The death of means the end of the greatest surbahar
player in the history of Hindustani music. The reclusive 91-year-old was the
daughter of Ustad Allauddin Khan of Maihar and Madina Begum. By general
consensus of the cognoscenti of Hindustani music in the 1950s, she was the most
musically gifted of her other three siblings. Born Roshanara she was
rechristened Annapurna, goddess of infinite giving, by the Maharaja of Maihar,
her father’s patron and pupil.
Apart from older pupils like the master sitarist Nikhil Banerjee (deceased) inspiring sarodist Ustad Bahadur Khan (deceased), virtuoso flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and a few others, nobody had heard her play the surbahar (a bass sitar) in her prime. The obituaries were therefore woefully short on her qualities as an instrumentalist and full of panegyrics on her role as a strict but giving teacher. She was called Guruma, albeit an austere one, who shared her knowledge of music only with those who deserved it.
In the late 1970s, Anand Mohan Naik, a pupil of the great Binode Behari Mukherjee at Shantiniketan and a fine water colourist from Bombay, told the story of a promising schoolboy Annapurna Devi was grooming in Bombay (Mumbai). She told his parents not to let him play in public until she thought he was ready—which was a good many years ahead.
Like her father Ustad Allauddin Khan, aka “Baba”, the greatest teacher of instrumental music in the Hindustani tradition in the last 100 years, Annapurna gave the best of herself to her pupils and brought out the strongest features of each one’s musical personality.
The lad and his parents had gone to Pune (if memory serves) to attend the upanayanam (thread) ceremony of a young relative. Since it was a family affair the boy was coaxed into playing for close relatives inside a familial space. Somehow, word reached Annapurna Devi that her protégé had broken his word and played in public without her permission. She cross-examined the boy who admitted that he had played for some relatives in their home in Pune. She banished him from her inner circle of pupils. No amount of pleading could make her relent.
One wonders where she got this quality of uncompromising integrity that often came across as being cruel. In truth it was not. Like her father Ustad Allauddin Khan, aka “Baba”, a very good sarodist and the greatest teacher of instrumental music in the Hindustani tradition in the last 100 years, Annapurna gave the best of herself to her pupils and brought out the strongest features of each one’s musical personality.
Nikhil Banerjee was to become her star pupil but he had his initiation with “Baba” Allauddin in Maihar. Baba gauged his temperament after hearing Nikhil Banerjee play. He told him in East Bengali dialect, “Aami tore Lucknower baaj sekha mu.” (I will teach you the Lucknow style of sitar playing)–with its generous use of meend (gliding notes) and various kinds of gamak (vibrating notes of varying intensity). The Lucknow school of playing had its masters like the ustads Abdul Ghani Khan, Yusuf Ali Khan, and the mystic Hamid Hussain Khan.
The reason for this digression is to explain why Annapurna behaved so “ruthlessly” with her boy-wonder pupil. Nikhil Banerjee in Maihar was a few years older than this unfortunate student of Annapurna’s when a particular incident occurred in the early 1950s that infuriated Baba. Hearing his gurubhai or fellow initiate, Jeetendra Prasad, a minor prince from Nepal, practising a particular composition in a given raga, Banerjee was intrigued. He quickly learnt the composition that Jeetendra Pratap was playing, Baba happened to be passing when he saw and heard Nikhil playing what he had not taught him. He asked him to pack and leave immediately. Luckily the dazed young sitarist was rescued by Madina Begum who directed him to her formidably gifted son, the sarodist ustad Ali Akbar Khan. He took young Nikhil under his wing and guided him on his onward musical journey until he reached Annapurna Devi for his final passage to greatness.
A friend, Amitava Das, a well-known painter, played a short portion of Annapurna Devi’s alaap in raag Manjh-Khamaj, on his iPhone a few days after her death. Even to the lay uninitiated listener’s ears the phrases sounded majestic. If that was the quality of her music, no wonder her undoubtedly brilliant husband sitarist, Pandit Ravi Shankar, ran away from her. It was the other-worldly quality of her music that made him feel inadequate despite his huge repertoire of compositions in various ragas, mastery of laya and taala, and sparkling playing. Nobody could delight an audience of connoisseurs and laymen at home and abroad as he did, but it was a worldly kind of music and he was aware of it.
