books Book on the musician Annapurna Devi, the “solitary genius”


There’s something intriguing about people making choices that don’t fit social norms – it breeds curiosity, fear, wonder, and awe. This is the case of Annapurna Devi, a musician who claims to be the best the country has seen but who is heard only by a privileged few. Daughter of Allauddin Khan and sister of Ali Akbar Khan, Annapurna’s life is shrouded in mystery, as is her genius, and is overshadowed by her tumultuous marriage to Pandit Ravi Shankar. The surbahar player who was educated by her father, Baba, as all of her followers affectionately call her, lived the life of a recluse, in stark contrast to the life path forged by her ex-husband and then divorced, Ravi Shankar.

There are a myriad of anecdotal stories surrounding his life and his talent, but few to corroborate these stories for his life revolved around his followers and his future spouse Rooshikumar Pandya. So, it is inevitable that one will be excited to finally receive a book that was written by his student Atul Merchant Jataayu after many discussions with his other students to commemorate the time spent in his glorious presence. With a preface by Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Annapurna Devi: The Untold Story of a Reclusive Genius (Penguin India; Rs 699) began as a treat for lovers of classical music and good stories.

Ravi Shankar, Allauddin Khan and Ali Akbar Khan

Atul Jataayu Merchant

Atul Jataayu Merchant

Told through short chapters, each telling and developing an anecdote, the book traces the life of Allauddin Khan and his life in Maihar and the following taalim of Ali Akbar, Ravi Shankar and Annapurna. All heard through ‘Ma’s mouth as his students reverently called him, the book is a lesson in spirituality, art, compassion, devotion, and religion beyond human cognition. There are stories of Allauddin Khan feeling agitated upon entering a church in Brussels until he finally collapsed in tears in front of the statue of Mother Mary repeatedly saying “Maa maa”. The man who had a Muslim name and offered namaz twice a day and prayed to Sharada Maa for an hour every day, music was his religion. The gods and goddesses were simple vessels through which their bodies conversed with the supernatural.

Filled with examples that invite wonder, like the house filling up with the smell of sandalwood every time Annapurna Devi played or examples of her innocent clairvoyance, this book written in short, simple sentences warranted a stroll to give goosebumps. However, the book raises the question of separating the identity of a musical genius from the controversy surrounding his private life. The part about the untimely demise of Ravi Shankar and their son Shubho casts a cloud of darkness over the book that he perhaps could have done without. There has been a lot of “he said she said” around their relationship with each side blaming the other for a failed marriage and this book also succumbs to the trope in an attempt to purify the air.

There is a part of the book where Rooshikumar Pandya is asked why he was able to convince Annapurna Devi to marry him but couldn’t convince her to perform in public. He responds –– “As I taught you in psychology, people basically operate from three levels. Motives of pleasure, motives of reality and main motives. When a person acts on grounds of principle, it is almost impossible to negotiate with that person ”.

That sums up Annapurna Devi’s life well and her resolve to never perform in public as promised to her then-husband Ravi Shankar. His whole life was built on the principle that your guru is the highest and often the only authority in your life. She never gave up her sadhana and continued her life in her Akashganga apartment in Mumbai until she took her last breath. The stories told in this book by his students shed light on a mind and heart that operated on a different plane, giving us a glimpse of what it takes to make a genius. Slightly difficult for a decidedly feminist mind to digest, her sacrifice to never appear in public stems from her hatred of fame and a purported effort to save her marriage. However, it also makes one wish that the book focused on her instead of slandering anonymous musicians and fights between newer musicians who debate the advent of a certain raag and gharana. These little additions, as seen in chapters like Queen Elizabeth’s Piano, take it out of the book instead of loaning it out, making it sound like the evening of an old vendetta instead of telling the story of one. of the greatest musicians in the world. However, the straightforward style of the storytelling and a few valuable anecdotes in between make the book worth repeating.


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