Annapurna Devi & Her Music of Silence

On 13th October 2018, Annapurna Devi passed away. Her death was as peaceful as her life in the last 60 years had been, ever since she stopped playing music publicly, because of a vow she made to save her marriage to sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar. While the marriage still failed, she held her vow till the end. For the last 60 years she had lived the life of a hermetic recluse, seeing no one except for her music students. A life of pure devotion to her music and her goddess, Sharada Maa. I was lucky to be the first journalist ever to interview her in 2000 — a story that went viral many times over. This, with the wisdom of hindsight and maturity, is my final story about her. It was published by the Mumbai Mirror across six pages on October 14.

 

THE MUSIC OF SILENCE

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I was 27 years old when I was offered a chance to record the defining interview of my life — a story that would become the benchmark of everything else I would write, and would become the Rorschach test for my own changing attitudes to relationships as I grew older. I was Contributing Editor for a Men’s lifestyle magazine called Man’s World India — a respectable local variant of GQ or Esquire. Unexpectedly, into my lap, fell this opportunity from a friend of a college friend to interview a reclusive musical maestro named Annapurna Devi — so reclusive, I was told, that she would be speaking to a journalist for the first time ever. My friend introduced me forward to her friend, an affable diamond merchant by day and devoted student of ‘Maa’ in every spare hour, and my first question to him was, ‘Who is she?’

In a world where ‘low-profile’ means not giving interviews till your next album, here was a musician who had stonewalled the media — and not gone out in public, literally — since three decades before I was born. If there were no recent photographs of her, it was because she had not been photographed since 1956. Even in the world of Indian classical music, where she was a legend, she was more heard of than heard. Many of those who had seen her play live, at a clutch of recitals in the Forties till the mid-Fifties, were now dead.

So I began to piece together her story from fragments and shards for the first time. She was the daughter of Ustad Allauddin Khan, widely acknowledged as the father of Hindustani classical music. In some sense, her lineage itself made her the equivalent of the first daughter of the Hindustani classical world. But she was more than that. Allauddin Khan’s youngest daughter was the foremost living exponent of the surbahar, a difficult instrument colloquially described as a ‘bass sitar’. Moreover, over the years, she had been the Guru Maa – a combination of music teacher and spiritual guru – to hundreds of students which included a veritable Who’s Who of rising stars of modern Hindustani classical music — Nikhil Banerjee, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ashish Khan, Bahadur Khan, Nityanand Haldipur, Sudhir Phadke, Basant Kabra, Amit Bhattacharya, Pradeep Barot and many others. But the part that caught my attention, and the reason I was being given the interview, was because she was also the first wife of sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. More specifically, what caught my attention was why she was no longer his wife: a tragic story that became the main reason why she had shut out the world beyond her music room.

From her students I learned that she had not played in public for 50 years because of a vow she had taken. I was further intrigued when I was told that the cult 1970s Bollywood film ‘Abhimaan’ — in which the marriage between singer Subir (Amitabh Bachchan) and his unassuming young bride Uma (Jaya Bachchan) breaks down because he is jealous of her superior talent — was based on the story of their marriage. It was this story of a fiery, ill-fated marriage of two creative artistes that I explored in my piece ‘The Tragedy of A Relationship’ in August 2000. So fiery, in fact that the stray sparks, still flying forty years after separation, had led to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the only reason the reclusive Annapurna Devi had agreed to speak to a journalist now was because her former husband had misrepresented their marriage in his new autobiography.

For the next few weeks, guided by her student Atul Merchant, I immersed myself in her life story, which was like a crash course in the history of modern Indian classical music. I interviewed some of her students and music critics. And finally, when I was ready, I visited her home. While appearing to be an ordinary tenth-floor flat in a South Mumbai apartment block, it was a portal into a world out of the ordinary — just as she was.

For one, the door had a plastic plaque: A request: Please ring the bell only three times. If nobody answers, please leave your card/letter. Thank you for being considerate. She was then living with her second husband Rooshikumar Pandya, a cheerful, worldly-wise psychology professor from Montreal, who seemed to have found a happy mix between being her student, confidante and caretaker. As I entered, there was a small holding area — as hotel suites sometimes have — beyond which access is not allowed except to music students. But that night, Atul Merchant took me through the passage into the ‘forbidden zone’.

On the left, we passed the kitchen, where Annapurna herself cooks. In the Hindu pantheon, Annapurna Devi is the Goddess of Nourishment and her namesake’s culinary skills are rumored to be worthy of this high epithet. Across the bottom of the kitchen door was a small wooden partition, a pet door for her dachshund Munna who had passed away twenty years ago. But Maa still keeps the door in his memory, Atul said. Annapurna, I realized, was not a person given to forgetting quickly.

Straight ahead was a door, which was shut. Maa is meditating, I was told and guided instead into the training room. This large room, with a row of sitars along its walls, opening out through sliding doors on to the sea, was the heart of the house — and it could be said, the epicenter of contemporary Hindustani classical music for the sheer number of musicians that had honed their skills here. Near the center of the room was a well-worn chattai mat. This is where every one of Maa’s students has sat and learnt from her, Atul pointed out, and this round cane munda (stool) is where Maa sits while teaching.

Even 17 years later, I remember two things about that room. One, it was frozen in time, as if it existed in its own reality where time moved slower, if at all. The light had the still, depthless quality of an aquarium, as if everything that ever happened within it stayed floating forever in its ethers. And secondly, I remember distinctly perceiving the air in the room was dense with silence. It was not just the dead silence of an empty room, it was the living silence of a monk’s cell, where every gesture felt magnified and every thought I had carried in from the outside world felt suddenly too loud and too vulgar.

Around the room were priceless paintings and bronze busts, and even more priceless, the surbahar she herself played, but my eye was drawn to a relatively smaller sketch in the corner. That was drawn by her son Shubho when he was young, Atul informed me. It was eerie and hypnotic: a stark black graphic illustration of a series of doors sucking you into them, as if each promising possibility led inexorably to doom. It could have been a metaphor for Shubho’s own unhappy life.

The interview began with the defining childhood moment at age ten when her father caught her correcting her brother Ali Akbar during his music practice. She had been playing hopscotch outside their family house in Maihar, 160 miles outside Benares, and her father had gone to the market. Teenaged Ali Akbar was immersed in his daily 18-hour riyaz on his sarod when she caught him playing a false note. To fully understand the significance of this moment, you have to know two things: One, Ali Akbar was no musical pushover, he was a child prodigy who made his stage debut at age 13, and secondly, that the youngest daughter Annapurna had received, until then, no musical training whatsoever from her father. (This was mainly because her elder sister who had been trained in Dhrupad had, after marriage, found her Muslim in-laws unwelcoming to a daughter-in-law who sang Vedic devotional songs. So Allauddin decided it might be in Annapurna’s best interest to not learn with her brother.)

