From an article I happened to come across, on the life of Annapurna Devi, affectionately called Maa by her students. Deeply thought-provoking and haunting, this write-up was something that I could not get my mind away from…
In August 2000, Ravi Shankar’s first wife, the reclusive surbahar virtuoso Annapurna Devi, gave Man’s World a rare interview in which she spoke about her torturous marriage and the tragic life of their son Shubho. The interview was a bit bizarre. She invited the writer Aalif Surti to her house, allowed him to wander around, but refused to meet him. She asked him to give a written set of questions and then answered all of them on paper
In the Hindustani classical music fraternity, Annapurna Devi’s genius is part of a growing mythology. The daughter of the great Ustad Allauddin Khan, the sister of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and the divorced wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar, she is considered to be one of the greatest living exponents of both the surbahar and the sitar.
The tragedy is that her music is lost to the world. Four decades ago, following problems with Ravi Shankar, she took a vow never to perform in public. Since then she has lived as a virtual recluse, rarely stepping out of her Mumbai residence. She is 74, but has never made a recording. No outsider has seen her play in almost 50 years, except for George Harrison, who in the 1970s was allowed the rare opportunity of sitting through her daily riyaz, that too following a special request from the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Annapurna Devi’s virtuosity, however, is attested by the accomplishments of her students, among whom are some of the greatest musicians of this country — Nikhil Banerjee, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur, Basant Kabra, Amit Bhattacharya, and Amit Roy.
Annapurna Devi’s aloofness from the world extends to not even taking phone calls. The only time she has spoken to the press has been through her students. For this article she made the concession of letting the writer into the house, but did not allow a face to face meeting. She later answered a written questionnaire on a variety of subjects including her hurt at the manner in which Ravi Shankar chose to portray their marriage and the death of their only son Shubho in his autobiography Raga Mala. “I am aware of the false and fabricated stories about me regarding what happened in my married life…,” she says at one point, “…I think Panditji is losing his sense of propriety or his mental balance, or that he has turned into a pathological liar.”
Annapurna Devi’s sixth floor flat at South Mumbai’s Akashganga Apartments bears her name plate and a plastic plaque which says, “Please ring the bell only three times. If no one answers, kindly leave your card/letter. Thank you for your co-operation.” I ring the bell once and the door is opened by a smiling Rooshikumar Pandya (“He is all the time laughing-laughing,” the liftman tells me). A psychology teacher at a Montreal College, Pandya came to Mumbai in the early 1980s to take music lessons from Annapurna Devi and never went back. He married her in 1984. Most visitors to the house don’t get past his room, just across from the main door. However, tonight one of her students, Atul Merchant, takes me through the passage into the ‘forbidden zone’.
We pass the kitchen, where Annapurna Devi herself cooks and cleans, as she keeps no servants in the house. But even while she is busy in the kitchen, her ears, Atul claims, monitor the students playing in the drawing room. Nothing escapes her ears. “Once,” recalls Atul, “her student, sarodist Basant Kabra, was practising Raag Bihaag. All of us sitting near him couldn’t discern any mistake, until Ma yelled from the kitchen, ‘Nishad ka taraf besura hai, sunai nahin deta kya?’” Across the bottom of the kitchen door is a small wooden partition, which was kept, I am later told, for her dachshund Munna. It’s been twenty years since Munna reached the big kennel in the sky but the partition symbolises her affection for him and immortalises his memory.
Straight ahead is a door, which is firmly shut. “Maa is meditating,” Atul says simply and guides me into the drawing room cum talim room. Alongside a wall is a row of sitars of different sizes in their sheaths. We come into a large drawing room opening out through sliding doors on to the Arabian Sea. Near the centre of the room is a well-worn chattai. “This is where Dakhinamohan Tagore, Nikhil Bannerjee, Aashish Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur, Basant Kabra and every one of Maa’s students has sat and learnt from her. And this round cane munda is where Maa sits while teaching,” Atul says. One instantly perceives that the air in the room is extraordinarily dense with silence. There is a sense of an involuntary freezing of the chattering mind. Around the room are paintings and bronze busts of Allauddin Khan, her father and guru, and her legendary surbahar. But it is a small framed sketch in the corner that catches my eye. “That was drawn by Shubho when he was young,” Atul informs me. It is hypnotic. A stark black graphic depicting a series of doors leading you into them. It’s eerie.
