Little is known about Annapurna Devi in the media and amongst sitar lovers. Some people know her as the wife of the Pt. Ravi Shankar, some know her as an expert in Surbahar ( an instrument that is technically superior to Sitar) , some know her as a recipient of Padma Bhushan award. However nothing much is known about her personal life except that her marriage with Ravi Shankar was a disaster. Annapurna Devi has chosen to make herself almost inaccessible. She has stopped performing in public / stopped giving concerts, stopped recording her music. She has shunned public life to an extent that she hardly steps out of her house. She does not welcome any visitors. She teaches sitar and music to a selected few. In a sense, she has almost no contact with the outside world.
Here is an artist who has not given a public performance for the last 50 years and yet music stalwarts like Nikhil Banerjee, Hari Prasad Chaurasia consult her before their concerts. What is it in her that draws various artists to take suggestions?. Why has she stuck to playing Surbahar and not Sitar ? What motivates her to get up each day with the single motto of playing and teaching Sitar and nothing else? All these questions and many more are answered through this book. This book is indeed quite an achievement by Swapan Kumar Bondyopadhay, who manages to get to her , in the first place(as she does not meet any outsiders), knows about her life’s journey first hand, interviews her siblings and disciples and writes her story.
Annapurna was the third child of Baba Allauddin Khan and Madina Begum. She was born at Maihar, Madhya Pradesh in 1927. Her father Baba Allauddin Khan is the Sarod Maestro and a mentor to a host of Indian music legends like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, Panna lal Ghosh, etc. Baba Allauddin Khan was a court musician and lead a life that was solely dedicated to music. Incidentally, the name, Annapurna, for her daughter was suggested by the local King where he rendered his services. Baba’s elder son Ali Akbar Khan and his eldest daughter Jahan Ara were both introduced to the world of music at a very early age. Baba was afraid to teach Annapurna Devi as her eldest daughter Jahan Ara’s passion towards music lead to her eventual death. Jahan Ara’s in-laws were against any form of music and hence made her life miserable. Baba having seen her eldest daughter die in front of his eyes needed all the courage in the world to teach music to her second daughter. Naturally , he resisted his urge to teach Annapurna for quite some time. But then it all changed one day when he heard Annapurna sing and correct her brother’s composition. He might have thought that he would be doing a great mistake by not allowing this latent music talent to flourish. So, he started teaching Sitar to Annapurna. During her initial learning years from Baba, she meets Ravi Shankar. It so happens that Baba accompanies Uday Shankar’s troupe and gives many performances all over Europe and that’s when he meets Ravi Shankar. He teaches a few music lessons to Ravi Shankar while in Uday Shankar’s troupe, but gives a word of caution to the fidgety Ravi Shankar that,
ek sadhe sab sadhe, sab sadhe sab jaaye
One who concentrates on one thing gets it, One who runs after too many things loses all
Even though Ravi Shankar is attracted to the western life and is mesmerized by all the things he gets to see and do as a part of Uday Shankar’s troupe, he decides to give it up all, for the talim under Baba. That was a life changing decision. He leaves his brother’s troupe and comes to Maihar to learn Sitar from Baba. Ravi Shankar starts living next door to Baba to learn Sitar from him. The strict focus on riyaz under Baba’s talim gives the much needed direction to Ravi Shankar’s life. During his stay at Maihar and learning music, he marries Annapurna Devi when she was just 14 years old. They have a son , Subhendra Sankar with in a year. So for a while it looks like the entire family was having a great time. With Baba’s talim, Ravi Shankar and Annapurna’s musical abilities were growing exponentially. With Subhendra’s arrival in to the family, there was happiness all around. Alas! these happy times came to an abrupt end as Ravi Shankar started having an affair with Kamala, the sister of one of the Baba’s disciples. In fact Ravi Shankar comes home one day and confesses to Annapurna that she is totally in love with Kamala. Hearing this, Annapurna’s life is shattered and heads back to Maihar with her son. Those were the initial signs of a life long bitter relationship between the two. Ravi Shankar continues to practice Sitar. But at the same time, he had his affair going.
The life at Maihar changed Annapurna to a large extent. As she went through suffering her heart grew stronger. The long hours of introspection in Maihar helped her to detach and gain a mature outlook on life and its frustrations. It was in this period that she grew intellectually very rapidly. For a while Annapurna tried reconciling to this fact and thought about somehow getting back Ravi Shankar.
So, despite Ravi Shankar’s affair, she decided to go and stay with him at Delhi. Their personalities were poles apart. Annapurna played sitar for the soul and there was no need for unnecessary embellishments. For her music was an outlet for the expression of joys and sorrows one one’s life. It was independent of the externalities of a stage appearance. Ravi Shankar wanted to change according to the times. He knew that people were no longer going to sit and enjoy a two hour long aalap. He wanted to bring in speed, beats, tabla, and novelty in to Sitar. For a brief period of time, things went well professionally. But soon, he hit a bad patch.
