Annapurna Devi, first lady of surbahar, dies at 91
Performer Retreated From Stage, Dedicated Life To Teaching Music
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.