Later, I spoke to one of Annapurna’s senior students of Shubho’s illustration. He quickly remarked, “It sucks you in, doesn’t it?” Shubho is Annapurna and Ravi Shankar’s son who died under tragic circumstances in 1992.
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,” 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.
But instead of scolding me, Baba called me in his room. He perceived that I had a genuine interest in music, that I loved it and I could do it. This was the beginning of my taalim.” Her taalim had begun, as was compulsory for all students, with vocal Dhrupad training. Then, she was taught the sitar. One day, her father asked her if she would like to shift to the surbahar, a larger and more difficult cousin of the sitar, but ultimately a more rewarding instrument. As she recalls, “He said, ‘I want to teach my Guru’s vidya to you because you have no greed. To learn you need to have infinite patience and a calm mind. I feel that you can preserve my Guru’s gift because you love music. However, you will have to leave sitar, an instrument liked by the connoisseurs as well as the commoners. Only listeners who understand the depth of music or who intuitively feel music, on the other hand, will appreciate the surbahar. The commoner might throw tomatoes at you. So what is your decision?’ I was dumfounded. ‘I will do as per your aadesh,’ was my simple response.”
Around this time, Uday Shankar’s younger brother, eighteen-year-old Robindra Shankar (he changed his name to Ravi Shankar around 1940), came to learn at Maihar. At that time, Annapurna was a shy thirteen-year-old and, in the words of Ravi Shankar, “very bright and quite attractive, with lovely eyes and a brighter complexion than Alubhai’s (Ali Akbar Khan).” Their marriage was not a love marriage. “I was brought up by Ma and Baba in an ashram-like atmosphere at Maihar. There was no question of my getting attracted to Panditji. Ours was an arranged marriage and not a love marriage,” Annapurna Devi says with finality.
Pandit Ravi Shankar too writes in his latest autobiography, Raga Mala, “There was no love or romance or hanky-panky at all between Annapurna and myself, despite what many people thought at that time. I do not know how she truly felt about the match before marriage, although I was told that she had ‘agreed’.” And on the morning of May 15, 1941, Annapurna was converted to Hinduism and the same evening they were married according to Hindu rites. Connoisseurs and music critics believe that she is a more gifted musician than either Ravi Shankar or Ali Akbar. As Ustad Amir Khan would later point out, “Annapurna Devi is 80 percent of Ustad Allauddin Khan, Ali Akbar is 70 percent and Ravi Shankar is about 40 percent.” Ali Akbar himself agrees in his oft-quoted statement: “Put Ravi Shankar, Pannalal (Ghosh) and me on one side and put Annapurna on the other and yet her side of the scale will be heavier.”
Annapurna claims this was what led to the discord in their marriage. Says she, “Whenever I performed, people appreciated my playing and I sensed that Panditji was not too happy about their response. I was not that fond of performing anyway so I stopped it and continued my sadhana.” It is no secret that it was this marriage that was the basis of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s popular film Abhimaan, where a famous singer (Amitabh Bachchan) and his shy wife (Jaya Bachchan) have problems in their marriage when her popularity soars above his. Mukherjee in fact discussed the story with Annapurna Devi before he embarked on the film. However, while in the movie the couple gets back together to live happily ever after, in real life Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi’s marital discord got worse and they eventually divorced. To save her marriage, Annapurna Devi says she took a vow before an image of Baba and Goddess Shardama never to perform in public again. But even a sacrifice as great as this didn’t save her marriage.
Ravi Shankar recalls the issue a little differently. In a recent television interview he said, “As long as we were married I used to force her to play along with me and give programmes… But after that she didn’t want to perform alone. She always wanted to sit with me. And after we separated she didn’t want to perform… She maybe doesn’t like to face the public or she is nervous or whatever but it is of her own will that she has stopped. This is very sad because she is a fantastic musician.”
