Legendary musician Annapurna Devi passes away

Known as ‘Guruma’, the famously reclusive surbahar player had been suffering from age related ailments for the past few years

October 13, 2018 09:55 am | Updated 09:35 pm IST - Mumbai

Annapurna Devi.

Annapurna Devi.

Known to a tight circle of disciples and students as ‘Guruma’, Annapurna Devi , the famously reclusive surbahar player and a teacher to the likes of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur and Nikhil Banerjee passed away in Mumbai on Saturday morning at the age of 91.

The musician had been suffering from age related ailments for the past few years, the Annapurna Devi Foundation said in a press release.

Early life

Born in Maihar, Madhya Pradesh to Ustad Baba Allauddin Khan and Madina Begum in 1927, Annapurna Devi was the youngest of four children. World renowned sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was an older brother. She received her initial instruction in classical music from her father, whose substantial contribution to Indian music resulted in the Senia-Maihar gharānā. Annapurna Devi’s training started at an early age — she was about five years old — and she graduated from the sitar to her chosen instrument, the Surbahar.

In his feature for the magazine Man’s World , writer Aalif Surti records the start of Annapurna Devi’s musical life with the following anecdote: Young Ali Akbar was practising his latest lesson on the sarod. His younger sister Annapurna was playing hopscotch outside their family house in Maihar, 160 miles outside Benares. It was sometime in the 1930s.

Bhaiya, Baba ne aisa nahin, aisa sikhaya (that is not how father taught you),” said Annapurna, who stopped playing and started singing Baba’s lesson flawlessly. And she hadn’t even been given music lessons by Baba. Allauddin Khan had trained his elder daughter, but music had caused marital problems in her conservative Muslim husband’s house. Hence he was not going to make the same mistake with his younger daughter. “I was so involved in the music,” Annapurna recalls, “that I didn’t notice Baba returning and watching me. I was most afraid when I suddenly felt his presence.”

Annapurna Devi was married to sitar maestro Ravi Shankar at the age of 15 in 1942 and after a period of estrangement eventually divorced him in 1962. Annapurna Devi and Pandit Ravi Shankar had a son, Shubhendra ‘Shubho’ Shankar, who passed away in 1992. In 1982, she married her student Rooshikumar Pandya, a management consultant. Mr. Pandya passed away in 2013.

Annapurna Devi remained a recluse for most of her life, with the majority of her time spent teaching a small, though select group of students — who helped guard her privacy with the same ferocity as that of their mentor. Her students include Aashish Khan (sarod), Amit Bhattacharya (sarod), Bahadur Khan (sarod), Basant Kabra (sarod), Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute), Jotin Bhattacharya (sarod), Nikhil Banerjee (sitar) and Nityanand Haldipur (flute).

Tributes flow

In her passing too, Annapurna Devi’s tight circle of students and admirers ensured that their teacher’s fiercely private life remained so.

Flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, nephew of Pandit Hairiprasad Chaurasia recalls his visit to her home 35 years ago. “I was sent to seek Guruma’s blessings by Babuji [Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia] and played for her. She was the true Saraswati of Indian classical music.”

Atul Merchant, a music director and writer who was a disciple for more than 35 years recalled her art as complicated. “Music is complicated,” he said, when asked how she knew so many instruments. “Guruma taught the sarod, the flue and the sitar,” Merchant said.

She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1977 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1991. The Sangeet Natak Akademi appointed her as the prestigious ‘Ratna’ fellow in 2004.


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