Thursday, November 19, 2009

Annapurna Devi : the genius who chose to be left alone

Some have heard of her. Few have met her. None truly know her. Sarod wizard Ustad Ali Akbar Khan said of her, she is 'simply great'. Pandit Ravi Shankar acknowledges her genius. Yet, none have heard her play. Mysterious, intriguing, she is like our own Greta Garbo, living in her own shadows, shutting herself out from the world in the cloistered confines of a city flat, seeking peace in an instrument her father taught her. She wants nothing from the world, from society. But if she decided to give of herself, the world would be a richer place.

Six floors up the elevator in a high-rise building, in one of the posh residential localities of Mumbai, lives this woman. No one sees her, not even her immediate neighbours. The board at the entrance of the building simply spells: Annapurna Devi. Another square board is nailed next to her doorbell. It reads :

1. The door will not be opened on Mondays and Fridays.
2. Please ring the bell only thrice.
3. If no one opens the door please leave your name and address.
~ Thank you very much. Inconvenience is regretted.




Annapurna Devi, who was born as Roshanara Khan in 1926 at Maihar in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India, is a maestro of Surbahar or the bass Sitar. Her father Ustad Allauddin Khan, who also happened to be her guru, was the founder of the famous Maihar Gharana or the Senia Maihar School and was regarded as one of the greatest instrumentalists of the 20th century. Sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was her brother and she married Pandit Ravi Shankar, also a pupil of Allauddin Khan, at a very early age. Annapurna Devi emerged as a proficient Surbahar maestro of the Maihar Gharana just within few years of taking music lessons.

Soon after she even started giving music lessons to some of the students of her father like Pandit Nikhil Banerjee and Ustad Bahadur Khan. Baba, as Allauddin Khan was called by his disciples, was a very strict man and his temper was well known. There were times when the boys were so petrified that they dared not approach Baba and the only person who had access to him was Annapurna. He taught her, and she in turn often taught the boys. The trio of Annapurna Devi, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, began a long and arduous journey, trying to plumb the depths of a 5000 year old tradition of Hindustani music.

Raga Kaushiki :  Download








Raga Manj Khamaj :  Download








Annapurna Devi's marriage to Ravi Shankar was arranged with the suggestion of Uday Shankar, his celebrated elder brother. Annapurna Devi, who was only 14, wedded Ravi Shankar when he was 21 years old. Though a tumultuous one, the marriage lasted for some 20 years during which the couple gave birth to a son, Shubhendra Shankar. It could have been a fairy tale or an eternal duet between two maestros, but somewhere at the height of the glory something happened and the relationship snapped like a thin thread.

There were whispers, as they were bound to be, given the fame of the two musicians and given the fact that they were husband and wife. Many say, Ravi Shankar fell in love with somebody else, a woman known as Kamala. Perhaps the affair became too big and Annapurna was definitely hurt by the entire thing. This and her father's subsequent death dealt a severe blow to her, something that she could never recover from. She became a recluse thereafter, totally cut off from the rest of the world.

During better times with Ravi Shankar :


Raga Yaman Kalyan (with Ravi Shankar on the Sitar) :  Download








By all accounts, Annapurna Devi's only public concert was staged in the early 1950s, and no one has ever heard her play the Surbahar or Sitar in public or private ever since. Few have seen her, fewer still have heard her play. She has performed a total of 11 times in her life. Finding a recording of hers is like locating a needle in a haystack. Her students say that she imparts instructions through singing and not through playing her instrument, and she conducts her lessons only in the late hours of the night, more often after midnight. What is more, she has remained inaccessible and unapproachable even to her own students without prior consent and appointment. Neither does she make herself available on telephone, nor entertain any visitors. She is allergic to press reporters, critics and lensmen.

As a teacher, she has had many noteworthy students like Ustad Aashish Khan, renowned flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and others. She has not recorded any music albums. But some of her performances, notably Raga Kausi Kanara, Raga Manj Khamaj and Raga Yaman with Ravi Shankar have been secretly taped from her earlier concerts, and are available but not commercially. In spite of her avoidance of media limelight, she continues to be thought of as a classical instrumentalist of the highest calibre in India. All the awards she has received, including the Padma Bhushan in 1977, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1991 and the Desikottama Award (highest honour conferred by the Vishwa Bharati University, Shantiniketan) in 1999, have been accepted in absentia.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting post on a fascinating artist. Thanks.
Mohamed

Anonymous said...