Madanlal Vyas, who was Ravi Shankar’s student and the music critic for The Navbharat Times for 36 years, gives another perspective. “After the concerts people used to surround Annapurna Devi more than him, which Panditji could not tolerate. He was no match for her. She is a genius. Even Baba, the unforgiving and uncompromising Guru called her the embodiment of Saraswati. What higher praise than this?”
Unfortunately, her music is lost to the world. There are very few people who remember watching her in concert. There is only one recording of her playing in existence: a rare, private recording from one of their jugalbandi performances which was made from the speaker placed outside the door when the auditorium was filled. Apart from Ravi Shankar, and her current husband, Rooshi Pandya, the only person who has heard her play since she withdrew from public life is the Beatle George Harrison. The story goes that when he was here in the 1970s with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked them if she could do anything. Menuhin said he wanted to ask for something impossible — could Mrs Gandhi get Annapurna Devi to play for him? After much persuasion, a reluctant Annapurna Devi agreed, not to a special performance, but to allow them to sit in on her daily riyaz. On the appointed day, however, Menuhin had to rush back home on account of an illness in the family. Harrison thus became the lucky one to see her play.
Shubhendra Shankar was born on March 30, 1942, to the newly married Ravi Shankar and Annapurna. Within eight weeks of his birth, he was diagnosed to be suffering from a rare, painful condition due to an intestinal obstruction. Though he was cured within a month, staying awake all night with a crying child after more than ten hours of sitar lessons every day, Ravi Shankar says in his autobiography, put the first strains on their marriage. “…Because of that trouble Shubho had now developed the habit of not sleeping in the night. It continued for the next year or so, and gradually I saw Annapurna’s personality changing. For both of us it was extremely strenuous, and our tempers would fray. At that time I too wouldn’t stand any nonsense, and we would get angry together. I had not known before, but found out that she had her father’s temper. She would tell me off — `You have married me only for music! You don’t love me! You had all these beautiful women!’ She was becoming insanely jealous of any other woman I talked to. Whenever I returned from a programme in another city, she would accuse me of having affairs there. It was like an obsession.”
Shubho, meanwhile, was showing interest in painting and had a private tutor appointed to teach him. He was also being taught to play the sitar by his father. When the family shifted to Bombay he joined the Sir JJ School of Art, although he never completed the course. His father was already a star and constantly busy, either on tour playing concerts or travelling to do music for films and ballets, so his musical education was taken over by Annapurna Devi.
In Bombay, however, the marriage took a turn for the worse when Annapurna discovered that Ravi Shankar was having an affair with Kamla Sastri (later Chakravarty), a dancer from his brother’s company. Upset, she went back to her father’s house in Maihar taking Shubho with her, coming back only after Kamla was married off to film director Amiya Chakravarty. But things were never the same again for Ravi Shankar and Annapurna. In 1956, she left for two years and by 1967 they had separated for good.
Through all this Shubho’s riyaz continued with his mother. Her rigorous teaching method made sure that he developed proficiency in playing long alaaps with beautiful meends. He had also mastered the sapta taan; a skill that experts say Ravi Shankar lacks. How Panditji came to discover Shubho, the sitarist is part of a legend in itself. One day, the story goes, Ravi Shankar was at a recording studio in Bombay for some minor recording where he heard a little sitar piece.
Astonished, he asked who the musician was, because though the sitar was unmistakably a variation of his gharana, which Baba Allauddin Khan had developed, the player was neither Nikhil Banerjee nor himself. The studio recordist laughed and said, “Surely you’re joking, Panditji. Don’t you recognise your own son playing?” Pandit Ravi Shankar called Shubho to his hotel room and Shubho played what he had learnt for him. When the performance was over, Panditji asked the audience, “Don’t you think he’s brilliant?” Everyone agreed. Then Panditji added, “Don’t you think he should start performing now?”