Ravi Shankar was a man of the world, urbane, sophisticated and exceptionally intelligent. Rani Ray, academic, and daughter of Raja Birendra Kishore Roy-Choudhury of Gauripore (now in Bangladesh), a great patron of Hindustani music and an exceptionally knowledgeable musicologist, knew Ravi Shankar from her girlhood. Walking with him around certain parts of old London on one occasion, she said she was surprised at his knowledge of architecture. According to her, Ravi Shankar was probably the only Indian musician who had read James Joyce’s Ulysses for his pleasure.
hy is there so much on Ravi Shankar, the philandering husband who put Hindustani music on the world map, when the piece is supposed to be about his divorced first wife Annapurna Devi? The answer is two-fold. The first is to locate each in the world of Hindustani music in their time. Secondly, it is an attempt to strike a balance while interpreting the respective personalities of the two, more so, because there is a wide variety of recordings of Ravi Shankar’s playing freely available on YouTube, whereas there are three pieces by Annapurna Devi on the surbahar, of bad to indifferent audio quality. The Manj-Khamaj stands out. There is also a Kaushiki revealing a unique musical sensibility, and a bad amateur recording of a Malkauns played with deep introspection. The fourth is a duet with her then-husband Ravi Shankar in raga Yaman. The mono-recording quality from the mid-1950s of a live performance is all right and the playing of the duo uniformly excellent.
It is, however, difficult to be objective about the overall quality of Annapurna Devi’s surbahar playing without understanding the roots of her cultural and musical heritage. Debashish Chakravarti, former Indian ambassador to Ireland and a true rasika of Hindustani music, particularly instrumental, said the following in an e-mail to me, dated October 15, two days after Annapurna Devi’s death: “She had a unique intonation unparalleled by anyone in the Maihar gharana: her opening notes in the Manjh-Khamaj alaap are marked by an astonishing intensity which I have not heard anywhere else.
“In the first half of the 1970s, Nikhil Banerjee was playing at his peak. After a longish alaap in Chandra Kauns, my recollection is that he used phrases like those of Annapurna in his rupak tal gat in Manj-Khamaj. The performance was exquisite both in terms of tonality and rhythm. In fact, Kishan Maharaj who had begun his uthhan with the characteristic aggression of the Banaras baaj calmed down after realising the quality of the music that was being played. Rarely did I hear him later accompanying in the way he did that evening. After the performance, when Nikhil had made his peace by taking a paan from Kishan Maharaj’s panbatta, the latter exclaimed, ‘Ka bajayat ho Nikhil Babu!’ (How movingly you play, Nikhil Babu). There could be no doubt that Annapurna’s phrasing in the same raga was at another plane.”
There are many stories about her musical education. Baba Allauddin had four children: three daughters and a son; Annapurna was the youngest. He decided not to teach his daughters music because one of them, Jahanara, had her life ruined by orthodox in-laws who could not accept her deep love of music. The case of Annapurna learning music from Baba was curious. Her elder brother Ali Akbar was practising a piece taught by Baba and was not getting it right, when little Annapurna playing nearby interrupted him and sang the particular phrases correctly. She didn’t realise that Baba was standing behind her and listening.
He decided right then to teach his daughter. Over time he taught her vocal music, the sitar and finally the surbahar. But why did he decide to teach his daughter the surbahar? One can guess that it suited her deeply meditative temperament perfectly. She probably revealed an early ability to get down to the heart of a raga; its essence. A quality her brother Ali Akbar Khan too had but his gift was intuitive; she had both intellect and intuition. Her husband had only intellect, of course of an exceptional order.
The credit for introducing Hindustani music to the weste and making it popular goes to Pandit Ravi Shankar. In the mid-1950s he was given five minutes on American TV to explain what raga music was all about and to play a short piece. He swept the discerning western audience off its feet.