So when Annapurna not only corrected, but also sang the raga flawlessly to demonstrate the correct way, it demonstrated a finely tuned ear far above even the abnormally high standards within a family blessed with musical genius. As she recalled the incident in my interview: “I was so involved in the music that I didn’t notice Baba returning and watching me. I was most afraid when I suddenly felt his presence. But instead of scolding me, Baba called me in his room. He perceived that I had a genuine interest in music that I loved it and I could do it. This was the beginning of my taalim (education).”

Annapurna With her father Allauddin Khan
Annapurna Devi With her father Allauddin Khan

Her taalim had begun, as was compulsory for all students, with vocal Dhrupad training. Then, she was taught the sitar. But very soon, her father asked her if she would like to shift to the surbahar, a larger and more unwieldy cousin of the sitar. His suggestion was far more significant than a shift of instrument or a notch-up to the next level of dexterity, it was an acknowledgement that she was spiritually and musically ready to be transmitted the highest teachings the Master had to offer.

As she recalled in my interview, “He said, ‘I want to teach my Guru’s vidya to you because you have no greed. To learn you need to have infinite patience and a calm mind. I feel that you can preserve my Guru’s gift because you love music. However, you will have to leave the sitar, an instrument liked by the connoisseurs as well as the commoners. Only listeners who understand the depth of music or who intuitively feel music, on the other hand, will appreciate the surbahar. The commoner might throw tomatoes at you. So what is your decision?’ I was dumfounded. ‘I will do as per your aadesh,’ was my simple response.”

In 1935, Uday Shankar, the legendary dancer, invited her father Allauddin Khan to join them on their tours. Uday Shankar had popularized Indian dance in the West by adapting European theatrical techniques to it. His little brother Robindra (he later changed his name to Ravi Shankar) was then a handsome dancer in the troupe, with an intense, exotic charm. In his teens, Robindra found another gift: he could fool around with any instrument — the tabla, sitar, sarod and flute — and create music even without formal training. He became obsessed with the idea of spreading this music to the West. But when he met Allauddin Khan, the teacher, with characteristic bluntness, told him that he was wasting his time and talent. Humbled, but inspired, in 1937 Ravi Shankar sold his western clothes, shaved his head, and moved to Maihar. The move was not just geographical, Robindra was moving from bohemian Paris into a stoic world, which was disciplined, and demanding.

It was Uday Shankar who approached Allauddin for the hand of his daughter Annapurna for his little brother. At that time, Annapurna was a shy thirteen-year-old and, in the words of Ravi Shankar, “very bright and quite attractive, with lovely eyes and a brighter complexion than Alubhai’s (Ali Akbar Khan).” But this was not a Hollywood romance between two prodigies, Annapurna reminded me. “I was brought up by Ma and Baba in an ashram-like atmosphere at Maihar. There was no question of my getting attracted to Panditji. Ours was an arranged marriage and not a love marriage.” In fact, before marriage, all Pandit Ravi Shankar says he knew about the depth of her feelings was that she had ‘agreed’. And on the morning of May 15, 1941, Annapurna converted to Hinduism and the same evening they were married according to Hindu rites.

He was 20 and she was 14.

Five years after the story was published, when I was well in my thirties, I got married. I found it a complex negotiation of little and big sacrifices, and I wondered what it would have been like for a fourteen-year-old who had barely left her hometown and never been with another man. And here she was, thrown into the deep end, with a debonair, worldly-wise musician with grand plans to change the world, and in whose presence girls giggled a little more than necessary. There is a mythic resonance to the story of the star pupil marrying the teacher’s daughter, as there is in the tale of a daughter marrying the one man holding the promise to someday equal her father. But their marriage was so ill fitted in every other way. It sounded like a match made in music heaven, but emotionally, it was a match made in hell.

Jealousy — sometimes suspected, sometimes confirmed — began to define their arguments. Like her father, Annapurna had a temper, and this did not get easier, when their son Shubho was born a year into the marriage. A year later, Ravi Shankar was attracted to dancer Kamala Sastri (later Chakravarty), a fact he would confirm in his book ‘Ravi Shankar: An Autobiography’. It was barely two years into the marriage, and they had just moved to Bombay when the affair took wing. An enraged Annapurna returned to Maihar with her baby and did not return until Kamala was hastily married off to movie director Amiya Chakravarty. Of this period, Ravi 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….”

What compounded this personal drama was that in music – the aspect of life that mattered most to Ravi Shankar – he was dogged by constant whispers that his wife, not him, was the real deal.

The first schism, according to the recollections Annapurna shared with her students, emerged a few months after marriage when she was invited by their father’s patron Maharaja Brijnath Singh Jiu Deo to play at his palace in Maihar. Ravi Shankar, unfamiliar with rigid court decorum, not only travelled with her but, after she ended a spectacular and much-appreciated hour-long surbahar solo, requested the king for a chance to play on his surbahar. The king allowed the unexpected intrusion into the schedule, but walked off fifteen minutes into the performance. Annapurna would later clarify that though Pandit Ravi Shankar had learned the surbahar from Allauddin Khan, the sitar suited him more and was his forte.

Ravi Shankar continued to develop his expertise on the more challenging and rewarding instrument but an almost-identical rejection a few years later became the last straw for their marriage. After a live surbahar jugalbandi (duet) performance by the couple in Delhi in the 1950s, audiences rushed up to surround her and critics congratulated her, ignoring Pandit Ravi Shankar, and the writing was on the wall. In later years, Annapurna would repeatedly clarify that it was only because Panditji was playing the surbahar that the contrast was glaring. But on that night in their home, the silence was deafening.

Marriage is considered sacred in Indian culture. Hindu marriage rites bond a couple across lifetimes. Ending it was so unheard of that until the Hindu Marriage Act was created in 1955, divorce was not even recognized by law as a means to end marriage. To save her marriage, Annapurna Devi took a vow before a picture of her father and an image of their family goddess Sharada Ma never to perform in public again.

Even though my access to Annapurna for the interview had come with the unspoken caveat to portray her side of the story, I tried to stay true to both sides — using quotes from Ravi Shankar’s multiple autobiographies on every incident Annapurna spoke of, in the absence of direct access. But I underestimated the iconic power of this single image: a wife making the ultimate sacrifice at the altar in a last-ditch effort to save her marriage. After that, nothing could rebalance the scales, which tipped heavily with the weight of centuries of masculine and feminine archetypes. Perhaps because of it, the article didn’t just end up as a profile of a reclusive genius, it went far beyond the rarefied world of classical music aficionados. It spread on weblogs, Internet chat forums and bulletin boards; and a decade later, when Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp emerged, it resurfaced and continued to remain viral, like a never-ending social media Mexican wave. In 2016, when I posted a copy of the original article on my personal blog, WordPress stopped recording statistics after it crossed 10,000 shares on Facebook alone — within a week! Every month I still get comments about it, which essentially say the same two things in different words: how amazing Annapurna Devi is, and how awful her husband was.

