Musicians Recount the Enigma of Annapurna Devi (1927–2018)

‘For her, music was no less than worship’

Annapurna Devi passed away on October 13, aged 91. An enigma during her lifetime, now she will remain one for as long as Hindustani classical music lives on.

Essentially a surbahar player – an instrument similar to the sitar, but tuned to a lower pitch – Annapurna Devi is often described as a genius of music. Just her lineage was daunting – the daughter of Hindustani classical legend Ustad Allauddin Khan, who founded the famed Maihar Gharana, she was also the sister of sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a legend in his own right. She was also the first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar, himself a student of Ustad Allauddin Khan.

But what truly elevated her status was her gift as a teacher: the small and illustrious list of her students includes names such as flute maestro Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia and sitar great the late Nikhil Banerjee.

For some reason, much speculated upon by the outside world, she decided never to perform her art in public after a few initial years, in the 1940s. Indeed she became a recluse, shunning the world at large. Despite this she was honoured with a Padma Bhushan in 1977.

Over the years her legend grew and, bar a handful of recordings, the only impressions the larger world had of her came through stories from those lucky enough to be close to her.

Madhumita Ray, Hindustani classical vocalist

I feel very lucky to be one of the few people who had access to the personal space of Annapurna Devi Ji. It all began in Delhi, when I would accompany my mother as a five-year-old to the Pandara Road house of Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi, as my mother Kalyani Pakrashi was a sitar player and disciple of Annapurna Devi ji. The first impressions I had of her were of a very caring and loving person.

Later on, when Annapurna ji moved to Mumbai, my mother would often go there to continue her taaleem. But this stopped when my mother fell ill.

From what I have heard from my mother, Annapurna Devi was a very strict teacher, to the point that she often brought her students to tears. But still, she loved her students and would cook food for them. It was obvious that for her music was nothing less than worship.

Over the years she removed herself from the public space, to the extent that she would not meet anybody. In 1998 I went to Mumbai with my husband to meet her. I knocked at the closed door of her room and waited outside. I kept waiting for almost an hour but she did not open the door. Then someone from the household told me that I would have to slip in a piece of paper from under the door, with my name and purpose of visit written on it. So that is what I did. I wrote my name and the fact that I am the daughter of Kalyani Pakrashi. She immediately opened the door, took me and my husband inside and then spoke with us for around three hours, feeding us homemade sweets and showering her love on us.

She talked a lot about her son, Shubo Shankar, who had died in 1992 aged 50. That was her biggest loss. During our meeting, she kept talking about how she had taught her son with so much love, how he had put in a great effort to learn and had been playing great music. It was clear that she had not been able to come to terms with his passing away.

She also cared a lot about the few students that she had then. I remember she asked me and my husband to help organise performances of her students Nityanand Haldipur and Brij Bhushan Kabra, which we did.

Pandit Biswajit Roy Chowdhury, sarod player

All said and done Indian classical music is a performing art, and ultimately a musician is judged on the performance they give through their lives. In that respect, Annapurna Devi hardly qualifies the test. All we have today are a total of about 30 minutes of her recordings, in Raag Majh Khamaaj, Raag Kaushiki and Raag Malkauns. These recordings are certainly of high calibre, but a musician cannot be fairly judged on one or two short performances.

From what I have gathered, the only time she performed in the last 50 years was for George Harrison of the Beatles. In fact, she never played surbahar even to her students, whom she taught only through singing.

Again, from what we have heard she was a brilliant musician. But this impression is based just on a few comments heard over the years. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan said that if Annapurna is placed on one side of a weighing scale and Ravi Shankar and flute maestro Pannalal Ghosh together on the other side, even then, the side of Annapurna Devi would be heavier.

Coming from a man as eminent as Ali Akbar Khan, we have no reason to doubt that evaluation.

Faiyaz Khan Saheb was a tabla player who used to accompany her during her teaching lessons. He was a good friend of mine, and once told me that Annapurna Devi was so good that while she was teaching a group of students in her one room, if a student of hers practising in an adjoining room made a mistake she would promptly correct him or her.

As for the reason she left playing, well it was her personal decision and who are we to question that. We have no business trying to get into her personal life. Comparing her with Ravi Shankar and saying that she was better than him is also not fair. After all, Panditji attained world fame and spent his whole life performing his music in public. Even though it is true that she taught Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Nikhil Banerjee, we cannot judge her even on that, as these two greats learned music under many other great masters as well.

Nicholas Hoffland, researcher and archivist of Hindustani classical music

Sadly, given the way Annapurna Devi was out of public life for so long, the news of her passing away came to many as a surprise. Many music lovers must have felt that she had passed away long back. Today hardly any one of the musicians of her generation remains, and not much is known about her, though we would love to know more.

As a music lover sadly, we hardly had any access to the music of Annapurna Devi. All we have are a very few recordings, that too of very poor quality on YouTube, where she plays a couple of raags. There is also a duet with Pandit Ravi Shankar, where he plays the sitar and she plays surbahar. We hear that she was even better than Pandit Ravi Shankar, but well, that is pure hearsay.

I also gather that a very serious writer of classical music, Ranjan Panikar, had done some research on Annapurna Devi and had written about her. The very fact a writer of that calibre has written and researched about Annapurna Devi is a proof enough that she must have been a great artist.

Usually, the trend is that whenever a huge name in the music world passes away, more material on him or her comes out in different platforms including Youtube. I am certain this is what will happen in the case of Annapurna Devi too. As music lovers we wait keenly for that to happen. Then, we will be able to create a more definite impression of her much discussed musical prowess and genius. We are eagerly waiting for this to come about.