Excerpt: Annapurna Devi; The Untold Story of a Reclusive Genius by Atul Merchant Jataayu

Extraordinary talent, corrosive jealousy, rifts caused by differing world views and levels of integrity, and great tragedy were part of Annapurna Devi’s life. This exclusive first excerpt from a book on the Hindustani classical music legend by one of her disciples documents the end of her marriage to Pandit Ravi Shankar and its tragic aftermath
Annapurna Devi (Courtesy the publisher)
Annapurna Devi (Courtesy the publisher)
Published on Nov 19, 2021 07:05 PM IST
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ByAtul Merchant Jataayu

On 5 April 1999, an interview of Panditji (Pandit Ravi Shankar) was broadcast on Indian television, which I recorded on my VCR. I brought the tape to Ma’s house and showed her the interview. Needless to say, Ma confirmed the obvious, that what Panditji claimed was not true.

I said, “There is a famous African proverb, ‘Until the lions learn to write, every story will glorify the hunter.’ For years, Panditji has been giving a false version of the facts to both the media and the world at large.” Nityanand and I suggested, “Once, just for the record, your version should be published; otherwise, the falsehoods Panditji is spreading would come to be regarded as historical truths.’

“Show me the draft statement and I’ll think about it,” she said, and went away into her room.

343pp, ₹499; Penguin
343pp, ₹499; Penguin

With help of inputs from my gurubhais, followed by factual corrections from Ma, the draft statement was finalized. Though I had taken the initiative, the question was in whose name the article should be published. Nityanand and I were the only ones willing to assume this responsibility. Rooshiji, Dr Shastri, Suresh Vyas, Smarth Bali, Hemant Desai and Pradeep Barot all backed out, and also advised Nityanand and me against publishing the article. Ma was quietly and patiently listening to all this from afar, without any comment or reaction, totally detached, as if the discussion was about some unknown person.

I convinced Ma that Nityanand, being a professional musician, should not be involved in any controversy. Back then, I did business with a few overseas clients who knew nothing about the sitār or Indian classical music, so I had nothing to lose by authoring this article. Nityanand also said he was not worried about the consequences, but Ma decided in my favour, and the following article was published under my name in several newspapers and magazines:

Enigma of a Recluse By Atul S Merchant

April 5, 1999. Pt Ravi Shankar being interviewed by Mr Prananjay Guha Thakurta. Both consummate professionals. Well researched questions, savvy answers. And then suddenly a googly by the interviewer:

‘I have always been intrigued by one question. Your first wife Annapurna Devi, the daughter of your Guru, is supposed to be a very wonderful musician. But I have always wondered why she never performed publicly? Maybe you can throw some light.’ The one-time dancer cannot control the choreography of his face muscles. Few seconds of that and the man is in control. ‘I think it is better if she could answer this herself . . .’

So far so good. But maybe it is the unconscious insecurities . . . ‘Why doesn’t she leave me alone’, he must have wondered. And then the prevarication:

‘But as far as my analysis goes, as long as we were married I used to force her to play along with me and give programs . . .’ ‘. . . But after, she didn’t want to perform alone.

She always wanted to sit with me. And after we separated she didn’t want to perform.’

‘. . . She maybe doesn’t like to face the public or she is nervous or whatever but it is her own will that she has stopped. This is very sad because she is a fantastic musician.’

‘Maybe not’, some of the viewers speculate. The program over, they search for the real answers.

The lady in question Smt. Annapurna Devi is a recluse. An enigma. But then there are leads. Her students, her well-wishers, the people who knew her and heard her before she divorced Ravi Shankar.

Annapurna Devi was born to Madina Begum the wife of Ustad Allauddin Khansaheb on the auspicious day of Chaitra Purnima. The ustad was away on a tour so his disciple Raja Brijnathsingh the Maharaja of Maihar named her Annapurna as there is an ancient ritual of worshipping Goddess Annapurna on the day of Chaitra Purnima. Her father lovingly known as Baba had transcended man made religious boundaries. He was a devout Muslim and an ardent devotee of Shārdā Ma. He often said, ‘Music is my race and sound is my ethnicity . . .’

She grew up in Maihar in her home filled with Sur and Taal. Music woke her up and music lulled her to sleep. In a home where music was religion, one would think that learning music would be the most natural thing for her to do. But Baba’s older daughter Jahanara had suffered at the hands of her in-laws because she pursued music. Baba did not want to teach music to Annapurna for this reason. But Annapurna’s genes were programmed . . .

Once, while Baba was away for a stroll, her brother Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was practising his lessons. Annapurna noticed a mistake in her brother’s playing and was correcting it in her childlike playful ways when Baba happened to enter. He stopped, listened, and summoned her to see him.

Baba had a legendary temper and young Annapurna was petrified. When she went to him, she was hardly prepared for what she saw and heard. Baba was in tears as he held her.

‘Here is the tanpurā, I’ll teach you all I know.’

And teach he did, prompting Ustad Amir Khansaheb to observe wryly, ‘Annapurna Devi is 80 percent of Ustad Allauddin Khan, Ali Akbar is 70 percent and Ravi Shankar is about 40 percent.’

‘Baba often used to say,’ quotes Batuk Diwanji, ‘Listen to my daughter, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar are nothing compared to her.’

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Smt. Annapurna Devi were imbibing Baba’s music, paltaas, alankaars, jhamhamaas, meend, ghamak, krintan, and boles. Ali Akbar cradling his sarod and Annapurna mastering the sitār and later surbahār.

