By Manoj Nair
Annapurna Devi’s musical career lasted only a few years. She was, as her biographer Swapan Kumar Bandopadhyay correctly described in the title of his book, ‘An Unheard Melody’. Hardly any recording exists. There is nothing in the market; none in any households. All that remains are a few fragments of recordings on YouTube and some in the memories of a certain generation much before us.
Annapurna Devi stopped playing the Sur Bahar, the bass sitar, way back in the 50s. Even when she retreated into a shell between the walls of her sixth floor flat in Akashganga Apartments on Warden Road in Mumbai and restricted herself to teaching she never played the instrument. (This writer has longingly looked at that building several times form a kali-peeli taxi; but then the grand old lady would not grant anyone any audience.) Many of her famous students including Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Ustad Aashish Khan (her brother) and Hariprasad Chaurasia only remember her teaching “via vocals”. As a teacher, Annapurna Devi carried forward the unadulterated Senia-Maihar Parampara. She was the gharana’s most profound evangelist and its most profoundly silenced. And Annapurna was not her actual name. “I did not become Annapurna after marriage. I was born on Chaiti Purnima (a full moon day) and the Maharaja of Maihar, Brijnath Singh, named me Annapurna,” she wrote to Suanshu Khurana in a rare response. She was originally Roshanara.
With her departure, more than the fact that a raga stealthily faded into the night, what remains is a question mark that hangs over the future of the instrument. She was one of its few living exponents. Two musicians survive — Imrat Khan and his son Irshad Khan. But they are seen and heard more as sitar players than as Surbahar players.
As much as its sound is mellifluous — coming close to that of the been and nearly replacing the Rudra Veena when it first appeared among mostly Dhrupad lineages — it faded into oblivion as the sitar became more technically evolved and could easily elaborate the Rudra Veena alap. The enhanced sophistication and the decline of Dhrupad, according to Deepak S Raja, musicologist and himself a sur bahar and sitar player, contributed to the depletion of Sur Bahar performers. According to Raja, the Sur Bahar is to Sitar, what the Cello is to the Violin. Get the picture. So it was very bulky and cumbersome to carry around.
Annapurna Devi was the surviving Sur Bahar link of continuity between the Dhrupad and post-Dhrupad styles of instrumental styles. However, she was loathe to either singing in public or recording her music. It is only in her that the quintessence of the Maihar parampara was preserved. “Why should I play or record for these elite people?” she would often ask. “It was during my years of studentship that my father would repeatedly tell me that my music should not be treated as a product for public display. It was a means of achieving one’s own fulfilment, which should lead to one’s own development as a human being.” (An Unheard Melody: Annapurna Devi, by Swapan Bondyopadhyay, page 58)
Yet, she remains the ultimate reference point to the musical ideology of Allauddin Khan.
And to think it was only a happenstance that brought her to music and, more so, to the Sur Bahar. According to a rare interview published in Man’s World magazine, Annapurna was playing hopscotch when her brother Ali Akbar was practising his latest lesson on the sarod when she blurted out: “Bhaiya, Baba ne aisa nahin, aisa sikhaya, (Brother, Father didn’t teach it that way. But this way!)” said Annapurna, who stopped playing and started singing Baba’s lesson flawlessly. Her father Allaudin Khan hadn’t given her music lessons after being singed by teaching music to her elder sister, which had caused some marital problems in her conservative Muslim husband’s house. “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.”
Her father called Annapurna to his room and her taalim had begun. She then learnt the sitar and soon her father asked her to shift to the sitar. “He said,” she recalled, “‘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.” (An Unheard Melody: Annapurna Devi, by Swapan Bondyopadhyay, page 17)
She made her debut at a private audience before the Maharajah of Maihar When she was at her best, The Maharajah was inspired and tears of joy trickled out of his eyes in spite of the fact that he was critical in musical appreciation. He [the Maharajah] remarked that he was more or less hypnotised by her performance, which was indescribable. (Ustad Allauddin Khan And His Music, by Jotin Bhattacharya, page 75)
The Maharajah was extremely lucky. Because by all accounts nobody seems to have heard her live barring a few like music critic Mohan Nadkarni who wrote about his experience in the Mid Day in 1998. Along with her first husband Ravi Shankar she was instrumental in reviving the Sur Bahar as a duet instrument. They performed the jugalbandi on all of five occasions — whch could have sparked an unpublicised rivalry between the ambitious Ravi Shankar and self-effacing Annapurna Devi — including two at the Constitution Club of New Delhi. In 1956, she also performed at the opening ceremony of the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta and, finally, at the Suburban Music Circle in Santa Cruz, Bombay, sometime after 1956.
Amir Khan reportedly told one of his close friends that “Annapurna is 80% of Ustad Allauddin Khan, Ali Akbar Khan (her elder brother) is 70% and Ravi Shankar is about 40%. Annapurna dismissed such comparisons as she found them unjust but was always very acerbic about contemporary practices. “The music you hear today – especially instrumental music – is miles from its purest form. It is regrettable that the taste of the listeners has also been forced to change. Naturally, if I played today, most people might think I am too slow, or even boring.” (An Unheard Melody: Annapurna Devi, by Swapan Bondyopadhyay, page 53)
She surely had earned the position to be able to make such scathing criticisms. “She was saddened by the fact that she found most of “our musicians are mediocre — artistes anxious to make a dash to the stage before they had even learned to crawl, in the green room…”
As a female musician learning in a mostly male domain, Annapurna Devi developed strong and inspiring views on the ability of women to find their place in the world of music, and in any other field of endeavour. “I strongly believe that women are as capable as men. I am very happy that in India more and more women are realising their potential, asserting themselves and making their presence felt in various spheres of life. I have great respect for women who stand up for what they believe in and fight for the cause of women against all odds. I do not agree that for women career and marriage do not go together. If there is a mutual respect and understanding between the husband and wife and if there is an absence of jealousy, both can build their own careers and still be happily married.” (An Unheard Melody: Annapurna Devi, by Swapan Bondyopadhyay, pages 20–21)
There are words of encouragement for the #MeToo crusaders among those lines as are hints of what went wrong with her first marriage.
The words she uttered were as measured as her musical style or her way of life. She may have stayed clear of concert music, Annapurna Devi’s greatness as an erudite guru. With her Sur Bahar may have made the grand exit but memories of her Maihar gharana would remain as fresh as every rare note of hers, which, according to her disciple and second husband, Rooshikumar Pandya, was like an offering. Annapurna Devi had a completely different sound.
She was a completely different sound.