Annapurna Devi, reclusive genius

All she had was music to give. All they had to do was take it.

Published - October 25, 2018 03:28 pm IST

Annapurna Devi

Annapurna Devi

On October 13, the woman I addressed as ‘Ma’ passed away. Six years ago she was hospitalised due to a clutch of problems, major among them, multiple organ failure. The doctor had predicted it was going to be a dismal night. Next morning she was sitting in bed having breakfast; the doctor was stunned . Days later, when I met her, I asked her how she achieved the ‘feat’? “It isn’t the doctors, it is Baba (father) …I think I died, then I met Baba and he said, ‘Oh! Anu, it’s not time yet. You have responsibilities.’ I bowed my head and returned.” I sat and stared at her.

As a junior reporter for a periodical when someone mentioned Annapurna Devi, I had no idea who she was but the word ‘recluse’ piqued my interest. From that moment it was a clueless chase through music stores, musicians, alleged relatives, reticent students till, finally, a random contact, informed me that she lived in Akashganga (building) on Warden Road, Bombay; the roster at the entrance displayed her apartment number.

Four weeks I assiduously maintained a routine – break my journey home, walk into the building, take the elevator to the sixth floor, slide my business card in the letter-drop opening in the door, hear it fall, look around, jab the letter-drop flap with my finger, peep through it, see an uninhabited house, call for the elevator, leave. At noon, one week-day, I got a call, ‘My name is Rooshikumar Pandya and you have been wasting your business cards by dropping them in the apartment.You want to meet Annapurna Devi for an interview. Right? The man had an American accent. I mumbled what must have sounded like a defeated ‘yes’. ‘I cannot promise you an interview but I think we should meet. Can you make it to Haji Ali in an hour? Or less?’ I reached and was face to face with the perpetually smiling husband of Annapurna Devi. That was many years ago. And I wrote a piece on her without meeting her. However, it was not until three months later, after I had signed up to learn the sitar, that I met her. What struck me the most about her was her cheerfulness. It was in contrast to the impression of dourness I had formed of her after meeting a slew of people who knew her.

Unsparing teacher

For the next 30 years, as I moved from one city (and country) to another, she remained a constant in my life. I never wanted to be a musician but that never seemed to bother her. I was not even serious about practising diligently. She did not express her displeasure about that either. The only instruction she pleaded I follow was that I practice every day without fail. “It doesn’t matter how long, but…not an hour? A half hour. Not a half hour? Twenty minutes. But practice. Work-related travel made it impossible to heed her plea. I made a poor student.

I did make a first class entertainer in a house where music was all there was, or so I thought. Very late at night, early morning actually, we sat at the dinner table and tucked in a meal that defied definition. Of course, prior to that there was syrupy sweet tea. In Ma’s house, your first preference about food, beverage, and dessert was irrevocable. If you said you liked sweet tea then ten years later even if you were diagnosed a dying diabetic, the tea would still be de rigueur !

Over time, we learnt the dos and donts the hard way: if you sat on the chair on the left, you would continue to sit there for the rest of your life; if you exhibited a stiff back for a few days, she would enquire about it occasionally till kingdom come; if you walked in clean shaved on day one, there was no chance in hell you could ever sport a beard, at least when you came to see her; should you insist on clearing the table then that duty simply could not be appropriated by anyone else.

Saturday nights were open house. A stream of students came to her house, some at their appointed hours. Some studied under her and some trained with Rooshiji. Some would come and leave after the class, while a few others stayed for dinner. And then there were the most dissolute of the lot — like me — who stayed even after everyone left. And we talked. Conversations could range from Freud to French fries and black holes to Baudelaire. ‘Ma’ was a keen listener. As the years passed by, she knew about our girlfriends and marriages, and work-related and financial problems and dwindling savings. She had her views, some of which we thought were ever-so-innocent; we had our views which she curiously let pass. We left her apartment at around two or three in the morning. Our family never quite figured out this weekend routine. Every week, we looked forward to Saturday evenings.