Ravi Shankar understood this shortcoming in his brilliantly
varied musical personality. He sought the intervention of Taat Baba, a Hindu tantrik
and did benefit enormously—in a worldly way. He retained his stamina and
curiosity in music-making well beyond 70. His best compositions—there were a
basket full—had a dancing ease, a pliant sense of laya and taala
and a crystal clear awareness of a raga’s structure. He was possibly the best
composer of bandish (compositions) in many ragas for the sitar in his
time. His pluck on the sitar was the most energetic and most accurate among all
The credit for introducing Hindustani music to the western world and making it popular goes exclusively to Pandit Ravi Shankar. In the mid-1950s he was given exactly five minutes on American TV to explain what Hindustani raga music was all about and to play a short piece. He spoke with complete clarity and made clear the essential qualities of the tradition and played a three-and-a-half-minute Bhairavi, which he had possibly recorded as a 78 RPM disc in Calcutta a little earlier. He swept the discerning western audience off its feet. Hindustani instrumental music had made its decisive entry in the west.
This breakthrough made it possible for his genius of a brother-in-law Ustad Ali Akbar Khan to gain entry into the US and over time become a huge star as a soloist and for his duets with Ravi Shankar. Soon he started the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in California. Ravi Shankar opened the door for all other Hindustani instrumentalists who followed in the next 50 years or more to make a good living and sometimes better than that.
nnapurna Devi’s music was introspective till the end of her playing days, which was possibly till the conclusion of the 1980s. It is the unbelievable gift she retained as a blessing from her father—who saw her life fall apart—to help her withstand the slings and arrows of fate. It is true that Ravi Shankar supported her financially and found her the Warden Road flat in Bombay. The rest she did on her own. Annapurna and Ravi Shankar’s son, Shubho, a genuinely talented sitarist, remained a bone of contention between the couple. He went into a career in advertising in America, allegedly unable to take the spartan (music) regimen imposed on him by his mother. He came back a few years before his death from pneumonia at 50 in 1992 in America, to play duets with his father on the concert stage. He sounded very good.
Ravi Shankar’s enormous worldly success, thoroughly earned, perhaps prevented him from devoting any real time to his students. The one student who came to him via Ustad Allauddin Khan was a deeply mature, gifted to an astonishing degree sitarist by the name of Uma Shankar Misra, from a family of dhrupadiyas in Darbhanga, Bihar. His father Pandit Hari Prasad Misra died when Uma Shankar was 18. He wisely came to Maihar, in remote Madhya Pradesh, and played for Baba in 1949. The master was sufficiently impressed to refer him to his son-in-law Ravi Shankar who was taken aback by young Uma Shankar’s taiyyari (preparedness) and ability to grasp most complex musical ideas quickly.
Ravi Shankar praised him lavishly (according to veteran sitarist Debu Choudhury) but did little or nothing to promote his finest pupil over the years. Pandit Uma Shankar Misra could not make a career for himself on the Indian concert stage. He remained an unchallenged master of the ‘Khula’ baaj that was played before World War II, i.e. 1939, when rasikas had leisure and could attend and enjoy all-night intimate soirees of instrumental and vocal music. ‘Khula’ baaj called for exceptional improvisatory skill from the instrumentalist who had to maintain the mood and character of the raga he was playing and display his real sense of musical aesthetics.
But as the concert stage took over, first as a symbol of a democratic musical platform during the freedom struggle, which also coincided with the advent of public address sound systems, the intimate mehfil lost out. Then, after Independence in 1947, a new crop of listeners, mostly businessmen with limited time on their hands, came up. Hindustani music changed and so did the musicians.
The principal beneficiary was Pandit Ravi Shankar, because of his ability to adapt to changing times. His best pupil Pandit Uma Shankar Misra, lost out due to lack of exposure and tilled a lonely furrow.
But the invitations to tour abroad were not frequent. Uma Shankar Misra made his living through concerts mainly in north India and by teaching advanced students (usually, though not always) at Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi. His music was too introspective to cut any ice with restless Indian audiences or those abroad. Musical tastes had begun change a decade-and-a-half before the arrival of the Digital Age.