And once again, everyone nodded in assent. So Panditji suggested Shubho should come to the U.S. and start sharing the stage with him. Dazzled by his father’s charisma and also by the lure of the West, Shubho, who had grown up cocooned within his mother’s spartan lifestyle and his art classes, became insistent that he wanted to go to America with his father. His mother asked him to complete his taalim, which he was due to within two years, before performing on stage. But he didn’t agree. As a final offer, Annapurna asked him to study hard for six months, and then he was free to go wherever he wanted. But Shubho was adamant. It was at this point that the famous ‘sleeping pills episode’ occurred.
In Raag Mala, Pandit Ravi Shankar writes: “When I was staying in Bombay sometime in early 1970, I received an SOS call at my hotel from Shubho, asking me in a feeble voice to come home and take him away. I didn’t know what was happening and was terrified by his tone of voice, so I rushed to the flat in Malabar Hill, which I had not visited in the three-and-a-half years since I left for good. There I saw Shubho lying down and looking ill. He clung on to me desperately, like a little boy, and begged me to take him away with me to America, as he could no longer stand the hot temper and harshness of his mother — not only in connection with music but in general too. Coming from a man of 28, this both melted my heart and angered me. I did not want to make a scene and managed to control myself even as Annapurna was shouting in fury, ‘Yes, take him away! I don’t want him!’ After we left I learnt that Shubho had taken 8-10 sleeping pills in an attempt to end his life. Fortunately, the doctor had arrived just in time and emptied Shubho’s stomach completely.”
This was, for many years, the official version of the story. The rest was always dismissed by Pandit Ravi Shankar as the fabrication of Annapurna’s overzealous disciples. But now, for the first time, Annapurna herself says on record that father and son concocted this episode. In fact, in the interview with Man’s World she has been particularly vicious on Ravi Shankar: “I am aware of the false and fabricated stories about me regarding what happened in my married life,” she says, “I have been quiet about it because I thought of Baba while he was alive. I didn’t want to hurt him in any way so I put up with the injustice and suffering. However, now I feel that the world should know my side of at least the Shubho part of the story.
“I think Panditji is losing his sense of propriety or his mental balance or that he has turned into a pathological liar. He has exemplified the English proverb: ‘No fool like an old fool.’ It would be nice if he would devote all his time to teaching his shishyas instead of wasting his time and energy in such frivolous pursuits. His shishyas would be grateful for his gift and India would be richer with talents.
“That year when Panditji came to Mumbai, he learnt that Shubho was playing very well. He called him and after listening to him, initially underplayed Shubho’s artistry and then suggested to Shubho that he should now go with his father. The people of Panditji’s circle pointed out that Shubho was taiyar and that he could play anything and that he should tour with his father. According to Shubho, Panditji had added, ‘Your mother and I have studied under the same Guru so I could also teach you.’ My response was, ‘He is right but he would not have the time for it. Please stay here and continue your taalim for one-and-a-half years more. After that you can go anywhere you like. I would not stop you because by then, you would be ready to take on the world.’
“This is when Panditji and Shubho hatched the plan about Shubho’s taking sleeping pills — a stage-managed drama to malign me and to take him away from me. Shubho was immature at the time and hence unwittingly became a party to his father’s plot. I think he realized this later and stopped communicating with his father a few months before his untimely and possibly preventable death.“Let me share with you what did happen… When I was told that Shubho had taken sleeping pills, I immediately called a doctor who examined him and confirmed that nothing was wrong with him. We also searched for an empty bottle or any other telltale signs but nothing was found. As a matter of fact Shubho himself called his father at that time and told him to take him away as per their plan. My only plea to Panditji at that time was, “You have ruined my life and now you are ruining your son’s life. Why?” His only answer was, “It is because of you.”
Till today I have not understood his motives for interrupting Shubho’s taalim. Maybe it was because of the rumours making the rounds that Shubho was going to be a better player than Panditji and this was my revenge against Panditji. I don’t understand how people can think like that. If Shubho, or anybody for that matter, becomes a good musician the credit goes to Baba. Our music is his gift.
