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Unveiling the mystique of a reclusive artiste


Unveils the mystique of the only female surbahar player in the country, Annapurna Devi, Baba Allaudin Khan's daughter, Pandit Ravi Shankar's first wife, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan's sister, representative of the Maihar-Senia Gharana

AN UNHEARD MELODY ANNAPURNA DEVI — An Authorised Biography: Swapan Kumar Bondyopadhyay; Roli Books Pvt. Ltd., M-75, GK II Market, New Delhi-110040.

Rs. 295.

Annapurna Devi, the beleaguered first wife of sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar belonged to the celebrated ranks of the world's greatest recluses, till she with the help of her biographer decided to unveil the mystique that has surrounded her for so many decades. The hitherto "unheard melody" is now screaming from the rooftops, and believe me, it is not easy on the ears.

Any biographer would have given an arm and a leg to bag this assignment and yet Bondyopadhyay and Roli between them have managed to put together, at best a hazy life story that is more preoccupied with lambasting Ravi Shankar than giving us the persona behind the best surbahar player this country has conjectured and romanticised but has rarely heard.

Impeccable lineage

Of impeccable lineage, the daughter of Baba Allauddin Khan of the Maihar-Senia Gharana, sister of Ali Akbar Khan, married a man with an equally impressive background, Ravi Shankar, the brother of Uday Shankar who started the radical school of dance in Almora and gave India and indeed the world, some of the most astounding performing and visual artistes.

Already blessed with a Hindu name thanks to the Maihar maharaja, Baba's patron, Annapurna "converted" to Hinduism and thereupon ventured on a life of tribulations.


The marriage teeters from the word go. She is a purist, he caters to popular demands, he switches over to the more avant-garde sitar, but she is steadfast with her surbahar and to the teachings of her father, she is as conservative as he is open to experimentation and showbiz.

To top it all, there is the inescapable abhimaan; he lives in fear of being overshadowed by his more consummate artiste wife and contrives to prevent her from giving public performances.

In all this the worst sufferer is their only child, Shubhendra, talented, but torn between a desire to emulate his father and, love and empathy for his strict, disciplinarian mother; perhaps it was the doomed marriage of his artiste- parents that made him take a non- musician, white woman for a life partner.

Celebrated disciples

Annapurna's marriage to her student Rooshikumar Pandya, several years her junior, is one of the few edifying insights the book offers, as not many people are aware of this since the relationship has not been flaunted. In fact, it appears Rooshi has been instrumental in getting the reclusive artiste to authorise the book. There are pages dedicated to an interview with him but nothing comes off it on the nature of their togetherness or why she even agreed to marry him in the first place.

The other nugget is the lady preferred to teach her students (many of them celebrities in their own right, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nikhil Banerjee, Basant Kabra among others) after midnight.

The book is characterised by unreadable prose and proofing howlers. Shubho's birth date is mentioned twice as March 30, 1941 and their wedding date as May 15, 1941.

In vain I searched for a mention of the child conceived and delivered before marriage till in a later page the year of birth has been revised to 1942.

Again it is said Shubho studied at Modern High School — while it is not clear whether this was in Calcutta or Delhi, either way it is fallacious. The school in Calcutta, this reviewer's alma mater was and is still an exclusive girl's school. The school in Delhi is only known as Modern School; so which one is it Swapanda?

The biographer translates literally throughout the book — both bytes and his own thoughts. The writer's description of the protagonist's anguish, "The turn of events would neither crush nor subdue nor embitter her. Three things sustained and supported her from within. Her attachment to and profound love for her father; the music she bore in her heart and kept apart from all worldly contacts... " By now you do not want to know the third.

When the son was "taken away" from her, Annapurna recalled the meat vendor from her childhood days, when a bird swooped down and snatched a piece of meat from his hand. She now understood what he must have endured. Is that how you would describe your feeling when your child opts for the other parent?

Having eagerly picked up the book — after all who can resist the unveiling of an enigma — you are left cold at the end of it.

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