At 83, I believe I am Annapurna Devi’s oldest living pupil and also the only one she had trained as a vocalist. On my return to Delhi after attending her funeral in Mumbai, I felt a deep sense of loss. Not only at losing this simple lady, my guru and second mother, but also because it was the end of an era — the era of contemplative, meditative music.
I remember when I was seven or eight years old, our home — my grandfather Lala Shri Ram’s house on Curzon Road in Delhi — used to reverberate with music. Baba Allauddin Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar and Annapurna would stay on for months every year with us, in the 1940s. My mother, Sheila, was Baba’s disciple and that is how this great association began.
In 1952, Annapurnaji and Robuji (Ravi Shankar) performed a duet at the Masonic Hall on Janpath, Delhi. Fortunately, I had a tape recorder, primitive by today’s standards but functional, and was able to record the concert. It was the first time I heard Robuji play the surbahar, the instrument Annapurnaji is known for, and the raag they chose was Yaman Kalyan — one of my favourites. The aalap flowed like a river with gentle waves. The moment Annapurnaji touched her instrument, there was a murmur of appreciation. Robuji’s strokes were more masculine and he used the parda (frets) quite often since he was trained on the sitar. Annapurnaji’s strokes used the meend, which was more akin to the human voice. When she delicately touched the shudhh madhyam, it tugged at the heart and brought tears
to the eyes, besides a spontaneous response from the audience. The climax was like a river in spate. The taans that followed one after the other were stunning, as was the jhalla.
It was soon, thereafter, that I began learning vocal music from Robuji. He took me through the steps of dhrupad and khayal, and taught me a few raagas. I practised hard. The next year, in college, I won a number of awards and represented Delhi University at a youth festival. At the end of 1953, Robuji was leaving for a tour of the USSR and America which would last over a year, so he told me to learn from Annapurnaji. She was reluctant at first but finally said “if you learn from me, you will have to forget all you have learnt so far”. I agreed readily and then started a gruelling practice of four to six hours every day. It was all about singing the scales with a full steady voice. Whenever I went off-key, even slightly, she would intervene with her own pitch-perfect voice. It was a training for the ears as much as it was for the voice. Within six months, the timbre of my voice changed, and then she went on to train me in the different shrutees. My basic training took place in Delhi after which, post her separation from Robuji, she shifted to Bombay.
In the following decades, whenever I visited her she welcomed me, and when I sat with my tanpura, her first question was, Panditji ne kya sikhaya? (What did you learn from Robuji?) My lessons with Robuji and Ali Akbarji continued at fairly frequent intervals but I had to pick up really fast for they were always on the move. Annapurnaji would listen patiently and take me through the exposition of the raagas I had learned in her own inimitable style. She was a teacher par excellence and a musician with exceptionally gifted skills.
There has been much controversy about why she and Robuji separated and why she never played in public. A separation between husband and wife is not unheard of, but in their case differences arose regarding the upbringing of their only son, Shubho (Shubhendra Shankar). He had finished school in Delhi and was attending the J J School of Art in Bombay while learning the sitar from Annapurnaji. Her teaching was like her father’s — very strict and requiring strong discipline. While Shubho was talented, he also wanted the freedom that, for young people in a cosmopolitan city, might seem common. When this reached Robuji’s ears, he insisted on taking Shubho with him to the US. This broke Annapurnaji, who was sure that with two more years of training under her, Shubho would become a first-rate musician. Her next great shock was Shubho’s death in America.
As far as Annapurnaji not giving solo concerts is concerned, that is another story. It takes me back to the time I was eight years old and Baba Allauddin heard me singing a film song. He sat me down and said I must pursue music because I will not have to sell Saraswati. We who sell Saraswati are sinners.
The deeper significance of this remark dawned on me much later. I thus sensed that Annapurnaji could never be comfortable taking money for concerts. Music was her personal domain. In fact, she never charged money from her students, which was also true of Robuji and Ali Akbarji. Thanks to Robuji and her second husband Rooshikumar Pandya, she was financially comfortable.
May her soul rest in peace and let those of us who have shared a bit of her life consider ourselves blessed.