Udayshankar, the legendary dancer and the eldest brother of Ravi Shankar invited Baba abroad. Ravi Shankar was a dancer in the troupe. Young, debonair and a man about town. And here was Baba, traditional, orthodox, disciplined and demanding. But Ravi Shankar loved music and there was instant chemistry between the two.

Ravi Shankar left Paris, shaved his head, came to Maihar, and became Baba’s disciple. He lived next door and when Baba was away, young Ali Akbar would climb over the wall and help him with Baba’s music. Next day he would play well before Baba and Baba would tell Ali Akbar, ‘Look, how brainy he is.]’ This young pair of Ali Akbar and Ravi Shankar later gave some of the most memorable jugalbandi performances till date.

It was Udayshankarji who later approached Baba for the hand of his daughter for Ravi Shankar. One would think that the marriage of two of the most gifted and accomplished musicians would be an ideal marriage. But that was not to be.

Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi (Courtesy the publisher)
Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi (Courtesy the publisher)

While Ravi Shankar played sitār for a jugalbandi with Ali Akbar Khan, both Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi played jugalbandi on the surbahār. The audience and the press raved about their concerts but aye there was the rub. The audience waah-waahed more to Annapurna Devi’s playing and the reviews had an obvious tilt in her favour. She also played solo recitals in Delhi, Calcutta, and Chennai. And maybe it was Ravi Shankar who became nervous. Maybe his ego was too fragile to accept his wife’s superiority as a musician.

Literary critics would call this a dramatic irony that just like in her older sister’s case it was music again that became the apple of discord in Annapurna Devi’s relationship with Ravi Shankar.

In order to redeem her marriage, Annapurna Devi vowed not to play in public and dedicated her life to teaching Baba’s music to deserving disciples like Bahadur Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, Shubho Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur, Basant Kabra, Sudhir Phadke, Sandhya Apte, Pradeep Barot, Amit Bhattacharya, Amit Roy and several others.

Her lasting contribution to Indian Classical music was recognized and accolades followed: Padma Bhushan in 1977, and later Sharangdev Fellowship, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and Desikottam (Doctor of Literature), the highest award given by Visva-Bharati University founded by Nobel Laureate Tagore.

However, even after her separation from Ravi Shankar all was not well in Annapurna Devi’s life.

Shubho, their son, was initiated into sarod by his illustrious grandfather Baba but later Ravi Shankar made Shubho switch to sitār. Since Ravi Shankar was mostly away on concert tours, Shubho stayed with his mother Annapurna Devi who started giving him rigorous tālim.

Soon rumours started making rounds that Shubho was going to be a better player than Ravi Shankar, that it was Annapurna Devi’s revenge. ‘How can people think like that?’ Annapurna Devi rhetorically asked one of her disciples. ‘If Shubho becomes a good musician the credit goes to Baba . . . our music is his gift . . .’

But Ravi Shankar wanted to verify for himself. He summoned Shubho to play for him and a few others. Shubho played what he had learnt. ‘Awesome’ some of the listeners reported. Maybe Ravi Shankar felt threatened. And before Annapurna Devi could comprehend what was going on, Ravi Shankar lured Shubho away to the land of milk and honey.

New country, new tune. Shubho was discouraged from pursuing music in the States. And it was suggested that since he had studied at JJ School of Arts at Bombay, he should take up commercial arts as his career.

When you take somebody away from his milieu and tell him to change his métier and that too in an alien environment, even street-smart people would find it hard to succeed, not to speak of someone who had spent his days and nights practising surs and taans in a very Spartan environment. Shubho barely managed to survive by doing odd jobs such as a waiter’s.

A change of heart. After a long hiatus, Ravi Shankar started teaching sitār to Shubho. Shubho’s solid tālim by his mother helped him accompany his father in the concerts. Rumour has it that when Shubho played his passages; microphones were deliberately turned down. Soon Shubho felt alienated from his father and stopped accompanying him. A hat-trick for Ravi Shankar. Neither Ustad Ali Akbar Khan nor Annapurna Devi nor Shubho was playing duets with him.

The tragedy of it all was that Shubho went into depression and was later admitted into a hospital for pneumonia. The financial help was not forthcoming from his father. Ravi Shankar’s rationale: he had his own family to support.

Soon after, Shubho died.


Lately Pandit Ravi Shankar is being criticized for promoting his daughter Anoushka. Pandit Ravi Shankar’s rationale is that it is his paternal obligation to promote and support his offspring. One wonders whether this belated sense of obligation overcompensates for the guilt he might have felt on Shubho’s death. But that is food for a Freudian.

Author Atul Merchant Jataayu (Courtesy the author)
Author Atul Merchant Jataayu (Courtesy the author)

After the article came out, I did get some threatening phone calls. The anonymous callers said that they would ruin me, but I paid no heed to them. During one of our Saturday rendezvous, Ma came out of her room and announced, “Let me tell you this once and for all. I never had nor have any interest in publishing anything about my music, or my story, or my version of the marital discord. This was just a little test for you all. Atul and Nityanand have passed the test. The rest, including Rooshiji, have all failed.”

Then, turning to Nityanand and me, Ma said, “As your Guru Ma, my blessings are with you both. You may or may not become millionaires, but Shārdā Ma will always provide you for your needs.” Saying this, she went away to her room and shut the door.

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