Updated: October 16, 2018 1:33:59 am
In filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s documentary on Ustad Alauddin Khan (1963), the maestro is seen teaching Annapurna Devi, his daughter and student. It’s a five-second clip, Annapurna sits at Khan’s feet. It’s hard to miss her concentration, even through the grainy footage. She is bent over her surbahar, the bass sitar and its wide frets, and is trying to navigate through the seven notes. The inward, brooding notes one hears aren’t the easiest on the ears if one is not a classical music connoisseur. But Annapurna persists, playing with the glides and working the glissando to find the path she is looking for. She did that till Saturday, when she passed away at the age of 91. With Annapurna Devi’s passing, the last of three pillars of one of the more significant generations in the Maihar gharana — the other two being her brother Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and her first husband Pt Ravi Shankar — has fallen.
Born as Roshanara, she was called Annapurna by the Raja of Maihar, in whose court her father was a musician, but for the most part of her life, Annapurna was called a recluse — a talented musician who only briefly played in public (a few duets with Shankar), and shut herself in a Mumbai apartment after her divorce, never recorded and shunned all awards and audiences. It’s her reclusiveness that turned her into an enigma. Behind those closed doors, Annapurna Devi taught a handful of students — Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Basant Kabra among others — fed pigeons and made Bengali-style fish curry often.
As for her music, it was the way to spirituality. She is probably sitting up there with Swami Haridas — Tansen’s teacher. Akbar was mighty impressed when he heard Haridas, hidden in the audience, and asked Tansen why he couldn’t sing like that. Tansen had famously replied that “I sing for you while he sings for God”. The world of Annapurna Devi didn’t revolve around herself, or the audience, or commercial success. It had everything to do with music itself which she harboured safely and devoted to the higher power she so strongly believed in.
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