Why this digression about Uma Shankar Misra? Perhaps to understand why reflective exponents of Hindustani music, be they singers or instrumentalists, could not make a dent in the market although they earned the abiding love and respect of the true rasikas.
Annapurna Devi’s own music was spiritual. It is difficult to imagine her playing for a large, mixed audience at home or abroad even in the 1960s or 70s when musical tastes began to become more eclectic or worldly. It is, however, possible to imagine a small, musically informed audience eating out of her hand in an intimate mehfil. Her opting to teach was a wise decision. It gave her the choice of passing on portions of the vast knowledge inherited from Baba to certain students, according to their ability to grasp both the technical aspects of raga sangeet as well as its margiya or spiritual being. After all, it is believed by many that the purpose of such music is to seek an entry into the world of mystical experience.
Baba Allauddin Khan understood, even when young, that the purpose of music was not just manoranjan or entertainment—although he had worked successfully as a musician in the worldly Bengali theatre peopled with talented actresses who more often not doubled as prostitutes and many were also kept women, in the late1890s and early 1900s—but a way of communicating with divinity. He was a devotee of Ma Sharda as his daughter Annapurna was of Ma Kali.
Baba learnt from many teachers. One of them made him practise for seven years all the notes in the ascending and descending musical scale in seemingly endless combinations. The exercise made him perhaps the greatest exponent of the merukhand approach in negotiating taanas in a given raga. It is very possible that it may have turned his ears inwards and led him on the path of meditation and spirituality. He may have noticed in Annapurna the ability to grasp the meditative aspect of music. The early recognition of this fact may have led him to train her to play the surbahar, an instrument that in the hands of a spiritually receptive artiste can produce music of a deeply satisfying, contemplative nature. Those privileged who heard her, vouched for this quality in her music.
Her alaap to present the musical architecture of a raga and also its hidden mystical elements was said to be peerless. It was not equalled by her brother Ali Akbar Khan, protégé Nikhil Banerjee or ex-husband Ravi Shankar. An oft repeated story is of Baba Allauddin telling his young son-in-law Ravi Shankar at his wedding with Annapurna in 1941, ‘Tomarey aami gaut (gat) sikhaiy achee, ebaar konyaar haath diya alaap dilaam!’ (I taught you gat compositions so far, now I give you my daughter in marriage, and alaap as a dowry).
There is the story of her giving up playing in public because the few duets she played with Ravi Shankar in the early 1950s brought her more appreciation from the audience than it did him. Ravi Shankar apparently was miffed, being used to getting a lot of attention for his winning personality and fantastic musical ability. Whatever the veracity of this tale, Ravi Shankar, adapted to the needs of a changing world and became famous. Annapurna Devi took up teaching and produced three exceptional students—Nikhil Banerjee, Bahadur Khan and Hariprasad Chaurasia. Of the three Nikhil Banerjee and Hariprasad Chaurasia became internationally famous. Bahadur Khan, despite his enormous gifts, did not because he drank far too much. But he left a set of recordings that confirm his worth as a musician.
Annapurna’s choice of the surbahar was both an esoteric one as well spiritual. It is an instrument like the rudraveena, which discourages pyrotechnics and, instead, imposes upon the player the need to use his/her musical knowledge through a judicious use of technique to plumb the depths of a given raaga. Annapurna Devi’s understanding of her musical inheritance and its interpretation through the surbahar is beyond compare.
Dr. Narayana Menon, former executive director of NCPA, (National Centre for the Performing Arts) in Mumbai, was living in retirement in Delhi. In 1989, I met him in his Bharati Nagar flat along with Carnatic flautist G. S. Rajan, then working with Sangeet Natak Akademi in the city. He categorically stated that when at the NCPA, he had personally supervised the recording of 50 hours of Annapurna Devi’s surbahar playing. She had set a condition that these recordings be released only after her death. One can only hope that this evidence of her priceless musical legacy is safe and will be released soon for the benefit of true lovers of Hindustani instrumental music.