I did note, for example, in my article that Ravi Shankar recalled this defining incident differently: “As long as we were married I used to force her to play along with me and give programmes… But after that she didn’t want to perform alone. She always wanted to sit with me. And after we separated she didn’t want to perform… She maybe doesn’t like to face the public or she is nervous or whatever but it is of her own will that she has stopped. This is very sad because she is a fantastic musician.” But it didn’t have the iconic ring of a vow taken before the gods, and in popular imagination, Annapurna’s version endured.

Annapurna Devi & Ravi Shankar
The Newly Married Annapurna & Ravi Shankar

As I grew older, I sometimes wondered if it could have ended differently for them. In the photograph of them on their marriage day, they look like any other couple, giddy with possibilities and promise. No one sets out to have a bad marriage, but theirs unraveled almost as soon as it began, and I wondered why. Surely it showed poor judgment for Ravi Shankar to expect a traditional Indian woman like Annapurna to allow him an infidelity pass. Much as I admired his honesty in acknowledging in his book that he was “deeply attracted” to dancer Kamala Sastri “for the first time in his marriage” — he didn’t note that this first time was barely two years into the marriage! Or had Ravi Shankar misjudged himself? Had he been so carried away within the ashram-like atmosphere of Madina Bhavan-Shanti Kutir, living with his Guru’s family for seven years, that he had forgotten that he — a dancer since age ten in Paris — was someone else inside? Looking with today’s eyes, I would wonder if their age was a factor: it was, after all, an underage marriage and teenage parenthood. In later years, I even wondered if her determination to hold her vow — even after the marriage was lost, even after Ravi Shankar passed away — was a twisted way to deprive the world of her music: a punishment that held an unforgiving finger of blame forever pointed in the direction of Ravi Shankar.

As the years passed, and my own marriage began to come apart at the seams, I realized more clearly that in real-life, relationships aren’t divided into heroes and villains, into victims and oppressors, even if that version of the story offers us the comfort of sympathy, or of righteousness. It felt, because of the scathing criticism of Ravi Shankar in the comments I received, that I had done an injustice to the full truth of this story. After all, to define Ravi Shankar’s life by his failed marriage would be grossly incomplete. He had gone on to do more for Hindustani music than almost any other contemporary musician. He had not just become a global face of Indian music — he had become a patch-cord which plugged a whole generation of the West into the spiritual source of Indian music, musicians like George Harrison, Robbie Coltrane, Philip Glass, Yehudi Menuhin, Pete Townshend, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. And I believe Annapurna Devi felt the same way, because in later years she did clarify her undiminished respect for Pandit Ravi Shankar the musician, torchbearer of the Maihar Gharana, even as she continued to stay silent or cryptic on Ravi Shankar the husband and father.

Perhaps if Ravi Shankar had not written about Shubho’s ‘sleeping pills incident’ in his 1997 biography, she would still have let her angst remain locked up in her music room. Perhaps if their story had ended with separation, it would have been simply a cautionary tale. But with the addition of the story of Shubho’s little life and early death, it got sordid.

Hospital records would show that Shubhendra Shankar’s life was difficult from the beginning. Within eight weeks of his birth in 1942, he was diagnosed with a painful intestinal obstruction. Staying awake all night with a crying child after ten hours of sitar lessons every day put the first strain on his parents’ marriage. Ravi Shankar recalled in his book, “…Because of that trouble Shubho had now developed the habit of not sleeping in the night. It continued for the next year or so, and gradually I saw Annapurna’s personality changing. For both of us it was extremely strenuous, and our tempers would fray.”

Little Shubho was taught to play the sitar by his father. Since his father was constantly busy, either on concert tours or travelling for films and ballets, his musical education was taken over by his mother, who, like her own father before her, was rigorous and uncompromising. He continued to stay with her after the couple separated. In his teens, he showed an interest in art, and even as he continued his daily riyaz, he enrolled in the Sir JJ School of Art. This seemed partly an act of teenage identity-assertion and partly because he somehow believed graphic design promised a more reliable source of income. By all accounts, he remained a shy, sensitive and solitary boy.

His father was by now estranged, living and touring in the West. Around 1966, when he came to India, he heard Shubho play on the radio by chance. He reached out to invite him to move to the US with him — an invitation that cannily was sent directly to Shubho instead of Annapurna. For Shubho, comparing his spartan lifestyle of endless hours of solitary practice, against the promise of travelling to pre-ordained fame as Ravi Shankar’s heir, the choice must not have been difficult. His mother was determined that he should complete the remaining two years of his taalim. Ravi Shankar proposed to Shubho that since the same guru had taught him, he could complete Shubho’s training too. As a final offer, Annapurna requested for six months. But Shubho was adamant to leave with his father – and then, one night, he opened the first of many doors that would seal his fate.

In his autobiography 1997 ‘Raag Mala’, Pandit Ravi Shankar wrote, for the first time, about this incident — the controversial ‘sleeping pills episode’. He wrote: “When I was staying in Bombay sometime in early 1970, I received an SOS call at my hotel from Shubho, asking me in a feeble voice to come home and take him away. I didn’t know what was happening and was terrified by his tone of voice, so I rushed to the flat in Malabar Hill, which I had not visited in the three-and-a-half years since I left for good. There I saw Shubho lying down and looking ill. He clung on to me desperately, like a little boy, and begged me to take him away with me to America, as he could no longer stand the hot temper and harshness of his mother — not only in connection with music but in general too. Coming from a man of 28, this both melted my heart and angered me. I did not want to make a scene and managed to control myself even as Annapurna was shouting in fury, ‘Yes, take him away! I don’t want him!’ After we left I learnt that Shubho had taken 8-10 sleeping pills in an attempt to end his life. Fortunately, the doctor had arrived just in time and emptied Shubho’s stomach completely.”

For my original interview, Annapurna wanted me to put it on record that father and son had concocted this episode. She called it “a stage-managed drama to malign me and to take him away from me.” She said, “Shubho was immature at the time and hence unwittingly became a party to his father’s plot. I think he realized this later and stopped communicating with his father a few months before his untimely and possibly preventable death. Let me share with you what did happen… When I was told that Shubho had taken sleeping pills, I immediately called a doctor who examined him and confirmed that nothing was wrong with him. We also searched for an empty bottle or any other telltale signs but nothing was found. As a matter of fact, Shubho himself called his father at that time and told him to take him away as per their plan. My only plea to Panditji at that time was, ‘You have ruined my life and now you are ruining your son’s life. Why?’ His only answer was, ‘It is because of you’.”

