Annapurna Devi: An Unheard Melody

Legendary musician Annapurna Devi passed away at 91, leaving behind a rich legacy. We speak to musicians about her music and life.

Written by Suanshu Khurana | Updated: October 16, 2018 12:08:02 pm

Annapurna Devi, Annapurna Devi death, Annapurna Devi dead Annapurna Devi chose to remain away from the limelight.

Iconic musician Annapurna Devi passed away at 91 on Saturday. A scion of the Maihar gharana, there are several stories of her greatness as a musician, her temper and her unique style of teaching. A recluse, she practised her music like a sadhika, devoted her life to her father’s musical teachings and passed on her knowledge to some students, most notably Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur and Basant Kabra, among others. Ustad Allauddin Khan’s daughter, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s sister and Pt Ravi Shankar’s first wife, she chose to remain away from the limelight. She hardly ever performed in public, never formally recorded, didn’t care for awards and didn’t do interviews. We spoke to those who knew her and those who knew of her.

Shubhendra Rao,
Sitar player, Maihar Gharana and Pt Ravi Shankar’s student.

She was such an enigma that very few people have had the access to the real person. Very few people really knew her. So a lot of things being said and written are speculation. She was one of the most fantastic musicians — hearing a handful of recordings and what the older generation has told us. For her, music was a spiritual path, not for entertainment. It was only for the entertainment of her own soul. She did play in public for a while. She was married to my guruji (Shankar), but there is speculation that she was better than guruji. Who are we to judge if she was 80 per cent baba and Ali Akbar Khan sahab was 60 percent. I lived with guruji for years and he never spoke anything against her and neither did we hear her say anything. I met her when I was about 12 and my father NR Rama Rao, whom she was very fond of, had taken me to see her. I am also named after her son Shubhendra. My father would always say that she had a strong maternal instinct. When we met, I told her I was learning from Panditji, and she said, ‘He is a mighty ocean, take as much from him’. I saw Basant Kabraji there, head down, practising two chalans in Yaman. It was a vilambit (slow) gat, and she’d correct him sometimes. I still remember that composition. Her passing is the end of an era. I wonder if she would have changed and her music would have remained relevant in the later years. In a certain sense, it’s also good to keep the enigma because then you are not evaluated everyday. It is a huge loss for all of us, especially for the Maihar gharana. The third pillar (other two being Ali Akbar Khan and Shankar) is also gone.

Annapurna Devi with Pandit Ravi Shankar;

Pandit Tejendra Majumdar, sarod player, Maihar Gharana

I met pishima (Annapurna Devi) twice, and that was only possible because of my guru, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan sahab, who took me along with him. Unfortunately, I never had the good fortune of listening to her perform, although I have some recordings of hers, which are also very rare to find. She may not have performed a lot in public, but in my opinion, the seva that she did for music, through teaching students, was great. Some of our best musicians have been her students, such as Nikhil Banerjee, Pradeep Barot and of course Hariprasad Chaurasia. She belonged to the generation of gurus who had a certain aura — of knowledge. Sadly, with her death, that generation has died. She never tried to get into the limelight, but was still very respected because her talent was phenomenal. Not many have heard her play live but those who have, still talk about it. Even when you listen to the recordings, it’s hard to believe that someone can play the surbahar with such speed. We have lost the last of a generation of gurus, under whose umbrella we all flourished.

Rajendra Prasanna, flautist and shehnai player, Banaras Gharana

I was never fortunate enough to meet her. It is sad that most of us didn’t get the chance to hear her perform, but her great service to music was through passing on her knowledge. Her legacy and that of the Maihar gharana will be kept alive by all the students who had the good fortune to be taught by her.

Meeta Pandit, vocalist, Gwalior Gharana

Annapurnaji was a sadhika, completely away from public life. Anything to do with the world, she wasn’t very interested in. She sang only for her god and herself. She immersed herself in the teachings of her father. Music lovers kept wanting to hear her but couldn’t. It’s through her students now that we may get to hear some of her music.

Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia at her funeral.

Basant Kabra, sarod player and Annapurna Devi’s student

There was something very systematic about my learning with Annapurna ma. She’d say that if one rehearsed the way she taught and kept at the riyaaz, he/she will become an important artiste. She taught me only Yaman for many years. She’d ask me to not use my own brain for a while and do exactly as she said and then later, once I had understood the way a raga moved, she’d ask, what do you think can be added to this. But approval was necessary. She’d say ‘raag kharaab na ho jaye’. For all that said for her temper, she was very loving. I lived there like her son. The last time I met her was on the occasion of Guru Purnima in August this year. She was on the wheelchair but told me to get my sarod and play Yaman. She sang a bit and told me to follow her lesson. I don’t think there ever has been a better teacher.

With inputs by Pooja Pillai

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