Nothing worked for Ravi Shankar and his life in Delhi was miserable. He tries committing suicide but just in time, a guru whom he calls tatbaba comes to his rescue and gives a new lease of life. He encourages Ravi Shankar and restores his self-esteem. From then on Ravi Shankar treats tatbaba as a god. This is again one of the reasons for the rift between Annapurna and Ravi Shankar. Annapurna did not believe in such type of gurus and idol worships. For her, music gave all the inner strength and purpose to live. Someone trying to end his life because of his inability to get by in life , was something unthinkable for Annapurna. But that’s exactly what her husband was up to.
During her stay with Ravi Shankar, they disagreed on the many aspects of music, for example, the tempo of the compositions that they were to play at concerts. Annapurna liked the slow soulful surbahar instrument(technically far more superior than Sitar), Ravi Shankar preferred Sitar. Both gave a few performances in Delhi and for which the book says anecdotally that Annapurna was better appreciated than Ravi Shankar. The book says after a few concerts , Annapurna never played in public with Ravi Shankar. Some say that Ravi Shankar made her take a vow that she would not give a concert in public. But the book makes it clear that there was some other reason for Annapurna deciding never to share a stage with Ravi Shankar. The author says that he was unable to get the actual reason out of Annapurna.So, I guess the answer to the question, “Why did Annapurna stop giving public performances with Ravi Shankar?” will remain a mystery forever.
In any case, the couple could not live together in Delhi as they were constant quarrels. The quarrels in fact were one sided as Annapurna would always maintain silence for any accusation.Most of the accusations by Ravi Shankar were trivial as compared to the reason for her stony silence, i.e. Ravi Shankar’s affairs. So, soon, the logical thing happened. Annapurna left Delhi and returned to Maihar with her son. She wanted to dedicate her life to two tasks. Firstly, carry on the tradition of Baba’s musical inheritance and secondly , teach her son so that he becomes a great Sitar player. A wonderful thing happened then. Her sibling Ustad Ali Akbar Khan started a music college in Calcutta and recruited her as the vice-principal. Annapurna’s got a second life in Calcutta. She immersed herself in hours of riyaz and teaching Sitar.
When any relationship goes sour, there are repercussions felt by people around. In this case, it was their son, Subhendra’s life became a tragedy. He struggled to find meaning in his life, given that his parents were diametrically opposite in their thinking styles and ways of life. He didn’t know the right path to follow. There are some instances mentioned in the book that point to Subhendra’s superior sitar talent than his father. Under her mother’s talim, he learnt a ton of stuff and was getting groomed to become a great musican. But destiny had something else planned for him. He craved for the razzle-dazzle of his father’s life. So,in a way he was torn between the stoic, soulful artist, his mother, and the performer, his ever glamorous father.
One doesn’t know how much to believe, but the book says that Ravi Shankar deliberately had arranged for a lesser volume speaker for his son’s sitar whereas a higher and better quality speaker for his own sitar, when they performed together on the stage. The book mentions many a people claiming that Subhendra was on par and superior to Ravi Shankar. In any case, the fact remains that Subhendra, the son of the two of the greatest sitar players , inheritor of Maihar parampara met with a tragic death.
Since the last 40 years, Annapurna has been living in Mumbai and teaching Sitar to a selected few. Some of her disciples are the stalwarts of Indian music , i.e. Nikhil banerjee, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Aamit Bhattacharya, Nityanand Haldipur, Suresh Vyas, Basant Kabra. The author of this book, Swapan Kumar Bondyopadhay, meets all these musicians and tries to cull information about Annapurna. The narrative given by each of the disciples gives a little more idea about the kind of life Annapurna lived.
Here are some assorted statements about Annapurna and music, mentioned at various places in the book:
What’s the approach to a raga ? There is nothing like approach to a particular raga. It is approach to the music total. For her music is like an act of worship. When she surrenders to it, it just happens.
In the Zen sense. The Zen master archer does not aim and shoot. He shoots and the target is there. Same is the case with Annapurna with Sitar.
She is one of the most insightful persons I have ever met. I think living alone has done her a lot of good.
When asked, Why do you shun company ? Annapurna replies, “I have found out that it is much more peaceful not to meet people. That helps me focus and immerse myself in music”.
One should always practice as if the teacher was sitting in the next room listening.
I realized that the secret of her strength resided in the fact that she was all by herself shunning the outside world. I think all this, being a recluse and living alone , works in her favor. If you are in a excited state or angry , you cannot judge the situation. You have to calm down and focus. And she is in that state all the time.
Music of for that matter any form of art, is a spiritual quest. Knowledge per se, we divide in to two. Intellectual and Experimental. Intellectual knowledge covers normal education and collection of data and information. Experiential knowledge is concerned with spiritual things where your holistic being is used. Your mind, body and spirit are all focused to experience something and the attempt is always to bring oneself to a certain level. In that your mind does not come in the way. Your experience and and your mind do not match.
By bringing out Annapurna’s life in to the media, the author has done a world of good because this book is a testimony to the superlative experience that one gets by playing an instrument slowly. The aalap, the slow soulful playing of notes and experiencing each note is the essence of playing Sitar. The book cautions against becoming a speed demon.