“I know Panditji is very image conscious. Maybe he feels that the recently published book on me has made some dent in his image and his articles are an attempt to salvage his image and assuage his guilt for the gross injustice he did to his son. Shubho realised this during the last months of his life and refused to see his father. Shubho could have been a great artiste; he was close to it. If he had continued his taalim he would have played great music. But a combination of factors prevented it.”
The fact remains that given his prodigious talent, Shubho never achieved the heights he ought to have in America. Within a week, his father fixed him up with a small apartment and a Ford Mustang and within two years of his arrival in America, he played with his father at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall. But gradually, he lost interest in playing the sitar. Never a strong-willed person, he developed a passion for junk food and Coca-Cola and ended up doing odd jobs to make ends meet. For a while he even worked in a liquor store to earn extra money. He stopped playing the sitar for almost eight years. He married Linda and had two children, Som and daughter Kaveri.
After eight years, he began playing the sitar again with Panditji and returned to India for a few concerts. On this trip, which was to be his last visit to India, he also met his mother again. Sarodist Suresh Vyas, one of her senior students, recalls, “Picture this scene: mother and son meet again after twenty years. For all these years there has been no communication between the two. He comes in, does pranam. His mother says: ‘Ae Shubo, aesho, aesho. How are your children? How is your wife?’ This goes on for two minutes. After that he says, ‘Maa, ami shikhu (I want to learn).’ She replies, ‘Fine. Your sitar is still there. Take it and sit down.’ And the mother begins to teach the son again. As if nothing has happened!”
Music critic Madanlal Vyas recalls, “Father and son had played together at the Sawai Gandharva Festival in Pune in 1990. We got the news in Bombay that Shubho was besura. Not just one music critic but a few others also said the same. Later, I heard the recording of the concert and found it was absolutely untrue. But by then the news had spread…I did get the feeling that there was a campaign to demoralize him—there were stories that his microphone was tampered with. Whether it was planned or not, I don’t know. But I am certain that Shubho was an extraordinarily talented musician. I remember hearing him play around the same time at a private concert on Nepean Sea Road. He played Raag Des, and so beautifully I have never heard anyone else play, before or since. After the concert when I spoke to him, he said he had learnt it from Maa just that morning!”
“During that visit, it was obvious that he was defeated and broken down,” Atul Merchant remembers. “We tried to convince him to stay on in India and complete his sitar education but he said it was too late now.” Shubho returned to the U.S., and in his last few months cut himself off from everyone. He contracted bronchial pneumonia and died prematurely in a U.S. hospital on September 15, 1992.
Life with Maa
It has been over 50 years since any outsider has heard Annapurna Devi play her surbahar. Those who have the temerity to request her to play are put off with a simple “Mujhe kuch nahi aata (I don’t know how to play at all).” Even her closest students are taught through singing, much the same way as she had corrected her brother years ago. She begins her own riyaz on the surbahar late at night and goes into the wee hours of the morning. Her students swear that after she has played a certain raag, the entire house gets inexplicably perfumed with the fragrance of sandalwood. In a private correspondence she wrote about this phenomenon. “Sometimes while practising at night, I suddenly have a sensation that I am surrounded by the fragrance of flowers. Baba used to say that this is one of the ways in which Sharda Maa makes her presence felt. He also said that whenever that happens, don’t think you’re great or anything. Instead, such experiences should make one feel more humble in the presence of the divine.”
For the rest of the day, her life is no different from that of any woman. “Her day begins at six in the morning,” sarodist Suresh Vyas reveals, “when she wakes up to take in the milk, not very different from any Indian housewife. She sleeps barely two-three hours. She cooks, cleans the house, and even washes her own clothes because her father had told her in her childhood that one should never let anyone else wash one’s clothes. So even if she is sick she makes sure that no one else washes her clothes but herself. As for her cooking, Prof Pandya and I joke that when it comes to accomplishment, there is a close tie between her cooking and her music. And she’s true to her name. No one who enters the house is allowed to leave without eating.”
