Annapurna Devi: A loss like no other

Annapurna Devi was a remarkable genius with unparalleled dignity, considering her performance career was cut short by the whims and insecurity of a fellow musician and a fellow disciple of her father

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Tathagata Bhattacharya

Legendary musician Annapurna Devi is no more. It is not like any other loss to the world of Hindustani classical music. Not many alive today have heard her play live as she stopped performing in public in the early 1960’s to save her marriage with Pandit Ravi Shankar. Those who did hear her live and are still alive even today say that she was possibly the undisputed best her legendary father Ustad Baba Alauddin Khan’s Maihar Gharana has ever produced. And the Maihar Gharana has produced quite a galaxy of stars: Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, Pannalal Ghosh, Rabin Ghosh, Jotin Bhattacharya, Sharan Rani to name a few.

I have never met her, I have never seen her but my mother did. She was a childhood friend of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s daughter Ameena Perera (whom I called Babydi). They grew up in the same neighbourhood and my mom would often visit their home. As a Hindustani Classical Music fanatic and a budding singer, my mother had the privilege of listening to her while Annapurna Devi would simply rehearse at home.

My mother was no mean a singer. Omkarnath Thakur wanted to adopt her by listening to her voice when she was in her teens, much to the annoyance of my mom’s father. Mom just used one word for Annapurna Devi’s music whenever asked: “Mesmerising. If any one comes close, it will be Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. No one else.” I have only heard some of her recordings available in the public domain and a few ones in the hands of ardent collectors in Calcutta. Professor Amlan Dasgupta of Jadavpur University, who is engaged in a herculean effort of building an archive of North Indian classical music at the School of Cultural Texts and Records at the university, must be aware of many more sources, I am sure.

I remember being ushered into the Gariahat Road house of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in Calcutta one morning when I was in class five or six. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan tied the knot (nara inBengali) on my hand. He lived in the US and I was to begin training under his son-in-law, Dr ES Perera who was then a classical music teacher at a Calcutta-based university.

Later, as and when he would visit Calcutta, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan would spend a little time with us as and when he found time. I remember Ustad Dhyanesh Khan was alive those days. His son Shiraz was a small child then and Shiraz’s cousin Rakhi, Babydi’s daughter, nearly my age. I know Shiraz Ali Khan has very ably taken over the mantle of the Gharana and he plays his great grandfather’s 150-year-old instrument in Ustad Alauddin Khan’s style.

Since I had school, I used to go every Sunday in the morning for my talim. My mother would take me along, drop me there and pick me up once the lessons got over. At times, she would sit down with Babydi and they would talk of the old days over cups of tea. I was small but I remember a certain conversation one morning about Annapurna Devi. Babydi said, “This is what Ustad Alauddin Khan would say. If you had a beam balance and put everyone else on one side and let Annapurna have one side to herself, even then, her side will be heavier.” Such was the gravitas and the remarkable genius of the lady who conducted herself with unparalleled dignity, considering her performance career was cut short by the whims and insecurity of a fellow musician and a fellow disciple. She became a recluse in her Mumbai apartment but made sure through her teaching that the world of Hindustani Classical Music would receive exponents like Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur, Pradeep Barot, Sudhir Phadke and many more.

Babydi, a sitar virtuoso herself who, like her aunt Annapurna Devi, also dedicated herself to teaching, passed away in 2016. My mother died in 2017. With Annapurna Devi leaving the earth, it seems all the three characters in that conversation that morning are gone. An era, it seems, has come to an end.

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Published: 13 Oct 2018, 6:05 PM