Surashree Kesarbai Kerkar was born in the village of Keri in Goa and later settled in Bombay (Mumbai). Till 1917, she trained intermittently under eminent gurus such as Ramkrishnabua Vaze, Bhaskarbua Bakhale and Barkatullah Khan, beenkar. From 1921, she became a “ganda bandh” disciple of Ustad Alladiya Khan who gave her intensive taalim for an uninterrupted stretch of 15 years. As his most outstanding disciple, she became phenomenally proficient in the gayaki of the Jaipur gharana.
Kesarbai’s career as a performer began in the 1930s and she held an undisputed sway over at least two generations of musicians. She became known through the length and breadth of India for her unique style of presentation. Her voice had a hefty three-octave range, and she could move through the whole range with ease. Her presentations of khayals in her deep, full throated voice.were models of precision and graceful elaboration and her thoughts were always spelt out with great clarity. Thanks to her guru, she had an immense repertoire of lesser known ragas.
An extremely disciplined artiste and a perfectionist to the core, she was held in high esteem by both organizers and audiences alike. She abhorred the microphone and always made it a point to ‘request’ the organizers to remove it! Conscious of her prestige as a performer, she decided to retire the moment she found that her voice was failing her. During her career, Kesarbai commanded the utmost respect from musicians and the cognoscenti and was one of the most highly paid artistes of her time.
Kesarbai had a very elegant, dignified and regal personality and she shunned publicity. The only disciple she had was Dhondutai Kulkarni. In recognition of her contribution to Indian music, Kesarbai received numerous awards and honours, significant among which were the Surashree conferred upon her by Sangeet Pravin Sangitanuragi Sajjan Saman Samiti (Kolkata) in 1948, Pramukh Acharya by Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1953, Padma Bhushan by Government of India in 1969, and the First Rajya Gayika by Government of Maharashtra in 1969.