An­na­purna Devi, first lady of sur­ba­har, dies at 91

Per­former Re­treated From Stage, Ded­i­cated Life To Teach­ing Mu­sic

The Times of India (Mumbai edition) - - TIMES CITY - Namita.De­v­i­dayal @times­group.com

Mum­bai: Akash Ganga is a build­ing in Breach Candy which once housed the city’s first acous­ti­cally de­signed con­cert hall, but on its sixth floor lived a reclu­sive sur­ba­har player who avoided the stage. An­na­purna Devi, known to all as Gu­ruma, passed away at the age of 91in the early hours of Satur­day morn­ing.

The arc of An­na­purna Devi’s life criss­crosses with some of In­dia’s most for­mi­da­ble mu­si­cians. Her fa­ther was Baba Al­laud­din Khan, an am­bidex­trous mu­si­cian known for his pro­fi­ciency in mul­ti­ple-string in­stru­ments. Her brother was Ali Ak­bar Khan, the sarod player de­scribed as the mu­si­cian’s mu­si­cian. And her former hus­band was Ravi Shankar, the sitar mae­stro, with whom she shared a tu­mul­tuous re­la­tion­ship. Their sitar and sur­ba­har duets were sur­roun- ded by mur­murs that he was in­se­cure about her play­ing. This also pre­cip­i­tated her re­treat from the pub­lic stage.

“Ravi Shankar was not in favour of her play­ing out­side, so she chose not to. It was her vrat. But right from the be­gin­ning, she was never in­ter­ested in name and fame. She was a pure tapasvi. There was a self­less qual­ity in her,” says Su­nil Shas­tri, who wrote her bi­og­ra­phy ‘Suropan­ishad’. Quiet tragedy seeped into her life like the som­bre notes of the sur­ba­har. Her only son Shuben­dra Shankar, or Shubho, passed away when she was 65 years old. In1988, she mar­ried Rooshiku­mar Pandya, a man­age­ment con­sul­tant much younger than her, whom she also out­lived.

Great per­form­ers—who of­ten come with a cer­tain de­gree of self-ab­sorp­tion—are of­ten not the best teach­ers. An­na­purna Devi ded­i­cated her life to teach­ing though. Her stu­dents in­clude flautists Hariprasad Chaura­sia and Nityanand Haldipur, sarod play­ers Bas­ant Kabra and her nephew Aashish Khan, and sitar player Niloufer Ka­pa­dia, Vi­layat Khan’s niece. She taught by singing and, like her fa­ther, could of­fer nu­ances to suit dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments—how much to breathe in or how to press on the frets, de­pend­ing on who was sit­ting in front of her. She would pa­tiently ca­jole her stu­dents to prac­tise un­til they got their mu­sic just right, tak­ing each one’s in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­ity into ac­count. “She was our teacher, but also gave us the love of a mother,” says Haldipur, who learned un­der her for 30 years. “Her favourite raga was Malka­uns.”

An­na­purna Devi was born Rosha­nara Khan in 1927 in Mai­har, Mad­hya Pradesh, af­ter which the Mai­har gha­rana is named. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1977 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1991. Sitar player Ni­ladri Ku­mar says, “I grew up lis­ten­ing to her be­ing re­ferred to as Gu­ruma by my fa­ther (whom she also taught)… She truly was a mother to much of the clas­si­cal mu­sic that shaped the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.”

Fewer and fewer mu­si­cians to­day play the sur­ba­har, or bass sitar, whose deep gloomy tones were im­mor­tal­ized in the back­ground score of Satya­jit Ray’s Jal­saghar. In 2009, the mu­si­col­o­gist Deepak Raja had sought an in­ter­view with the reclu­sive mu­si­cian, a near-im­pos­si­ble task fi­nally fa­cil­i­tated by her hus­band. She dic­tated her an­swers to Pandya, who passed them on to Raja.

His last ques­tion was: What is the fu­ture of the sur­ba­har? Her an­swer: And­hakar­moy. Dark and gloomy.

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