Rabi Shankar fell in love with Kamala is true, but there is also some rumour that Annpurna had affair with Rabi Shankar's student. She is also now married to her own student. Who knows what goes on between two people. Nobody can judge.

Anonymous said...

Wow what an enigma...

Anonymous said...

Annuopurna's music, for anyone who has heard her play, is beyond what can be imagined. The recordings that exists are fr. the 1950's but Annupurna continued to devote herself to the talim for decades after
she stopped playing in public.

Anonymous said...

enigmatic personality...

Anonymous said...

I am a westerner who having heard Annapurna play- some 40 yers
ago, am unable to forget the profundity of the music & her kind
ness in revealing it to me. There is a saying that Allaudhin
Khan gave the gift of performance to Ravi Shankar,
the gift of teaching to Ali Akbar Khan & the gift
of the music, itself, to Annapurna. Such mas-
defies speech & reaches into the antiquity
of the Indian music system & the secrecy
of Nada yoga.

Anonymous said...

certainly her recordings show her gharanas style of dhrupad ang, also great tayaari. she must have had her reasons for not playing in public.

Anonymous said...

anapurna the is waiting to hear your voice

Anonymous said...

recently i have read an article on her and feel we are much poorer without her music.

Sheryn said...

WOW... i searched internet for the word Annapurna devi after reading about her life in a newspaper and found this blog... I am ashamed of myself being an Indian and not knowing this woman for last 27 years...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for publishing such a topic.i had a vague idea about this great lady.thanx for giving more information

Anonymous said...

Thanx for giving more information about this great lady

Subrata said...

True Legend, great article..

Mohan said...

True legend from a legendary family. Hope she would come out to show the light to the younger generation in her last few years. God bless her.

Anonymous said...

Actually one of my friends Stephen James who was a student of Ravi Shankar told me that one evening while sitting with Ravi and his wife Sukanya. Ravi Shankar very clearly stated Annapurana Devi had a few affairs with his students while they were still married. He did say something like the sheet is white and looks clean but underneath is pure dirt.

Anonymous said...

Overblown! There is not much reference to her greatness. You know how we indians are! We will call someone great just because. Shahid Parvez is great as is Zakir Hussian and we have recorded proof of that. But judging from these few recordings average at best. Also the manj khamaj is speeded up thats why it seems she has tayyari. All stories thats all.

Anonymous said...

As truly mentioned before, what an enigma she is!
Whatever happened between the husband and wife should be left to them. But her musical prowess is awesome! The Kaushiki was so captivating! Thanks-a-million for posting these rare gems!

Anonymous said...

A great artist and teacher, I salute her. Her personal life is her own as that of Pt Ravi Shankar.

Viswanathan said...

Annanpurna married a student after her divorce with Ravi,nothing wrong in it. Their marriage broke up because of Ravi's "love for many women at a time" policy. Ravi's instincts to be a gypsy gave him fame and popularity. Annapurna sacrificed her career for Ravi's sake. In heaven where there is no malice or hatred Ravi,Annapurna,Allaudin, Ali Akbar,Alla Rakha and Subhendu all will perform concerts together.

Anonymous said...

annapoorna devi you are great.

Anonymous said...

she used to suspect him and that was not all a wrong one. whatever it is ravi shankar lived a flamboyant life sometimes two, sometimes three affairs running parallely, catching up with on dumping the other,it is worth learning other than learning music from him. the worst sufferers were annapurna devi and shubho who once tried to commit suicide too. he could have also bloomed into a great performer may be not as his father, but he deserved a stable family life. sukanya was intelligent enough to forbid him from teaching any female student ever since their marraige. i wonder what would have happened is she were his first wife.

Sujit Kumar Sanyal said...

Pt. Ravi Shankar was a Bharat Ratna. Smt. Annapurna Devi, only a Padma Bhushan. This is the difference between performance and quality.
If the virtuoso decided to open up, things could be different.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading about this legend,Annapurna Devi and to my mind she has Devi Saradambas grace.she should never have married a debauchery like Ravi Shankar.A man without character,humanity and a cheat.Thank God they separated,otherwise he would have completely destroyed her music too.such relationships help bring to light how important it is to marry the right person if you are talented and have character.I have great respect for her for the dignity with which she handled life.

Anonymous said...

God knows the truth what happened between both but, one thing is for sure - music is divine and it will remain divine only if one surrenders to maa saraswati. Origin of any paticular thing is always pious and pure and so should be the creator/representative of music.

Anonymous said...

Great lady

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