When Shubho arrived in America, it was the Summer of Love. Shubho moved in with his father in Hollywood, and was gifted a Ford Mustang. But the glamorous doors of La-La Land only sucked him in deeper into a black hole. Shubho fell in love with an American girl Linda, whom he met at one of the concerts and, against his father’s wishes, decided to get married. After marriage, he gradually lost interest in playing the sitar. He found solace in drawing and devoted his talents to earning a degree in fine arts from Parsons School of Design. Cut adrift from his cloistered world where he was revered as Ravi Shankar’s son, he was cast into blue-collar America. Soon the baby-faced scion of the Maihar gharana was working part-time as a clerk in a liquor store and drawing illustrations for telephone directories to support his wife and two children.

shubho_ravi
Shubho Shankar

At the age of 40, Shubho took his father’s advice to return to music full time. He began playing the sitar again with Panditji and returned to India for a few concerts. He met his mother again, after twenty years. It was an emotional moment and as he touched his mother’s feet, he told her he wanted to complete his music studies. His delighted mother was ready to begin immediately, but it was soon palpable that this was not the bright-eyed boy who had flown to claim his destiny, this was a defeated and broken-down Shubho whose last paying job had been as a pizza delivery boy. When he played together with his father at the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival in Pune in 1990, a few music critics carped that he was out of tune. This was enough to crush him. Once again, Annapurna tried to convince him to stay back in India and once again, he declined. He had concluded by now that it was too late for him. And he flew away once again.

The promise of bearing the musical genes of Annapurna and Ravi Shankar, the promise of being the most eagerly anticipated heir of the Maihar lineage, the promise of conquering America with his celebrity father, the promise of finding his identity apart as a painter, the promise of a new beginning with his final trip to India — every doorway of promise had turned into nightmare for Shubho.

In his last few months, he cut himself off from everyone. He contracted bronchial pneumonia and on September 21, 1992, the Los Angeles Times reported that the son of renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar, who had been ill for the last several months at his home in Garden Grove, had died at Los Alamitos Medical Center. The obituary noted: ‘Shankar is survived by his wife, Linda; their son, Somnath, 17; their daughter, Kaveri, 13, and his 71-year-old father, who is recuperating in London from surgery to clear blocked arteries.’ For some reason, deliberate or otherwise, it made no mention that he was also survived by a grieving 65-year-old mother, who did not have a passport to go to the US — a mother who had perhaps believed that a tragic divorce would be the biggest shock she would ever have to face.

Her day-to-day life was not different from an Indian housewife. Her day began at six in the morning when she woke up to take in the milk. She spent the day cooking, cleaning the house — and even washing her own clothes, because her father had told her to do this in childhood. Besides music, her only obsession was pigeons: another quality she had imbibed from her father. Every afternoon, she would feed hundreds of pigeons on her balcony. The rest of the time, she taught in the training room, never leaving the house, except a couple of times for medical reasons.

While it was a hermetically sealed life, it was not an unhappy one; it was a life that had made peace with the seeming imperfection of its own story. Her deeper sorrow was the declining standard in music. She was born in an era of royal patronage (she was bestowed the name ‘Annapurna’ by the Maharaja of Maihar). In her lifetime, the world had moved from Maharajas to Maharaja Macs — her students now needed to please the lowest-common denominator of the masses to survive. She relentlessly trained her students in the same exacting way her father had taught her and her father’s guru had taught him, but everything outside the windows of her training room had changed. Even as her newer students immersed themselves in decades of solitary 12-hour-sessions, they would see half-trained musicians zoom past as pop musicians and Bollywood music directors. Some students got mundane day jobs for survival but over the years found the pressures of work, marriage and children hard to balance with this demanding spiritual path. While none would openly question Maa, they sometimes wondered if they were trying to be a Timex in a digital age.

Much has changed for everyone in the story since the article came out. Three decades of marriage to Prof Rooshikumar Pandya seemed to have settled Annapurna and healed long-held scars. A trained psychological counselor, I suspect he helped her as much as she helped him. Ravi Shankar also softened over the years. When Annapurna remarried in 1982, he was one of the first persons to congratulate Rooshikumar Pandya. Pandya recalled that though Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi never met or spoke to each other after her second marriage, whenever Ravi Shankar spoke to him over the phone, he would enquire about Annapurna – and her pigeons.

A white-bearded Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away in 2012, after a concert in San Diego in which he arrived on stage in a wheelchair, on oxygen, and played Raga Bhimpalasi in memory of Hurricane Sandy victims. A year later, with much less media coverage, Rooshikumar Pandya passed away after a cardiac arrest. Annapurna stopped teaching and cancelled the annual Guru Purnima celebrations, the one day of the year when her doors were open for all her students, and anyone else who came with offerings of gratitude. And on October 13th, well into her ‘90s, she quietly moved on to her next journey.

Our minds — addictive story-telling machines — jump blithely across decades of idyll to connect incidents and make meaning; connections that perhaps don’t exist for those living them. Maybe there is no cause-and-effect continuity between the tempestuous 15-year-old wife and the struggling 35-year-old single mother and the dignified 55-year-old music teacher. We want to combine these dramatic and disparate notes of her life into one raga, but maybe they belong to different songs, with the previous tracks erased. In some cases, like with Annapurna, the daily, hourly flow of time across the many intervening years having smoothened out jagged memories into peace. In other cases, as with Ravi Shankar, the crowd of new faces replacing the old neighborhoods within the mind with newer skylines.

In his final interview, with Tathagata Ray a few months before he passed away, Rooshikumar Pandya gave the sanest and most concise summation I have read about the Annapurna-Ravi Shankar saga: “Two persons sometimes don’t match. It is very simple and happens all the time. People are only interested about their marriage. But what people don’t understand is that it was over long ago. Both of them have remarried, lived happily, and lived a full life. Both of them have contributed enormously to the country’s music. While he chose to perform in concerts, she chose to spread her father’s music among her students.”

ravi-shankar
Ravi Shankar with George Harrison

And sometimes it is hard to grasp how long the gaps in time have actually been. They were married in the age of scratchy vinyl. They separated in the year Phillips introduced ‘compact cassette’ players. Shubho went to the US just before the Sony Walkman became the rage. She remarried Prof Pandya at a simple Arya Samaj ceremony in 1982, the year music began moving to Compact Discs. And then the year after Shubho died, mp3 killed cassette tapes forever. My original interview happened exactly a year before Apple launched the iPod, which put ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’. And that was still 17 years ago.

Blame it on serendipity or algorithm, the next video YouTube throws up for me is a performance of Pandit Ravi Shankar playing the same raga, at Woodstock in 1969. From the first notes, one can sense a showman’s instinct for connecting with the audience and carrying them along into a joyous place. When he plays Manjh Khamaj before a live audience, it can almost classify as ‘fun’ in the way of a rippling Santana guitar solo or Satchmo ripping his trumpet. The performance is soulful, intricate and not lacking in dexterity, but it is also dazzling and one can picture open-mouthed American teens sprawled out in rainy Woodstock that weekend wondering what in God’s name is this wizardry. The difference is clearer here than anywhere else. While Annapurna’s joy seemed to be in playing for herself and for her goddess, Ravi Shankar’s role seemed to be to share the nectar of the gods with the world. Fluent in both Eastern and Western musical languages and a charismatic, polished stage performer, Ravi Shankar was undoubtedly a natural, and better, ambassador for a dying craft.

