Annapurna Devi, the iconic and famously reclusive surbahar player, daughter of Maihar gharana founder Ustad Allauddin Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar’s first wife, breathed her last at Breach Candy Hospital at 4 am. She was 91.
She has left behind only a handful of things — a covertly-made recording of raag Maanj Khamaj and the brooding notes of raag Kaushiki which have been floating around on YouTube. Plus, a couple of letters she exchanged with this correspondent. Mine were about three pages long each, hand-written, with no copies, written on official letterhead, interspersed with admiration and journalistic curiosity; hers were typed, calm, formal and dignified, without any embellishments. There is also a black and white picture of Devi, bent over a sitar, sitting on the floor near the famed takhat in her father’s Maihar home, the same spot where sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, her brother, and Shankar sat and learned from Ustad Allauddin Khan.
Also Read | Notes from behind a locked door
“He (her father) was in a dilemma whether to teach me or not. But I used to listen to and remember what he taught dada (her brother). One day, when baba went to the market, dada was practising his lessons on the sarod. Dada suddenly made a mistake and I started correcting him. I was so involved that I did not notice that baba had
returned. And then suddenly I became aware of his presence — he was standing right behind me. I was scared,” she wrote in one of the letters. “But instead of scolding me, baba called me to his room and gave me a tanpura. This was the beginning of my taleem.”
Devi married her father’s famed student Pt Ravi Shankar and the couple had a son, Shubhendra, but the couple separated in 1965. From that day onwards, she is said to have shut herself in her apartment — the choice of venue for many a mehfil, including some with George Harrison — and nailed a wooden board. “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,” read the board.
Grammy nominee and sitar player Ustad Shujaat Khan remembers the time he sneaked in during a private session to listen to her. Being the son of Ustad Vilayat Khan, perhaps, helped. “I was intrigued. One of her students, whom I knew, helped me get inside the house. It was nice to meet her but there was nothing very warm about her. I heard snippets of her music that day and I feel if she was a woman in today’s day and age, we would have been able to see, nurture and idolise this fantastic performer. Though of very small build, she played music like a tiger. There was this strange and wonderful confidence. Every time she picked up her instrument, it didn’t matter whose daughter she was,” said Khan.
Devi’s music was obliged to nothing but music, and the teachings of her exacting purist father. She hardly ever performed in public, didn’t bother recording and had no use for awards (the Padma Shri had to be delivered to her house).
Over the last many years, she taught many students. One of them, famed flautist Hari Prasad Chaurasia, changed his flute playing style to be accepted as her student. He often talks about sitting outside her house and waiting for many months before she agreed to accept him as his student.
Her second marriage was to Rooshi Kumar Pandya, her brother’s student and later hers. Pandya passed away in 2013, only months after Shankar’s demise. According to Carnatic classical vocalist Aruna Sairam, Devi represented a generation where musicians made music because “they believed that was the purpose of their birth and their entire life. When that is the intent that drives the musician, the music that emanates could only be divine, nothing less,” she said.
But many people blamed Shankar for her reclusive state. Shankar, in his Ravi Shankar: An Autobiography, wrote, “She is so gifted! But she has a tremendous temper. Like her father. And at that time even I was very ill-tempered. So we both would flare up together.”
“Some even blamed her,” said Shujaat Khan. “The world has missed the opportunity to listen to one of our greatest artistes. And it was her decision. We will have to live with it.” In one of the letters in which the artiste opened up to this correspondent about her life and music, she concluded, in response to a meeting request, “Please forgive me but I don’t think so since I don’t meet anybody.”