In a world that has become used to packaged messages and instant communication, subtleties often fall by the wayside. Perhaps it is only natural then, that images generated by popular media — films, television, pulp fiction – are the ones that dominate our perception, be it of events, people or relationships. One such much discussed relationship was that of Pandit Ravi Shankar and his first wife, surbahar maestro Annapurna Devi, who lives in Mumbai.
Those not closely involved with classical music feel that the cause of the couple’s estrangement was professional rivalry, while those versed in the subject have more specific views. Most conclude that, given the usual complex relationship of a performing couple, and the popularly held view that her talent was greater than his, the husband’s jealousy must have been behind the rift. While Annapurna has steadfastly maintained silence on the details, even in the authorised biography — “An Unheard Melody: Annapurna Devi” (Roli) — by Swapan Kumar Bondyopadhyay, Shankar has been more open in his autobiography, mentioning her fiery temper and his equal propensity to flare up at that early age.
Having married Ravi Shankar when he was about 21 and she 14-15, she did perform surbahar-sitar duets with him a few times. The marriage did not last, however. She was not by his side when Ravi Shankar travelled around the world; his sitar concerts were a rage in the U.S. or when he performed at the iconic Woodstock Festival in 1969.
Bondyopadhyay’s book goes so far as to say Annapurna told him she will take to her grave the real reason for her withdrawing from public recitals.
Without much clarity on these issues, the image of Annapurna Devi as an unsung genius whose voice is muffled by a patriarchal society remains a picture without shades and subtleties. So there are other images worth considering.
Like her illustrious father ‘Baba’ Allauddin Khan, Annapurna Devi has proved a tremendous guru and groomed disciples like flute maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia and the late sitarist Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. Other acknowledged masters who blossomed under her tutelage include Pandit Nityanand Haldipur, Basant Kabra, Aashish Khan (son of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan), Ustad Bahadur Khan and Sudhir Phadke, besides her son the late Shubhendra Shankar.
Annapurna Devi exhibited in her music — so goes one version of the musical legend — a far greater proof of the genius of her father and guru than Ravi Shankar, or even her brother Ali Akbar Khan. Perhaps in addition to her prodigious knowledge of music — or as a result of it — she also developed a soulful, spiritual approach that has rendered her immune to the temptations of adulating crowds.
For over five decades now, she has been known as a reclusive if brilliant musician who refuses to perform in public, doesn’t record, receives hardly any visitors and takes only a few privileged students. Shankar, on the other hand, continued to garner musical fame and glory till his very last days, performing even after age and ill-health diminished his stamina and he had to use a sitar custom-made to suit his requirements.