Annapurna first learnt dhrupad vocal music and then sitar. But something about Annapurna’s profound involvement with music convinced Baba that she was destined to walk a different path. He then gently introduced into her child hands, the formidable surbahar. As she would recall, he said to her, that he wanted to teach his Guru’s vidya to her because she had no greed. He felt that she could preserve his Guru’s gift because she loved music. He also told her that she would have to leave aside the sitar, an instrument that appealed to the commoners, in favour of the surbahar. Only listeners who understood the depth of music or who intuitively feel music, would be able to appreciate the surbahar. And thus, the colossal surbahar met its incomparable exponent.
True to Baba’s instinct about her, Annapurna imbibed Baba’s music faithfully and retained it in its true form, which she then shared with her numerous disciples.
Even while living in an era in which artists are judged or even defined by popularity, Annapurna never allowed concerns of popular acceptance intrude into the private realm of her relationship with music. On the contrary, she imagined the objectives of her musical pursuit in terms entirely removed from ‘performance’. A handful of glimpses that she showed of her musical prowess, when she was only in her twenties, were sufficient to ensure that in the annals of Indian classical music, she would never be forgotten. Three stealth-recordings of Annapurna’s Yaman Kalyan (in a duet with Pt. Ravi Shankar), Manj Khamaj and Kaushiki that date back to the 1950s continue to pique curiosities all over the world despite their audio quality being too muddy to make for a decent listening experience, let alone give the listener any meaningful sense of her music. One can only wonder about what heights she may have scaled over the seventy-odd years that followed, during which she walled off her musical ‘sadhana’ behind a vow to never perform in public.
Due to her reclusive nature, Annapurna did not receive in person, any awards or honours that were conferred on her, which include the Padma Bhushan (1977), the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1991), the Desikottama, an honorary doctorate degree by Visva-Bharati University (1999), and fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (2004).
She always urged her disciples to play ragas with the purest feelings of the heart. She had an unparalleled command over the unique flavours and flourishes of the Maihar Senia gharana and its own cache of ragas. She would never brook any compromise with the characteristics of a raga. When teaching a raga, she would often voice the refrain, “Raag bigad na jaaye” (may the raga not come to any harm). Whereas many contemporary musicians let their fingers dictate the melodic path to be taken while playing fast passages, for Guru Maa this was out of question. In the long run, this approach of hers opened up melodic doors for her disciples that would otherwise remain firmly shut. The effect of this can be easily observed in the rendering of ragas such as Hemant or Manj Khamaj, which are often played with a string of catchy phrases by other musicians, but in the hands of Guru Maa or her disciples, they acquire extraordinary depth and gravitas.
On the subject of catering to popular taste, she always maintained that musicians should strive to touch the hearts of listeners by conveying the subtleties of ragas and not placate them by playing what is known to fetch ready applause. The raga, however, had to be established early on. The compositions that she taught to her disciples embodied this aesthetic in that they revealed rare melodic dimensions of the raga without bending the raga out of shape for the sake of rhythmic ease. The ingenious use of pauses and meends (or glides) in compositions bore her unmistakable mark.
In all the long years of teaching music, Guru Maa never accepted any fees or Gurudakshina from her disciples, even during a phase in which she underwent acute financial hardship. Annapurna Devi’s illustrious disciples vouch for the deeply transformative effect that learning from Guru Maa had on their music and their lives.