This article has been retrieved from the archive. It was originally published on May 16, 2010.
A gifted musician who chose obscurity. A recluse in her Mumbai apartment for 50 years. That’s Annapurna Devi, Ravi Shankar’s first wife, Anoushka Shankar’s and Norah Jones’s stepmother, and she has an extraordinary story to tell. Only, she wouldn’t meet a reporter, or anyone, and she wouldn’t take a phone call.
So Suanshu Khurana wrote her a long letter, and Annapurna Devi wrote back, on her life, on her husband and on why she never believed in recording her music
There, on the sixth floor of that tall building on Warden Road, south Mumbai, is where she lives. Some say she is a musician, though neighbours cannot be sure. They have hardly seen her. The stillness around her apartment stirs only at night, when a hand plucks notes from a deep-throated sitar. A board nailed to the door is the only allowance to the world outside and it declines all intrusion: ‘The door will not be opened on Mondays and Fridays. Please ring the bell only thrice. If no one opens, please leave your name and address. Thank you.
Inconvenience is regretted’.
Only a few come this far, dogged music lovers who heard, on a cold winter morning, a scratched record of Annapurna Devi playing Raga Kaushiki and could never forget. Those who heard spoken in hushed awe, at baithaks and mehfils, the legend of the only surbahar player in the world, and were moved to seek an audience. Daughter and disciple of the musical genius who founded the Maihar gharana, Ustad Alauddin Khan; sister of sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan; the first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar; and a musician whose mastery over a little-known, demanding instrument is the stuff of lore.
This is the closest one can get to her. Over half a century ago, Annapurna Devi shuttered her music in silence, refusing all recordings, all concerts. Nothing has been important enough to draw her out. Not the Padma Bhushan, awarded to her in 1977, which had to be delivered to her home. Not offers of recordings or concerts. Not the overtures from the best musicians. In an age of manic self-advertisement, she achieved the unthinkable—freed herself of the need for an audience.