat kahan ho" (Where do you wander) which was pressed to limited copies of vinyl. Renowned ethnomusicologist Robert E Brown searched the record for years, insisting that Kesarbai's voice was of utmost value and character. Kesarbai remained unaware of Brown's quest and the fate of her tune all her remaining life. Brown remained clueless about the meaning of the lyrics. After receiving key national awards and being titled "Surashri" (excellent voice), Kesarbai retired, moving back to her native village in 1967. Ironic that in 1968 a copy of the record was finally located, inside a hardware store run by an migrant Indian family, living in Lexington Avenue New York. The migrants had come from one world to another, carrying their music and memories. Music travels from one land to another, and a little tune, can cross an unimaginable distance, having left it's native ecosystem long ago. Where do you wander?

Robert E Brown, Carl Sagan along with several academics and music experts contributed to the playlist on the Golden Disc of Voyager One. Based on the idea to "portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth... for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form who may find and hear them.." However nobody has found them yet, and the sounds on the Golden Disc remain unheard. All the songs transcending over time and multi-dimensional constructs of space. The package contains hundreds of little tracks. Natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind, thunder and animals (including birds, insects and whales). Audio content to represent humanity: spoken greetings in 55 ancient and modern languages. Even footsteps and child's laughter and crying. As for the music, tunes from allover the world including Kesarbai Kerkar's "Jaat kahan ho" and Bach, Beatles, Stravinsky etc etc, are etched on "this little bottle sent into the cosmic ocean" (Carl Sagan 1978). The remainder of the record is audio, designed to be played at 16.5  revolutions per minute. Hand etched on the disc is the message - "To the makers of music – all worlds, all times"

In 2012, Voyager One's computer had sent +6 billion messages back home, yet to find one alien encounter. The Voyager One is currently the farthest human-made object from Earth. The machine also features the first "playlist for extraterrestrial life" [Chuck Klosterman 2010]. Even as the number of signals returning home grow less frequent, the object has reached interstellar space, the region between stars where galactic plasma begins. How will music even sound in such plasma? The "scientific mission" will end when the plutonium thermoelectric generators die out, around the year 2033. After that, the craft will drift endlessly in the galaxy - unless someone or something encounters it. Intelligent enough to deconstruct and listen to the sounds from earth. Eerie as Kesarbai sang "Who knows where you will end up... well, where do you wander?"

 Kerkar became an accomplished Khayal singer, winning national awards and stipends towards the end of her life. In ways, she charted new spaces for female classical singers to come. Singers such as  Mogubai Kurdikar (mother of Kishori Amonkar) and later in the mid-1970s Hirabai Barodekar and Gangubai Hangal. Kerkar's following generation was heard on national holidays, TV and radio, away from singing 'mehfils' or private gathering that women of previous generation had to settle for. Her legacy still resonates back in her village in Goa, in a meager but resilient way, as the Surashree Kesarbai Kerkar High School and an annual festival of classical music. Querim remains nested in a time warp, still unstained from tourism. The cultural voyage made by Kesarbai's voice, the migration and the Golden Disc is mostly forgotten, not audible in Goa's music heritage, steadily proliferated by imported music for decades now. "That Khayal, revered as the form is, transcended into vinyl and as a format and memory was shipped to a new continent... was lost and found... and made it on an interstellar space trip, which is yet to end... A Khayal as a ghost, out there 14 billion kilometers away... pretty amazing if you think of the timeline of the artist, the spacecraft and possibility of intelligent life, which might listen to the music out there..." states Monica Narula (Raqs Media Collective). 

Kesarbai Kerkar died in September 1977, a week before the Voyager One left the earth. One can view that window in history, like a fading star, as sad yet beautiful, as the end of a legacy and the beginning of a new one. 44 years on, the technological marvel is spinning into the great oblivion, with a message etched and entrusted to sound and to music. On earth, scientists hope that at some point in time someone will listen to the Golden Disc. The wanderlust's voyage is far from over.  Yet having gone so far, thousands of millions of miles, into the realm of plasma, that song still asks, Jaat kahan ho...Akele? - where do you wander, alone?


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