Somewhere, that is where I find my peace with their story. One of them was designed to scale mountains of glory, and one of them was designed to plumb solitary depths of the valley of devotion. In themselves, they were pinnacles of the two functions of music — as an inner doorway to divine joy, and as a medium of sharing divine joy with others.

The world may see Ravi Shankar’s contribution to music greater, but I would lean towards Annapurna, because of a story I heard a few years after I wrote my article. Till then, I had always likened Annapurna to Mian Tansen, the legendary 16th century musician in Emperor Akbar’s court, who could start fires and create rainstorms with his ragas. (In fact, the Maihar gharana traces its teachings back 400 years directly to Tansen, so in some sense she is musically a direct descendant of Tansen.) But after hearing this story, I began to think differently.

Legend has it that one day in court, after yet another soul-satisfying musical performance from Tansen, the Emperor Akbar declared there could be no voice more divine than Tansen. The singer humbly replied that if the Emperor could hear his teacher, a hermit called Haridas, his own poor efforts would be forgotten. The Emperor wanted to immediately summon Haridas to court but Tansen cautioned him that it was not possible – his teacher did not sing on demand, only when he felt inspired. Intrigued, the Emperor, with Tansen, set off for the forest in Vrindavan where Haridas lived in a hut. When they arrived, it was early morning, and the teacher was deep in meditation. Akbar hid in the bushes while Tansen prostrated himself before his guru and began singing a sacred hymn his guru had taught him. The teacher, still deep in meditation, did not open in his eyes. Then Tansen, as planned, deliberately sang a note off-key. His guru immediately opened his eyes and corrected him. Tansen begged him to remind him of the correct notes. So the guru lifted his voice and rendered the same hymn so magnificently that Akbar fell into ecstasy. It was only then that Tansen revealed to him that the guest hiding in the bushes was the Emperor of India. When they returned to the capital, a bewildered Akbar told Tansen he had been right: his teacher was beyond anything he had heard before, but one thing puzzled him — how could there be such a vast difference when both had sung the same song, and hit the same notes, flawlessly. It is said that Tansen replied: ‘The cause is simple — I sing to please the king, he sings only to please God.’

Annapurna Devi Final
The rare, final photograph of Annapurna Devi, taken a few months before she passed away.

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The Tragedy of A Relationship

In August 2000, Ravi Shankar’s first wife, the reclusive surbahar virtuoso Annapurna Devi, did her only interview in 60 years with me in which she spoke about her torturous marriage and the tragic life of their son Shubho. Originally published in Man’s World, it was rediscovered by a journalist in December 2012 after the demise of Pandit Ravi Shankar. Since then, the story of Annapurna Devi has gone viral logging in over 10k Likes on Facebook and 900 shares. It’s an amazing, unforgettable story of a rare modern-day musician mystic.

 

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In the Hindustani classical music fraternity, Annapurna Devi’s genius is part of a growing mythology. The daughter of the great Ustad Allauddin Khan, the sister of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and the divorced wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar, she is considered to be one of the greatest living exponents of both the surbahar and the sitar.

The tragedy is that her music is lost to the world. Four decades ago, following problems with Ravi Shankar, she took a vow never to perform in public. Since then she has lived as a virtual recluse, rarely stepping out of her Mumbai residence. She is 74, but has never made a recording. No outsider has seen her play in almost 50 years, except for George Harrison, who in the 1970s was allowed the rare opportunity of sitting through her daily riyaz, that too following a special request from the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Annapurna Devi’s virtuosity, however, is attested by the accomplishments of her students, among whom are some of the greatest musicians of this country — Nikhil Banerjee, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur, Basant Kabra, Amit Bhattacharya, and Amit Roy.

Annapurna Devi’s aloofness from the world extends to not even taking phone calls. The only time she has spoken to the press has been through her students. For this article she made the concession of letting the writer into the house, but did not allow a face to face meeting. She later answered a written questionnaire on a variety of subjects including her hurt at the manner in which Ravi Shankar chose to portray their marriage and the death of their only son Shubho in his autobiography Raga Mala. “I am aware of the false and fabricated stories about me regarding what happened in my married life…,” she says at one point, “…I think Panditji is losing his sense of propriety or his mental balance, or that he has turned into a pathological liar.”

Annapurna Devi’s sixth floor flat at South Mumbai’s Akashganga Apartments bears her name plate and a plastic plaque which says, “Please ring the bell only three times. If no one answers, kindly leave your card/letter. Thank you for your co-operation.” I ring the bell once and the door is opened by a smiling Rooshikumar Pandya (“He is all the time laughing-laughing,” the liftman tells me). A psychology teacher at a Montreal College, Pandya came to Mumbai in the early 1980s to take music lessons from Annapurna Devi and never went back. He married her in 1984. Most visitors to the house don’t get past his room, just across from the main door. However, tonight one of her students, Atul Merchant, takes me through the passage into the ‘forbidden zone’.

We pass the kitchen, where Annapurna Devi herself cooks and cleans, as she keeps no servants in the house. But even while she is busy in the kitchen, her ears, Atul claims, monitor the students playing in the drawing room. Nothing escapes her ears. “Once,” recalls Atul, “her student, sarodist Basant Kabra, was practising Raag Bihaag. All of us sitting near him couldn’t discern any mistake, until Ma yelled from the kitchen, ‘Nishad ka taraf besura hai, sunai nahin deta kya?’” Across the bottom of the kitchen door is a small wooden partition, which was kept, I am later told, for her dachshund Munna. It’s been twenty years since Munna reached the big kennel in the sky but the partition symbolises her affection for him and immortalises his memory.

Straight ahead is a door, which is firmly shut. “Maa is meditating,” Atul says simply and guides me into the drawing room cum talim room. Alongside a wall is a row of sitars of different sizes in their sheaths. We come into a large drawing room opening out through sliding doors on to the Arabian Sea. Near the centre of the room is a well-worn chattai. “This is where Dakhinamohan Tagore, Nikhil Bannerjee, Aashish Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur, Basant Kabra and every one of Maa’s students has sat and learnt from her. And this round cane munda is where Maa sits while teaching,” Atul says. One instantly perceives that the air in the room is extraordinarily dense with silence. There is a sense of an involuntary freezing of the chattering mind. Around the room are paintings and bronze busts of Allauddin Khan, her father and guru, and her legendary surbahar. But it is a small framed sketch in the corner that catches my eye. “That was drawn by Shubho when he was young,” Atul informs me. It is hypnotic. A stark black graphic depicting a series of doors leading you into them. It’s eerie.

