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Notes from behind a locked door

A gifted musician who chose obscurity. A recluse in her Mumbai apartment for 50 years. That’s Annapurna Devi,Ravi Shankar’s first wife...

Written by Suanshu Khurana |
May 16, 2010 10:14:32 am

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’.

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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.

So when I write to her,requesting a meeting,I am trying for the impossible. There is no e-mail address,no fax number where I can reach her. Apt,I think,as I walk to the post office,a hand-written letter clutched in my hand — here it is,for what it is worth,my message to an artist lost to the world,through the lost medium of letters. My only hope is Sahana Gupta,her grand-niece,with whom I have been in touch with for the past year now.

Three weeks later,a letter arrives,written by a Rajan Vathiyath,with a message: ‘She is an extremely private person and doesn’t do any personal interviews. Since you have come through Ms Gupta,she will answer your questions if you write to her.’

Suddenly,there is a crack in the door.

I write back,with a set of questions and wait for her reply. A month and a half passes before a yellow envelope lands at my address. Inside is a six-page long,double spaced,neatly typed response,on a letterhead that reads ‘Padmabhushan Dr Annapurna Devi’. The black letters seem impersonal,holding back even the traces of her handwriting. “I do really live in my flat 365 days a year and I do have instructions on my door requesting people not to disturb me. However,within my flat,I do live a very normal life. I only go out when I require some medical care like eye check-ups,dental treatments etc,” she writes.

The sentences are short,the idiom unadorned,but the effect is powerful—like the inward,brooding notes of the surbahar—especially when she talks of her father,Ustad Alauddin Khan. ‘Baba’ towers over all the stories she tells of her life and of Maihar,a small town near Jabalpur,home to her childhood and rigorous schooling in music. “I always remember Baba with respect,awe and love. I had shraddha in him from my very childhood..He used to say that every note you play should touch one’s soul. I practice what he taught me as a form of meditation or prayer,” she writes.

There she is,a ten-year-old,drawn inexorably to the tanpura that her father kept away from her. Khan had seen what bitterness it brought for his elder daughter Jahanara,whose in-laws refused to let her sing. “He was in a dilemma whether to teach me or not. But I used to listen to and remember what he taught Dada (Ustad Ali Akbar Khan). 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 writes. “But instead of scolding me,Baba called me to his room and gave me a tanpura. This was the beginning of my taleem.”

Khan was “exacting,a purist and a perfectionist”,more guru than doting father,famous for a fierce and unpredictable temper. “While I was a student,I never dared ask Baba what his favourite ragas were,nor did he ever speak about his performances. All my time was spent in learning and practising,” she writes. “He encouraged his students to imbue the music with their own feelings. That is why the same phrase played by Dada and Pandit Ravi Shankar would sound different.”

She began by learning the sitar but her father had chosen a different path for her—one that was strikingly opposite to the trajectory of his other famous student,Ravi Shankar. He asked Annapurna to play the surbahar or the bass sitar,a pensive,more meditative version of the sitar. “He told me,‘I feel that you can preserve my guru’s gift because you love music. However,you will have to give up playing the sitar,an instrument liked by connoisseurs as well as the commoners. The surbahar on the other hand will be appreciated only by discerning listeners who understand the depth of music. The commoners might throw tomatoes at you. So what is your decision?’ I was dumbfounded,” she writes. She assented,of course. “And now,whenever I play the instrument I experience a feeling of surrender,compassion and peace,” she writes.

Only four years of taleem and Annapurna blossomed as a performer. Around that time,dancer Uday Shankar proposed marriage between younger brother Ravi and Annapurna. She was only 15. Shankar was 21. But Khan agreed to the match with his much-loved student,despite that it would be a Hindu-Muslim marriage,a rarity in those days. “Baba was deeply religious but ecumenical in spirit. He worshipped Sharda Ma and also read his namaz five times a day. He was the most secular individual I have known. I did not become Annapurna after marriage. I was born on Chaiti Purnima (a full moon day) and the Maharaja of Maihar,Brijnath Singh,named me Annapurna,” she writes. Her Muslim name was Roshanara.

A son was born to Shankar and Annapurna soon after their marriage in 1942. But the relationship was not meant to survive. She was the introverted traditionalist keeping her father’s austere legacy alive,who spurned concerts and recordings,indeed all audience. The one recording that exists of her playing Raag Maand Khamaj was “surreptitiously made”,she tells us. He revelled in the showmanship of modern performance,bending rules to making his music more audience-friendly,and would go on to become an international superstar. She doesn’t dwell on their troubled marriage in this letter,except to say she is not in touch with ‘Panditji’ or his daughters—Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones. Two words dismiss questions of their differences: ‘No comment’.