In her free time, her students say, she listens to old Hindi film songs on the radio or to other music, even contemporary music. She liked A.R. Rahman’s first album Roja. A recent addition is Cable TV. Her students still keep her busy, though advancing age has meant that she has now stopped accepting new students. “I think it is only partially true,” her husband Rooshi Pandya says, “to say that she keeps aloof and away from people. While it is true that she does not meet people socially, as far as music is concerned she is very much involved with her students and their progress. Teaching music takes up most of her time. The rest of the time she spends doing her puja, riyaz and household work and all this does not allow her the luxury of socialising. This is her choice, her lifestyle and she is comfortable with it.”
One hears she has a fondness for pigeons like her father. “Oh yes,” Suresh Vyas says, “Every afternoon, she feeds hundreds of pigeons on her balcony. And mind you, she recognises each one of them. Once or twice, when I went over in the afternoon to drop something, I saw her feeding them. She would point to one and say, ‘This one is very mischievous, he doesn’t allow her to eat.’ In fact, I think that’s her biggest expenditure in the month. As far as I know, she eats very little, though none of us have ever seen her eat. A recent addition to her family is a crow, who comes on the kitchen window and refuses to eat unless Maa feeds him with her own hands. And he loves malai, so Maa saves malai for him.” Then of course, there was Munna. Munna was arguably the world’s first canine connoisseur of music. The dachshund who was Annapurna Devi’s best friend during some of her lowest days had an unerring ear for music. Those who were there recall that whenever any of her students—Nikhil, Shubho or Hariprasad Chaurasia—played particularly well, Munna would run and sit in their lap. “So hers is not a lonely life?” I ask Suresh Vyas. “Not at all, she’s very content in her own world. Though she’s unhappy at another level.
She’s unhappy at the declining standards in music today. It hurts her when she sees unripe musicians tempted by quick money and fame. This saddens her deeply,” he says. “Look at it this way: because we are so close to Maa, we see her as a human being with all the human frailties, but if we step back, there is another, much larger picture.
She was born and trained in an era when musicians lived under the sheltering umbrella of royal patronage. A musician had to please just one person, who was more often than not his student too. But she lives now and teaches music to a generation that plays music for the public to earn its livelihood So that purity, the flight of excellence in music, is vanishing in favour of crowd-pleasing antics. Maa represents the vital last link in that chain. She doesn’t play for the crowds. And she trains us in music in the same exacting way her father had taught her and her father’s father had taught him. Otherwise, if you look around, there is no one else to maintain that tradition.”
So eventually, I never did meet her. But if I had what could I have described? The sound of her voice? The colour of her sari or her complexion? What could I have fathomed from those trivialities? She answered my questions on paper; and from her students and critics and her correspondence I pieced together the story of the greatest surbahar player you never heard. Except for some old pictures, I have no living vision to remember her by. But the one image that lingers in my mind as if I had seen it with my own eyes is Annapurna Devi feeding her pigeons on her sun-washed balcony. Perhaps because the pigeons enjoy the freedom she herself chooses not to have. Perhaps because her father too did the same, and in some secret way she pays a tribute to her father every time she feeds them, chides them and sends them off. And perhaps also because of something her father had said in his last days: “When a pigeon flies, his wings beat in taal… You can count the matras if you don’t believe me. And such a sweet voice… God has invested such a treasure of music in each of his creations that man can take armfuls away but never exhaust it. Goddess Saraswati has given me a little too. But not as much as I would have liked. Just when I began to draw something from the ocean of music, my time was up. This is the trouble, when the fruit of a man’s lifelong labour ripens… Who can understand God’s ways? But one thing I have understood a little. There is a fruit, the custard apple. I like it very much. I eat it and throw the seeds outside the window. And one day I look and there’s another tree of the same fruit. With new fruits on its branches. I eat it and others enjoy it too. This music also is like that. It is not the property of one, it belongs to so many.”
– From the September 2000 issue of Man’s World