In the mysterious world of music, there are two kinds of musicians — the ones who follow the rigorous journey of learning the artform in search of applause, appreciation and that moment of wah from the listeners, and those who only care about finding the spirituality of the art form through the contours of notes and rhythm. Both are likely to worship the towering space of learning from a guru. They may not be better than each other in terms of the knowledge they harbour, but the application of that wisdom, sometimes, can change matters asymmetrically. In the latter, where music found in one’s own loneliness is the foundation of daily life, the result is likely to stumble upon a metaphysical effect. Like the inward, brooding notes of a surbahar (the bass sitar), a rare instrument, that had once found musician Annapurna Devi in the first half of the 20th century.
Annapurna Devi, daughter and disciple of the musical genius, Ut Alauddin Khan, Ut Ali Akbar Khan’ sister and Pt Ravi Shankar’s first wife, passed away last year in October. She was 92. A year later, filmmaker Nirmal Chandar, whose recent film Moti Bagh, which deals with the problems of rural Uttarakhand, garnered rave reviews, is ready with a documentary on the reclusive musician. Commissioned by Sangeet Natak Akademi, the 69-minute documentary will be screened on October 13 (Annapurna Devi’s first death anniversary) at Bhavan’s Cultural Centre in Mumbai and on October 14 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). A conversation with the filmmaker leads one to the same tired conundrum in terms of Devi, something that also dissuaded him from making this film. “I didn’t want to do it because it’s hard to do a film on her. She was never in public domain, so barring a couple of newspaper pieces, there is nothing much available. It was the Akademi that asked me to make this documentary,” says Chandar, who finally gets to go on the other side of the infamous locked door on the sixth floor of Akash Ganga Apartments in Mumbai, the one which for many years has had a board nailed to it — Please ring the bell only three times. If nobody answers, please leave your card/letter. Thank you for being considerate.
Titled Guru Maa, Chandar’s film attempts to catch sight of India’s own Greta Garbo. Annapurna Devi, a reclusive musician who chose teaching and riyaaz over public performance and recording, “whose place is unique even though she never played in public”. “No one ever heard her, yet everyone worshiped her. That’s a great thing,” says Devi’s student and flute legend Hari Prasad Chaurasia in the film. For Chaurasia it took three years of waiting by the building gate to be able to learn from her. Featuring interviews by a slew of Devi’s students including Chaurasia, sarod player Suresh Vyas, sarod player Basant Kabra, sitar player Nayan Ghosh, flautist, her caregiver and disciple Nityanand Haldipur, CMD of DCM Group and her disciple Vinay Bharat Ram, sarod player Uma Guha, sitar players Pt Kartik Kumar and Sandhya Phadke Apte, Hemant Desai, and her nephew and niece Rajesh Khan and Lajo Gupta among others, it opens with the shot of Devi’s funeral at her home. It then follows her life’s journey, which began in Maihar at her demanding father’s home, and then oscillates between Calcutta and Mumbai; personal and professional.
Devi began playing at a time when women mostly sang and as Vyas says in the film, “the ones from good families didn’t bother even with that”. Surbahar came under the male bastion but Ut Allauddin Khan decided to train his daughter in his trademark been ang. He had recognised her talent after watching her correct her brother, Ali Akbar Khan, during practice. “The surbahar was so big that she had to sit on a stool and play,” says Vyas in the film. “It was a bold step from baba’s (Khan’s) side. As for her, had baba instructed her not to breathe for a day, she’d comply,” he says.
The shoot began a few months before Devi passed away. But it was restricted only to the apartment and coming and going of people. She didn’t allow Chandar to shoot her. He says that his experience of his film on Begum Akhtar, where the protagonist wasn’t alive, came in handy after Devi passed away. “Here was a very different kind of person. The challenge was that unlike Begum Akhtar, there was not much audio and almost no video evidence,” says Chandar.
Her life with Shankar finds a brief mention and does not become the fulcrum of the film, something that’s likely to be a worthy decision. But while documenting a life which was so intertwined in terms of what was personal and professional, the film somehow comes across as an incomplete and hurried attempt. It does not include any interviews with Sukanya Shankar and Anoushka Shankar, both of whom have spoken about Devi’s musical genius. It does not delve into Pt Ravi Shankar’s autobiography either (according to Chandar that would not be enough), which spoke in detail about Annapurna Devi’s ingenuity as a musician and her temperament as his partner. Her daughter-in-law and late son Shubhendra Shankar’s widow Linda, grandchildren Somnath and Kaveri have also not been included. “SNA wanted the focus to be on the musician. I also didn’t have so much time. I also didn’t go into the depth of this relationship because she moved on, married again (to her student Rooshi Kumar Pandya, who passed away in 2016). The plan was to include her grandchildren but that didn’t happen,” says Chandar, who did approach Aashish Khan, Ut Ali Akbar Khan’s son and the eldest member of the family at this time. He declined the interview.
Chandar has always been fascinated by music but is not trained in it. He deftly manages to intertwine three recordings by Devi — raag Maanj Khamaj, Yaman Kalyan and Kaushiki — in the film alongside his shots, apart from including technical information such as use of the meend (glide) in her playing technique, which sounded like “gentle waves”. But that said, there is also a brief glimpse of her in the film talking about her father with Shekhar Sen, Chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi. “When baba taught us a raga, he’d tell us to meditate on it, to let our mind and heart absorb it. Don’t let distractions draw you away while playing the raga,” says Devi talking with much difficulty due to her paralysis. It was also the talisman that she stuck by in her life. Chandar’s film attempts a peek into that life, touching upon the edges of it. To talk about her life in its entirety will perhaps need one to meditate on her music, her idea of its existence, something that she demanded from those who attempted to interpret her music and the life she lived.