But in an answer to another question,she seems to sum up the difference between the two. “Emotional and aesthetic expression have more to do with the artiste’s personality. An introspective artiste might go for sur and alaap while an extrovert might opt for leyakari,” she writes.

More than musical styles came between Ravi Shankar and his wife. There were his rumoured dalliances. Two years after their marriage,he was drawn to his brother’s sister-in-law Kamala. Shankar and Annapurna had just moved to Mumbai when the affair blossomed. An enraged Annapurna returned to Maihar with her son. In Ravi Shankar: An Autobiography,Shankar wrote,“This was first time in my marriage that I had become deeply attracted to somebody else. Annapurna doubted me with everyone anyway. So it was nothing new for her to doubt me with Kamala—only this time it was true. I was not in a state to think reasonably. Perhaps the moment reason set in,love frayed at the edges. 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….”

Annapurna eventually returned to her husband in Mumbai but the following years were equally turbulent. “By 1956,there were many problems in our marriage and in January there was a serious breakdown,” writes Shankar. They divorced in 1962,when Annapurna retreated into her Mumbai flat to teach a handful of students. “Baba had told me,that if ever the need arose,I would be able to earn my living through music and be economically independent,” she writes.

Barring a few performances with Panditji,she refused to play for the public or record her music. Only a couple of grainy videos of her performing float around on YouTube. There are a handful of rare recordings with a few collectors. “Personally I did not enjoy performing… For me music has always been my offering to God. I never felt comfortable recording it,” she says.

Like her father,it’s as a guru that she identifies herself now—among her famous students are Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Nikhil Banerjee. “I don’t feel I have deprived people of my music since I freely taught whatever I learnt from Baba to my disciples,” she writes. She teaches her small class the sitar,the flute,the sarod and vocal music though not the surbahar— they are not even manufactured anymore.

Legend has it that she teaches only after midnight and her sessions last till dawn. Sarod player Pradeep Kumar Barot,57,who has been learning from her for the past 35 years,says,“I consider myself blessed. There are not many who get to have Ma as their guru. In spite of being such a great musician,she is so simple and warm.” To her grand-niece Sahana,she is an “extremely warm” person who “loves spending time with my kids”. To students like Barot,she is a demanding teacher,who on rare occasions “makes Bengali-style fish curry” for them.

In 1982,she married her student Rooshi Kumar Pandya,13 years younger than her. “Pandya ji has been taking care of me since our marriage. I am alive and able to teach because of him all these years. I don’t think I would have lived this long without his care,” she writes.

Pandya,who has helped much of this interview take place,tells us of their relationship. “I met her in 1974,” he says. “I was learning from Ali Akbar Khan sahab in the US but then I had to shift to India because of work. So to make sure that I continued my taleem,he told me to learn from his sister.” He came to Mumbai and learnt music from her for almost eight years before asking her to marry him. “When I thought of asking her to marry me,I did feel a little anxious. But we both were single. I knew that the risk was that she will not teach me again. When I asked her,she said that she has been hurt before and it is a difficult decision for her. But she agreed after four days,” says Pandya. She is still a guru to him,he adds.

In 1992,her son from her first marriage,Shubhendra,a sitar player who performed often with Pandit Ravi Shankar,died of intestinal problems in the US with none of his parents by his side. “Shubho’s death was a great shock to me and I think it could have been prevented,” she writes. Shubhendra’s children Som and Kaveri Shankar who are now settled with their mother in the US also visit her sometimes. “Shubho’s daughter Kaveri is a Bharatnatayam dancer. She came and stayed with me for a few days and we immensely enjoyed each other’s company,” she writes.

To my question if she would like to perform ever again,she says a firm no. Could I meet her once,not as a journalist but as a musician? “Please forgive me but I don’t think so since I don’t meet anybody.”

This is Annapurna Devi then,a spare life,pared of people and distractions,immersed in her Baba’s learning. “I am at peace when I am teaching a few of my students or when I am practicing or feeding pigeons,” she writes.

That’s the image I’d like to depart with,the artist of a forgotten world,who lives in the shadows,but imperiously,on her own terms. But of this I am sure,come midnight,she will make her surbahar weep,for the gods she left behind in Maihar.

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