She had a dichotomous personality. When she fed you it was overwhelming — the indulgent mother. In a mostly all-male house, she was aware that appetite implied quantity. Regardless of Cadbury’s or Lindt, chocolate slabs were broken in two and handed out like wafers. There were three refrigerators in the house, one for the kitchen, one small exclusively for sweets and the third one was, probably, standby. And then there was her teacher avatar — it was ferocious, unrelenting and unsympathetic. that student whose string slit his nail and sunk into his flesh: She sat on her low stool, her hands on her knees, staring at the student whose sarod string slit his nail and the finger bled. intently while his finger streaked blood all over the sarod, “Finish the tihāi, go on. Stop making that face.” The boy slid the string gingerly out of his nail, sucked on the finger for just a second and started again.

When you beseeched her to teach you, you had to persevere; those who didn’t fell by the wayside. “Did I advertise in the papers that I want students? No. Did I invite you here to learn? So learn or leave.” Her equation with students was simple: you learn well, good. Nothing else mattered. Manners. Etiquette. Devotion. Humility. Nothing was relevant to being there, with her. The only criterion was music.

“It is a mathematical formula,” she’d say often, “you do what you are told to do, the way you are told to do, the number of times you are told to do and you will succeed. If you are dying, you may as well die practising.” I had a short and simple gat set to sixteen beats to learn. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and read from it again and again while counting on my fingers. At the dinner table, I was still so immersed that I barely saw a hand come from behind me and snatch the paper. I looked back and saw her walking off with it toward the kitchen. I jumped from my seat and followed her to the kitchen. But I couldn’t retrieve the paper as she fed it to the flames. “God has given a brain, too, no? it is a good thing to use it sometimes.”

She never set the bar. She expected you to set it for yourself. But when you did so, she told you it wasn’t enough. The joke in the house was that something had to be off – If you were in tune, she felt you had got the sequence wrong. If you were in tune and had the sequence right, you were off-tempo. If you were in tune, had the sequence right, and followed the tempo, there was no soul in your playing. If you got all these right, you lacked the fluidity she expected. It was unending.

A way of life

She was committed to music as if it were her ownTo her music was to die for. Life without passion was useless — it did not matter if you cut your finger on the string, finish the tihai first. That someone needed assistance to purchase an instrument became her cause. That someone did not have a job to support music studies became her issue. Money was sent to musicians to pay hospital bills, references were typed out for jobs, food was packed for a family of six …she did what she could even when she was penniless, and she did more than what she could when she had some.

Why is Annapurna Devi’s death an irreparable loss? What could she have achieved had she lived? Those that wanted to learn from her did. The rest talked. Most came to her because her reclusiveness had created a halo. They believed she had the magic touch. They were mistaken. All she had was music to give. All they had to do was take it. Therein was the rub. “You must give me fifteen years of your life,” she demanded of a student who came on a high recommendation, “That is all I want from you. Your life is mine. Your problems are mine. But you must give me your life unconditionally.” Her suffering was the destiny of the genius whose expectations from her own self were daunting. She took life head-on and paid for the temerity with tears.

I last saw her lying in bed. I entered the room, touched her feet and she rustled up a smile. She asked about my work, and more importantly, if I had had anything to eat. We asked if she would like it if we turned the bed so that she could face the sea. She stared at me for a while, and then grabbed her kerchief and wiped her mouth. “The sea makes me pensive and lonely.” Does it make you feel so too?”

Many years ago, one Saturday night you could hear the thunder for milesIt seemed the city would drown. Two other students and Rooshiji sat quietly nibbling at sweets. She stood at the dining table sorting all kinds of boxes, packets, emptying some, packing others to trash.

“Scary, Ma …today seems like the end of the world,” a student mumbled. She looked towards the balcony and nodded. “In this weather,” she spoke after a few moments, “I think of my home, my father…” The clouds clashed again. “Is it not possible to not lose anyone at all? Or leave together?” She left the table for the kitchen. We sat in silence. As now.

The writer is a global communications specialist.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.