Later, I spoke to one of Annapurna’s senior students of Shubho’s illustration. He quickly remarked, “It sucks you in, doesn’t it?” Shubho is Annapurna and Ravi Shankar’s son who died under tragic circumstances in 1992.

Annapurna
Annapurna’s story

Young Ali Akbar was practising his latest lesson on the sarod. His younger sister Annapurna was playing hopscotch outside their family house in Maihar, 160 miles outside Benares. It was sometime in the 1930s. “Bhaiya, Baba ne aisa nahin, aisa sikhaya,” said Annapurna, who stopped playing and started singing Baba’s lesson flawlessly. And she hadn’t even been given music lessons by Baba. Allauddin Khan had trained his elder daughter, but music had caused marital problems in her conservative Muslim husband’s house. Hence he was not going to make the same mistake with his younger daughter. “I was so involved in the music,” Annapurna recalls, “that I didn’t notice Baba returning and watching me. I was most afraid when I suddenly felt his presence.

But instead of scolding me, Baba called me in his room. He perceived that I had a genuine interest in music, that I loved it and I could do it. This was the beginning of my taalim.” Her taalim had begun, as was compulsory for all students, with vocal Dhrupad training. Then, she was taught the sitar. One day, her father asked her if she would like to shift to the surbahar, a larger and more difficult cousin of the sitar, but ultimately a more rewarding instrument. As she recalls, “He said, ‘I want to teach my Guru’s vidya to you because you have no greed. To learn you need to have infinite patience and a calm mind. I feel that you can preserve my Guru’s gift because you love music. However, you will have to leave sitar, an instrument liked by the connoisseurs as well as the commoners. Only listeners who understand the depth of music or who intuitively feel music, on the other hand, will appreciate the surbahar. The commoner might throw tomatoes at you. So what is your decision?’ I was dumfounded. ‘I will do as per your aadesh,’ was my simple response.”

Around this time, Uday Shankar’s younger brother, eighteen-year-old Robindra Shankar (he changed his name to Ravi Shankar around 1940), came to learn at Maihar. At that time, Annapurna was a shy thirteen-year-old and, in the words of Ravi Shankar, “very bright and quite attractive, with lovely eyes and a brighter complexion than Alubhai’s (Ali Akbar Khan).” Their marriage was not a love marriage. “I was brought up by Ma and Baba in an ashram-like atmosphere at Maihar. There was no question of my getting attracted to Panditji. Ours was an arranged marriage and not a love marriage,” Annapurna Devi says with finality.

Pandit Ravi Shankar too writes in his latest autobiography, Raga Mala, “There was no love or romance or hanky-panky at all between Annapurna and myself, despite what many people thought at that time. I do not know how she truly felt about the match before marriage, although I was told that she had ‘agreed’.” And on the morning of May 15, 1941, Annapurna was converted to Hinduism and the same evening they were married according to Hindu rites. Connoisseurs and music critics believe that she is a more gifted musician than either Ravi Shankar or Ali Akbar. As Ustad Amir Khan would later point out, “Annapurna Devi is 80 percent of Ustad Allauddin Khan, Ali Akbar is 70 percent and Ravi Shankar is about 40 percent.” Ali Akbar himself agrees in his oft-quoted statement: “Put Ravi Shankar, Pannalal (Ghosh) and me on one side and put Annapurna on the other and yet her side of the scale will be heavier.”

Annapurna claims this was what led to the discord in their marriage. Says she, “Whenever I performed, people appreciated my playing and I sensed that Panditji was not too happy about their response. I was not that fond of performing anyway so I stopped it and continued my sadhana.” It is no secret that it was this marriage that was the basis of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s popular film Abhimaan, where a famous singer (Amitabh Bachchan) and his shy wife (Jaya Bachchan) have problems in their marriage when her popularity soars above his. Mukherjee in fact discussed the story with Annapurna Devi before he embarked on the film. However, while in the movie the couple gets back together to live happily ever after, in real life Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi’s marital discord got worse and they eventually divorced. To save her marriage, Annapurna Devi says she took a vow before an image of Baba and Goddess Shardama never to perform in public again. But even a sacrifice as great as this didn’t save her marriage.

Ravi Shankar recalls the issue a little differently. In a recent television interview he said, “As long as we were married I used to force her to play along with me and give programmes… But after that she didn’t want to perform alone. She always wanted to sit with me. And after we separated she didn’t want to perform… She maybe doesn’t like to face the public or she is nervous or whatever but it is of her own will that she has stopped. This is very sad because she is a fantastic musician.”

Madanlal Vyas, who was Ravi Shankar’s student and the music critic for The Navbharat Times for 36 years, gives another perspective. “After the concerts people used to surround Annapurna Devi more than him, which Panditji could not tolerate. He was no match for her. She is a genius. Even Baba, the unforgiving and uncompromising Guru called her the embodiment of Saraswati. What higher praise than this?”

Unfortunately, her music is lost to the world. There are very few people who remember watching her in concert. There is only one recording of her playing in existence: a rare, private recording from one of their jugalbandi performances which was made from the speaker placed outside the door when the auditorium was filled. Apart from Ravi Shankar, and her current husband, Rooshi Pandya, the only person who has heard her play since she withdrew from public life is the Beatle George Harrison. The story goes that when he was here in the 1970s with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked them if she could do anything. Menuhin said he wanted to ask for something impossible — could Mrs Gandhi get Annapurna Devi to play for him? After much persuasion, a reluctant Annapurna Devi agreed, not to a special performance, but to allow them to sit in on her daily riyaz. On the appointed day, however, Menuhin had to rush back home on account of an illness in the family. Harrison thus became the lucky one to see her play.

shubho_ravi
Shubho’s story

Shubhendra Shankar was born on March 30, 1942, to the newly married Ravi Shankar and Annapurna. Within eight weeks of his birth, he was diagnosed to be suffering from a rare, painful condition due to an intestinal obstruction. Though he was cured within a month, staying awake all night with a crying child after more than ten hours of sitar lessons every day, Ravi Shankar says in his autobiography, put the first strains on their marriage. “…Because of that trouble Shubho had now developed the habit of not sleeping in the night. It continued for the next year or so, and gradually I saw Annapurna’s personality changing. For both of us it was extremely strenuous, and our tempers would fray. At that time I too wouldn’t stand any nonsense, and we would get angry together. I had not known before, but found out that she had her father’s temper. She would tell me off — `You have married me only for music! You don’t love me! You had all these beautiful women!’ She was becoming insanely jealous of any other woman I talked to. Whenever I returned from a programme in another city, she would accuse me of having affairs there. It was like an obsession.”

