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.