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The lady ustad

With her great skill and ability, Annapurna Devi proved to be a trailblazer in the annals of Hindustani classical music

The lady ustad
Annapurna Devi playing the sitar.

Annapurna Devi’s birthday falls on the 16th of April. She is turning 90 this year. Hailing from one of the most illustrious family of musicians it could not be imagined that she would live a life away from music. Being the daughter of UstadAlauddin Khan, sister of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and one-time wife of Ravi Shanker, it must have been difficult for her to carve her own identity.

Among the hereditary musicians it has been a norm to bring up sons as performing artists, but their daughters are only supposed to become dutiful wives and mothers, in turn nurturing their sons to be performing artistes  and high ranking professionals. These daughters and sisters themselves are very well-versed in music and its intricacies, but all this education and knowledge is meant to be for their male heirs and not for themselves.

This norm has been challenged and deviated from, but rarely, and one outstanding exception has been Annapurna Devi who came out of the shadows of custom and tradition to become a great artiste herself and taught many outstanding musicians, herself attainingthe status of an ustad, a mantle meant mainly for males. There is really no name for a female ustad in the traditional array of honorifics and it is convenient to make the term ustad gender neutral. Similarly, there is no substitute for guru and this too has to be treated in the same manner.

Once UstadAlauddin heard from the adjoining room his daughter trying to help her brother Ali Akbar Khan with some very intricate musical phrase, he was amazed by her ability to render it effortlessly. That’s when he decided to break the taboo yet again and teach his daughter as well. He had done so earlier with his elder daughter Jahan Ara but she had to face recriminations from her in-laws just for this, and was thus not happily married. It was doubly difficult for UstadAlauddin Khan to take the step again but he still decided to teach her and she chose the surbahar as her instrument of choice.

During the course of his career UstadAlauddin Khan had met UdayShanker and accompanied him on a tour of Europe, where he spotted his younger brother Ravi Shanker as part of the dancing troupe. When UdayShanker explored the possibility of Ravi Shanker becoming a sitar player, UstadAlauddn Khan advised that the young Ravi should disengage  himself from the glitter and glamour of the dance world and become a recluse in pursuit of excellence. Ravi Shanker took this momentous step and joined his ustad’s ashram-like environment in Maihar to take up the sitar in full seriousness. He probably stayed there for three years. And with him was Ali Akbar, his ustadbhai, braving the temperament of his father and the hermit-like existence in pursuit of greatness. But soon a third person, a young Annapurna became a principal figure. Since Ravi Shanker, being a shagird of ustadAlauddin Khan was part of the same household, he ended up marrying Annpurna Devi when she was barely in her early teens.

She was given the name Annapurna Devi by the Maharaja of Maihar who was the principal patron of UstadAllauddin Khan and a great lover of music. Maihar was a state in the Baghelkand and Thakur Durjansingh’s accession dated back to 1770, while the lineage continued through Bishan Singh, Mohan Prosad, Raghubir Singh, Randhir Singh and Brijnath, placed on the throne as a minor in 1912. Alauddin Khan joined his court as a musician and it was Brijnath who named the daughter of Alauddin Khan Annapurna Devi due to the day she was born, while the family had given her the name of Roshan Ara.

Apparently the two, Ravi Shanker and Annapurna Devi were married, but as it often happens, two outstanding artistes start to compete with each other and that destroys their marriage. It seems the same happened to their marriage and foundered on competitiveness, jealousy and the snare as to who was better of the two and hence the best in the world. Their relationship suffered further when their only son SubhendraShanker was sickly and had a troubled relationship with both the parents. He could not figure out what he wanted to do in life, tried his hand without outstanding success and died alone in the United States at about the age of fifty.

Surbahar was the product of the revival of dhrupad by the 1930s. Some called it the kapachiveena. Surbahar according to Sourindra Mohon Tagore in his book YatrahKosh was very close to the kachua sitar, for it has seven strings and tarabs usually made of brass. It was introduced in 1928by Ghulam Mohammed, a disciple of Umrao Khan of Lakhnow. Originally it had five strings but two more were added including two chikaris. It was made flatter and its neck wider, a decorative hole was cut into the face to fasten tarab strings, and thin flattened frets for better management of meend. UstadSajjad Hussain, the son of Ghulam Mohammed took it to Bengal and later it was also taken up by Ustads Imrat Khan and Irshad Khan of the EtawahGharana.

For many decades Annapurna Devi lived single and then married at the age of fifty-five. She has performed less and taught more in her long life and appeared to be a very successful ustad, if the number of outstanding musicians is an adequate barometer to judge that. Some of the disciples of Annapurna Devi have been Nikhal Banerjee, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Amit Bhattacharya, Nityanand Haldipur, Suresh Vyas, BasantKabra, Daniel Bradley and Aatul Merchant.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • A very fine piece indeed. Annapurna Devi’s disciples are many but Atul Merchant is not one of them. You might wish to edit.

    Thank you and God bless you!

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