Shubho, meanwhile, was showing interest in painting and had a private tutor appointed to teach him. He was also being taught to play the sitar by his father. When the family shifted to Bombay he joined the Sir JJ School of Art, although he never completed the course. His father was already a star and constantly busy, either on tour playing concerts or travelling to do music for films and ballets, so his musical education was taken over by Annapurna Devi.

In Bombay, however, the marriage took a turn for the worse when Annapurna discovered that Ravi Shankar was having an affair with Kamla Sastri (later Chakravarty), a dancer from his brother’s company. Upset, she went back to her father’s house in Maihar taking Shubho with her, coming back only after Kamla was married off to film director Amiya Chakravarty. But things were never the same again for Ravi Shankar and Annapurna. In 1956, she left for two years and by 1967 they had separated for good.

Through all this Shubho’s riyaz continued with his mother. Her rigorous teaching method made sure that he developed proficiency in playing long alaaps with beautiful meends. He had also mastered the sapta taan; a skill that experts say Ravi Shankar lacks. How Panditji came to discover Shubho, the sitarist is part of a legend in itself. One day, the story goes, Ravi Shankar was at a recording studio in Bombay for some minor recording where he heard a little sitar piece.

Astonished, he asked who the musician was, because though the sitar was unmistakably a variation of his gharana, which Baba Allauddin Khan had developed, the player was neither Nikhil Banerjee nor himself. The studio recordist laughed and said, “Surely you’re joking, Panditji. Don’t you recognise your own son playing?” Pandit Ravi Shankar called Shubho to his hotel room and Shubho played what he had learnt for him. When the performance was over, Panditji asked the audience, “Don’t you think he’s brilliant?” Everyone agreed. Then Panditji added, “Don’t you think he should start performing now?”

And once again, everyone nodded in assent. So Panditji suggested Shubho should come to the U.S. and start sharing the stage with him. Dazzled by his father’s charisma and also by the lure of the West, Shubho, who had grown up cocooned within his mother’s spartan lifestyle and his art classes, became insistent that he wanted to go to America with his father. His mother asked him to complete his taalim, which he was due to within two years, before performing on stage. But he didn’t agree. As a final offer, Annapurna asked him to study hard for six months, and then he was free to go wherever he wanted. But Shubho was adamant. It was at this point that the famous ‘sleeping pills episode’ occurred.

In Raag Mala, Pandit Ravi Shankar writes: “When I was staying in Bombay sometime in early 1970, I received an SOS call at my hotel from Shubho, asking me in a feeble voice to come home and take him away. I didn’t know what was happening and was terrified by his tone of voice, so I rushed to the flat in Malabar Hill, which I had not visited in the three-and-a-half years since I left for good. There I saw Shubho lying down and looking ill. He clung on to me desperately, like a little boy, and begged me to take him away with me to America, as he could no longer stand the hot temper and harshness of his mother — not only in connection with music but in general too. Coming from a man of 28, this both melted my heart and angered me. I did not want to make a scene and managed to control myself even as Annapurna was shouting in fury, ‘Yes, take him away! I don’t want him!’ After we left I learnt that Shubho had taken 8-10 sleeping pills in an attempt to end his life. Fortunately, the doctor had arrived just in time and emptied Shubho’s stomach completely.”

This was, for many years, the official version of the story. The rest was always dismissed by Pandit Ravi Shankar as the fabrication of Annapurna’s overzealous disciples. But now, for the first time, Annapurna herself says on record that father and son concocted this episode. In fact, in the interview with Man’s World she has been particularly vicious on Ravi Shankar: “I am aware of the false and fabricated stories about me regarding what happened in my married life,” she says, “I have been quiet about it because I thought of Baba while he was alive. I didn’t want to hurt him in any way so I put up with the injustice and suffering. However, now I feel that the world should know my side of at least the Shubho part of the story.

“I think Panditji is losing his sense of propriety or his mental balance or that he has turned into a pathological liar. He has exemplified the English proverb: ‘No fool like an old fool.’ It would be nice if he would devote all his time to teaching his shishyas instead of wasting his time and energy in such frivolous pursuits. His shishyas would be grateful for his gift and India would be richer with talents.

“That year when Panditji came to Mumbai, he learnt that Shubho was playing very well. He called him and after listening to him, initially underplayed Shubho’s artistry and then suggested to Shubho that he should now go with his father. The people of Panditji’s circle pointed out that Shubho was taiyar and that he could play anything and that he should tour with his father. According to Shubho, Panditji had added, ‘Your mother and I have studied under the same Guru so I could also teach you.’ My response was, ‘He is right but he would not have the time for it. Please stay here and continue your taalim for one-and-a-half years more. After that you can go anywhere you like. I would not stop you because by then, you would be ready to take on the world.’

“This is when Panditji and Shubho hatched the plan about Shubho’s taking sleeping pills — a stage-managed drama to malign me and to take him away from me. Shubho was immature at the time and hence unwittingly became a party to his father’s plot. I think he realized this later and stopped communicating with his father a few months before his untimely and possibly preventable death.“Let me share with you what did happen… When I was told that Shubho had taken sleeping pills, I immediately called a doctor who examined him and confirmed that nothing was wrong with him. We also searched for an empty bottle or any other telltale signs but nothing was found. As a matter of fact Shubho himself called his father at that time and told him to take him away as per their plan. My only plea to Panditji at that time was, “You have ruined my life and now you are ruining your son’s life. Why?” His only answer was, “It is because of you.”

“Till today I have not understood his motives for interrupting Shubho’s taalim. Maybe it was because of the rumours making the rounds that Shubho was going to be a better player than Panditji and this was my revenge against Panditji. I don’t understand how people can think like that. If Shubho, or anybody for that matter, becomes a good musician the credit goes to Baba. Our music is his gift.

“I know Panditji is very image conscious. Maybe he feels that the recently published book on me has made some dent in his image and his articles are an attempt to salvage his image and assuage his guilt for the gross injustice he did to his son. Shubho realised this during the last months of his life and refused to see his father. Shubho could have been a great artiste; he was close to it. If he had continued his taalim he would have played great music. But a combination of factors prevented it.”

The fact remains that given his prodigious talent, Shubho never achieved the heights he ought to have in America. Within a week, his father fixed him up with a small apartment and a Ford Mustang and within two years of his arrival in America, he played with his father at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall. But gradually, he lost interest in playing the sitar. Never a strong-willed person, he developed a passion for junk food and Coca-Cola and ended up doing odd jobs to make ends meet. For a while he even worked in a liquor store to earn extra money. He stopped playing the sitar for almost eight years. He married Linda and had two children, Som and daughter Kaveri.

After eight years, he began playing the sitar again with Panditji and returned to India for a few concerts. On this trip, which was to be his last visit to India, he also met his mother again. Sarodist Suresh Vyas, one of her senior students, recalls, “Picture this scene: mother and son meet again after twenty years. For all these years there has been no communication between the two. He comes in, does pranam. His mother says: ‘Ae Shubo, aesho, aesho. How are your children? How is your wife?’ This goes on for two minutes. After that he says, ‘Maa, ami shikhu (I want to learn).’ She replies, ‘Fine. Your sitar is still there. Take it and sit down.’ And the mother begins to teach the son again. As if nothing has happened!”

