Annapurna Devi

Annapurna Devi was the daughter of the legendary musician and revered Guru of Hindustani classical music, Acharya Baba Allauddin Khan sahib and Madan Manjari. She was the sister of the great sarod maestro, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. She was married to Pt. Ravi Shankar and later to Prof. Rooshikumar Pandya. She was the mother of Shubhendra Shankar.

Annapurna was born in 1926 at Maihar, then a princely state and now a part of the state of Madhya Pradesh, India. She was named ‘Annapurna’ after the Hindu goddess of prosperity by Maharaja Brijnath Singh, the former Maharaja of Maihar.

The legendary Ustad ‘Baba’ Allauddin Khan sahib — to whom the illustrious Maihar Senia gharana owes its origins — was both her father and Guru. Baba’s work in redesigning instruments of north Indian classical music; stylistic innovations in the presentation of live instrumental music; and discovery of entrancing melodies such as ragas Manj Khamaj, Hemant, Madanmanjari, Hem Bihag, and several others changed the course of instrumental music in India. As Guru to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar, the two maestros who later became the flag-bearers of Indian music in the West, Baba was indirectly responsible for putting Indian music prominently on the world map. Baba’s methods of instruction produced musicians whose style and repertoire became the gold standard for their respective instruments: Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), Pandit Ravi Shankar (sitar), Annapurna Devi (surbahar), Pandit Pannalal Ghosh (flute), Pandit Nikhil Banerjee (sitar), Pandit V. G. Jog (violin), and the list goes on.

the daughter

the disciple

Annapurna was a devout disciple of Baba and received taleem from him with such single-minded dedication that Baba, who had gained quite a reputation as an exacting taskmaster, likened her to the very embodiment of Saraswati.

Due to a tragedy that befell her music-loving older sister, Jahanara, it was initially decided that Annapurna would not be taught music. Jahanara, who was married into a family that was ill-disposed towards music, abused her for pursuing it. The severity of the abuse drove Jahanara into giving up her life in her mother’s arms only ten months into her marriage. This incident made Baba wary of teaching music to Annapurna. On one fateful day, Baba had left home to calm himself down. When he returned to the house, he heard Annapurna — five years younger than Ali Akbar and not even initiated formally into music — prompting her brother the correct way of playing the music that Baba had just taught him. This revealed to Baba, the inherent genius of his youngest daughter, Annapurna. When she became aware of Baba’s presence, Annapurna feared that Baba would scold her; instead Baba called her into his room and let her know that her taleem would begin from that day.

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.

In the hands of Annapurna, the surbahar opened entirely new melodic vistas. Her rendition of even an oft-played raga such as Yaman Kalyan gave the listener a glimpse of otherworldliness. In the alap section, she would voyage through the pathways of the raga at a glacial pace, pausing only to tease out melodic nectar from the most esoteric of wildflowers along the way. The jod would then cascade out over four distinct tempi, starting at around half of the pulse rate of a human heart and culminating to a speed barely fathomable by the mind but for the bell-like clarity of the notes. She was not a purist in the pedagogic sense, but her intimacy with ragas in their ancient form ran deep. She often felt confounded that many a musician would choose to take liberties with ragas without ever getting to know their real form in the first place. To her, this was akin to the portrait artist who busies herself in a flurry of strokes without taking the time to truly know the subject of the portrait.

the musician

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).

Guru Maa

Although the world lost the opportunity to hear Annapurna play the surbahar, as Guru Maa, she shared generously the musical wealth that she inherited from Baba with her disciples. In her, her disciples experienced an exacting, precise, and sensitive Guru and also a tender, affectionate and caring motherly figure who would feed them lovingly whenever they visited her. Gifted with a dexterous voice, she always taught by singing. Rather than teaching her disciples in accordance with their capabilities, Guru Maa taught them on the basis of the potential she saw in them. She also had the exceptional acumen to ensure that no two of her disciples sounded alike, even if they played the same instrument.

On the subject of instrumental craft, she placed great emphasis on the elegance of posture and ease of playing. She strove with her disciples to ensure that they could attain great control over their respective instruments since this was critical for them to be able to receive the music she would then teach. When teaching, she was the very epitome of patience: she would not proceed until she was satisfied that the disciple had grasped what she had taught them. To this end, she would sing and lay bare even the shadow-notes (or kan swaras) within complex and fast embellishments such as murkiskrintans and zamzamas. Often a single raga was taught to a student over several years. She had an uncanny memory for remembering what she had taught each disciple, which meant that the disciples would have to be careful not to take their lessons casually or take unwarranted liberties with what was taught.

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.