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Annapurna Devi: an unequal music

Annapurna Devi was a reclusive genius, her impeccable legacy untainted by any compromise

Annapurna Devi.
Annapurna Devi.

There is a mystique that surrounds Annapurna Devi—unprecedented in the era of celebrity musicians—that makes her practically unknowable to music lovers. With her death in Mumbai on 13 October, at the age of 91, the reclusive and legendary guru of Indian classical music has exited her never-quite centre stage with the same quietness and devotion with which she once occupied it.

Reclusive celebrities are a writer’s obsession. They do not give interviews (author J.D. Salinger, who died in 2010, gave his last interview in 1980), they don’t go shopping or do any of those things that other celebrities do in the public gaze. To the curious outsider, everything about sitar maestro Ravi Shankar’s first wife appears to be tragic. It’s as if this great practitioner of the surbahar—a rare instrument, played in dhrupad style—knew her role was to withdraw from the public domain once her complete mastery over her music had been established, acknowledged, and duly celebrated.

Having given perhaps only around half-a-dozen performances (some with Ravi Shankar), Annapurna, daughter of the iconic classical musician Ustad Allauddin Khan, drew a curtain around herself. But this was by no means a trappist monk’s veil of silence—after the breakup of her first marriage she devoted her life to a select group of students, teaching them the art that her father had taught her, her brother Ali Akbar Khan and, of course, Ravi Shankar.

“She is like a one-woman retreating army unit burning all the bridges on her way back," writes her biographer Swapan Kumar Bandyopadhyay in his 2005 book, An Unheard Melody. But retreating to what? How did she define her purpose? How did she see herself? It doesn’t help that all we have of her playing is a handful of live recordings from the 1950s—terribly recorded, and on YouTube. Somehow, through the crackle and hiss, it is possible discern her greatness.

Born in 1927 in Maihar, Madhya Pradesh, where Allauddin was a court musician, she was named Roshan Ara. But since her birth fell on Chaitra Purnima, she was renamed Annapurna by Maharaja Brijnath Singh. Apparently, Allauddin discouraged Annapurna’s music education—because of the circumstances in which his elder daughter Jahan Ara had died. Married into a family that frowned upon women who loved or knew music, Jahan Ara is said to have turned up at her parent’s home in a distraught state one day, dying soon after in her mother’s arms after developing fever and becoming delirious.

But genius will out. Allauddin chanced upon the child Annapurna correcting her elder brother Ali Akbar’s playing one day. Exactly what followed is a bit unclear. According to one account, Allauddin dragged her by the hair to the next room and left her there. But when he returned, the father placed an idol of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, by her, blessed her and proclaimed himself as her guru henceforth. The other version, in The Indian Express, quotes Annapurna as saying, “...instead of scolding me, baba called me to his room and gave me a tanpura. This was the beginning of my taleem (life of instruction)."

Annapurna became, by all accounts, her father’s most ardent and devoted student.

This sliver of Maihar magic can only be imagined, unfortunately: There’s Allauddin, a tiny man looking a bit like Ho Chi Minh in his French beard, sitting on his cot in his lungi. He is singing the notes or perhaps playing them out on the sarod. At his feet is an extraordinary trio of students, their instruments carefully chosen for them by their guru—the diminutive Annapurna is on the massive surbahar, Ali Akbar on the fretless sarod, and lastly, and most famously, Ravi Shankar on the sitar. They’re following their Baba, playing and learning together, making mistakes, being scolded, getting it right.

In 1941, at the age of 14, Annapurna was married to Ravi Shankar, who, by his own account, had come to “really like her"—a mutual affection that was to disintegrate over disagreements over music and Ravi’s relationship with Kamala Chakravarty. There was little disagreement about Annapurna’s musicianship, however.

“Her playing was of an extremely advanced order," Ravi Shankar said in the 1980 Bengali book, Raag Anuraag, an autobiography based on interviews with the writer Shankarlal Bhattacharya. “If you take a particular path, you gain something, but you also have to lose something. Her blessing was that she never had to play before an audience. That she doesn’t want to play is an entirely different matter; but because she does not, her basic teaching (taaleem), that which she has learnt (from Allauddin), she has been able to preserve....

“What she plays from Baba’s (Allauddin’s) repertoire and style is impeccable and faultless, because the compromises you have to make when playing before an audience, she never had to make. She never had to please audiences by doing this or that. That asambhav (impossible or unattainable outcome) she was able to achieve; that’s there in her playing.

“That her surbahar playing is pure, uncontaminated, that is true. At least I will always say that. But at the end of the day, you always come back to the question: What is it that you call pure? What is purity?"

This question—whichever way you slice it—was, undoubtedly, a factor in the falling out between Annapurna and Ravi Shankar. After their marriage, there was a period of a few years when they performed publicly together, perhaps five or six times—on every occasion, according to Annapurna, the audience preferred her playing to her husband’s.

“My first public performance was a duet in Delhi," she told Bandyopadhyay. “I remember Panditji (Ravi Shankar) telling me before the performance that I should cater a little to the public taste. My response was that I would play only what I was taught. I think the audience enjoyed my playing. I don’t particularly like my playing so I don’t think of any concert that I played as being memorable. Whenever I performed people appreciated my playing and I sensed that Panditji was not too happy with the response. I was not that fond of performing anyway so I stopped it and continued my sadhana (practising music).... If I play today, most people might think I am too slow, or even boring."

They might indeed: Both Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar ended up making compromises in order to please audiences of both live and recorded music, squeezing the alaap, the slow movement that introduces the raga, into only a few minutes, and playing rapid phrases spanning the fretboard in electrifying duets, thrilling audiences with sawaal-jawaab exchanges with the tabla.

Annapurna, on the other hand, frowned upon compromises, which may be a reason she never recorded. She wouldn’t even play with a tabla accompaniment.

Apparently, Annapurna wanted Ravi Shankar to learn for a few more years before launching into a career of public performances. But there was no stopping him. Her biographer says Ravi Shankar elicited a vow from Annapurna never to play in public. But she also revealed that “something more" had happened that she would divulge to no one. Was this withdrawal her sacrifice?

In Raag Anuraag, Ravi Shankar said Annapurna’s decision to give more importance to teaching than to playing publicly was “a matter of sadness". If not in big concerts, if she at least played at small soirees, connoisseurs and lovers of music would get to hear her and count their blessings for the opportunity, he said.

Ravi Shankar, who admits to developing “a deep love" for Annapurna after their marriage, would no doubt deny the allegations Annapurna made. The untimely death of their only child, sitar player Shubhendra Shankar, who benefited from lessons from both his parents, added to the acrimony.

What is Annapurna’s legacy? Her attempts to preserve what some would call the essence of Indian classical music—the deep, meditative and uncompromising dhrupad style—lives on in some of her famous students such as flutists Hariprasad Chaurasia and Nityanand Haldipur and sarod players Aashish Khan and Basant Kabra. There are many more, including the brightest, the late sitarist Nikhil Banerjee.

As Annapurna withdrew into her south Mumbai flat her reclusiveness became legendary. Even after her second marriage (to the management consultant Rooshi Kumar Pandya), a note on the door said “Please note that nobody will open the door on Mondays and Thursdays. Ring the bell only three times and if there is no response, please drop a note stating your name and purpose.."

Her door remained open only to her students, who worshipped at her feet. What did Annapurna retreat into? Into a deep sense of artistic purity and integrity—she remained her father’s daughter till the end.

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