Music critic Madanlal Vyas recalls, “Father and son had played together at the Sawai Gandharva Festival in Pune in 1990. We got the news in Bombay that Shubho was besura. Not just one music critic but a few others also said the same. Later, I heard the recording of the concert and found it was absolutely untrue. But by then the news had spread…I did get the feeling that there was a campaign to demoralize him—there were stories that his microphone was tampered with. Whether it was planned or not, I don’t know. But I am certain that Shubho was an extraordinarily talented musician. I remember hearing him play around the same time at a private concert on Nepean Sea Road. He played Raag Des, and so beautifully I have never heard anyone else play, before or since. After the concert when I spoke to him, he said he had learnt it from Maa just that morning!”

“During that visit, it was obvious that he was defeated and broken down,” Atul Merchant remembers. “We tried to convince him to stay on in India and complete his sitar education but he said it was too late now.” Shubho returned to the U.S., and in his last few months cut himself off from everyone. He contracted bronchial pneumonia and died prematurely in a U.S. hospital on September 15, 1992.

Life with Maa
It has been over 50 years since any outsider has heard Annapurna Devi play her surbahar. Those who have the temerity to request her to play are put off with a simple “Mujhe kuch nahi aata (I don’t know how to play at all).” Even her closest students are taught through singing, much the same way as she had corrected her brother years ago. She begins her own riyaz on the surbahar late at night and goes into the wee hours of the morning. Her students swear that after she has played a certain raag, the entire house gets inexplicably perfumed with the fragrance of sandalwood. In a private correspondence she wrote about this phenomenon. “Sometimes while practising at night, I suddenly have a sensation that I am surrounded by the fragrance of flowers. Baba used to say that this is one of the ways in which Sharda Maa makes her presence felt. He also said that whenever that happens, don’t think you’re great or anything. Instead, such experiences should make one feel more humble in the presence of the divine.”

For the rest of the day, her life is no different from that of any woman. “Her day begins at six in the morning,” sarodist Suresh Vyas reveals, “when she wakes up to take in the milk, not very different from any Indian housewife. She sleeps barely two-three hours. She cooks, cleans the house, and even washes her own clothes because her father had told her in her childhood that one should never let anyone else wash one’s clothes. So even if she is sick she makes sure that no one else washes her clothes but herself. As for her cooking, Prof Pandya and I joke that when it comes to accomplishment, there is a close tie between her cooking and her music. And she’s true to her name. No one who enters the house is allowed to leave without eating.”

In her free time, her students say, she listens to old Hindi film songs on the radio or to other music, even contemporary music. She liked A.R. Rahman’s first album Roja. A recent addition is Cable TV. Her students still keep her busy, though advancing age has meant that she has now stopped accepting new students. “I think it is only partially true,” her husband Rooshi Pandya says, “to say that she keeps aloof and away from people. While it is true that she does not meet people socially, as far as music is concerned she is very much involved with her students and their progress. Teaching music takes up most of her time. The rest of the time she spends doing her puja, riyaz and household work and all this does not allow her the luxury of socialising. This is her choice, her lifestyle and she is comfortable with it.”

One hears she has a fondness for pigeons like her father. “Oh yes,” Suresh Vyas says, “Every afternoon, she feeds hundreds of pigeons on her balcony. And mind you, she recognises each one of them. Once or twice, when I went over in the afternoon to drop something, I saw her feeding them. She would point to one and say, ‘This one is very mischievous, he doesn’t allow her to eat.’ In fact, I think that’s her biggest expenditure in the month. As far as I know, she eats very little, though none of us have ever seen her eat. A recent addition to her family is a crow, who comes on the kitchen window and refuses to eat unless Maa feeds him with her own hands. And he loves malai, so Maa saves malai for him.”

Then of course, there was Munna. Munna was arguably the world’s first canine connoisseur of music. The dachshund who was Annapurna Devi’s best friend during some of her lowest days had an unerring ear for music. Those who were there recall that whenever any of her students—Nikhil, Shubho or Hariprasad Chaurasia—played particularly well, Munna would run and sit in their lap.

“So hers is not a lonely life?” I ask Suresh Vyas. “Not at all, she’s very content in her own world. Though she’s unhappy at another level.

She’s unhappy at the declining standards in music today. It hurts her when she sees unripe musicians tempted by quick money and fame. This saddens her deeply,” he says. “Look at it this way: because we are so close to Maa, we see her as a human being with all the human frailties, but if we step back, there is another, much larger picture.

She was born and trained in an era when musicians lived under the sheltering umbrella of royal patronage. A musician had to please just one person, who was more often than not his student too. But she lives now and teaches music to a generation that plays music for the public to earn its livelihood So that purity, the flight of excellence in music, is vanishing in favour of crowd-pleasing antics. Maa represents the vital last link in that chain. She doesn’t play for the crowds. And she trains us in music in the same exacting way her father had taught her and her father’s father had taught him. Otherwise, if you look around, there is no one else to maintain that tradition.”

Epilogue
So eventually, I never did meet her. But if I had what could I have described? The sound of her voice? The colour of her sari or her complexion? What could I have fathomed from those trivialities? She answered my questions on paper; and from her students and critics and her correspondence I pieced together the story of the greatest surbahar player you never heard. Except for some old pictures, I have no living vision to remember her by. But the one image that lingers in my mind as if I had seen it with my own eyes is Annapurna Devi feeding her pigeons on her sun-washed balcony. Perhaps because the pigeons enjoy the freedom she herself chooses not to have. Perhaps because her father too did the same, and in some secret way she pays a tribute to her father every time she feeds them, chides them and sends them off.

And perhaps also because of something her father had said in his last days: “When a pigeon flies, his wings beat in taal… You can count the matras if you don’t believe me. And such a sweet voice… God has invested such a treasure of music in each of his creations that man can take armfuls away but never exhaust it. Goddess Saraswati has given me a little too. But not as much as I would have liked. Just when I began to draw something from the ocean of music, my time was up. This is the trouble, when the fruit of a man’s lifelong labour ripens… Who can understand God’s ways? But one thing I have understood a little. There is a fruit, the custard apple. I like it very much. I eat it and throw the seeds outside the window. And one day I look and there’s another tree of the same fruit. With new fruits on its branches. I eat it and others enjoy it too. This music also is like that. It is not the property of one, it belongs to so many.”

– From the September 2000 issue of Man’s World

UPDATE: For those who are interested in reading further on Annapurna Devi, here’s the insightful ‘Enigma Of A Recluse‘ written by one of her music students, Atul Merchant.