Annapurna Devi

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A brief biography

Namita Devidayal, Annapurna Devi, reclusive first lady of surbahar, October 14, 2018: The Times of India

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 was known to all as Guruma.

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 on 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 surrounded 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. In 1988, 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. 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 first cousin. She taught by singing andcould offer nuances to suit different instruments Annapurna Devi was born Roshanara Khan in 1927 in Maihar, MP, after which the Maihar gharana is named. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1977 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1991.

In 2009, musicologist Deepak Raja had sought an interview with her. 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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