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Annapurna Devi: The Notes Forming a Myth

My interest in Annapurna Devi grew more recently when a friend brought her music to my attention and pointed it out to me as mysterious;
Annapurna Devi
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“A damsel with a dulcimer

In a vision once I saw:

It was an Abyssinian maid

And on her dulcimer she played,

Singing of Mount Abora.”

-Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I am not writing this as a personal account, but I cannot be completely impersonal either, because, for me, writing about music always involves an interplay of my thoughts and feelings. This article does not have the impossible aim of evaluating Annapurna Devi, although I am doubtful if my analysis would not help one to an extent to prepare oneself to listen to her music wisely.

I was merely a boy of seventeen when I accidentally stumbled upon an eighteen-minute recording of Manj Khamaj by Annapurna Devi on YouTube without the slightest idea about its paranormal capacity to strike a mind complacent and regularly fed with the renditions of the same raga by her brother, Ali Akbar Khan, and her former husband, Ravi Shankar, down to the many average musicians around; my intention is not to put the pair in the same line with them whatsoever. I was familiar with her name through several of Ravi Shankar’s biographies and autobiographies and through the many rumours that would do the rounds on print and digital media platforms concerning his failed marriage with her. But the YouTube thumbnail distracted me from my preconception and the audio surprised me with the possibility of rediscovering my own sensibility, generally equipped with a strong power of judgement. The recording did not seem comparable with anyone else’s from the same bloodline, the same family tree or even the same school; I was personally convinced it was different and esoteric, for, not everyone should have an access to it unless one is ready to take it upon oneself to be extremely mindful while listening to it.

Annapurna Devi at Maihar

The difference struck me on a very fundamental level when I found out the performance was completely unpremeditated but quite elevated both unlike a professional, and engaging to such an extent that I was forced to keep aside my other experiences with the raga and focus on whatever different Annapurna Devi had to offer. But I was left clueless, primarily because I was unable to decipher the very unusual element, despite realising its presence, and because my familiarity with the raga kept coming in the way of my understanding it from the alternative angle, I did not consciously choose to view it from. Frequent fast paced taans, speedy movements, short turns and attractive patterns and everything else conducive to turning Indian classical music into an entertainment medium were absent; it was rather solely grounded on the lack of imposed beautification that has been infesting the art since the last seventy years.

It was around the same time I managed to listen to her duet with Ravi Shankar performed in the mid-fifties where they played Yaman Kalyan, and excerpts from her performance of Kaunsi Kanada, which made a superficial comparison between them apparently viable owing to Ravi Shankar’s possible presence even in the latter case. I am deliberately using ‘superficial’ and ‘apparently’ to emphasise on the futility of such a venture if anyone but me undertook it, because they were evidently different in their approaches, and they retained their individuality as prominently as they were appreciative of each other even after they separated and eventually were divorced. Some inquisitive newspaper journalists, especially from Bengal, with half as much understanding of music as a deaf man, have been, for decades, trying to highlight their personal difference as a cause of a difference in their styles more than their separation with concocted biographical details as their supporting documents. Their voyeuristic interest in the couple’s personal space has reflected in their discourse devoid of any deep study of any one of their interpretative skills; however, it was not easy to draw anything conclusive from their biographies or autobiographies either, because they fail to provide us with a satisfactory and an unbiased idea about the construction of their minds. A largely generalised view may lead me to opine, Ravi Shankar’s cosmopolitan education and Annapurna Devi’s cocooned growing up were never on the verge to match as the latter maintained her withdrawal from the world even at the cost of her initiation into any music different from her father’s.

Annapurna Devi Duet with Ravi Shankar

My interest in Annapurna Devi grew more recently when a friend brought her music to my attention and pointed it out to me as mysterious; in turn, it became my coping mechanism to survive certain crises, I never imagined I would suffer. The Manj Khamaj was the most helpful owing to the fact, the raga generally follows the format of a major scale which makes any melody sound delightful. My previous confusion did not go, but I enjoyed my inability to figure it out and was focused more on my survival than on the reasons, the raga did not seem to fit into the usual model of the Mixolydian mode with a natural seventh, or a major scale with an extra emphasis on the natural fourth and elaborations on the notes of the subdominant major chord. The Yaman Kalyan too was helpful, though a little less, because it never activated my intellectual faculties and never made me chase my vaulting curiosity; the Yaman Kalyan blatantly confirmed the structure of the Lydian mode or, again, a general major scale with an augmented fourth in the ascension and an accidental natural fourth in the descension.

Annapurna Devi’s Manj Khamaj is doubtless an artistic success with a proper juxtaposition of intellect and emotion, but a preceding note on the Yaman Kalyan is a prerequisite to make an analysis of it. Ravi Shankar might seem an easy pawn to be villainized to put added focus on her, but it is clearly one basic point of difference I will talk about which might eventually bring out reasons to assert Annapurna Devi’s aesthetic superiority. The Ravi Shankar of the fifties was different from the Ravi Shankar of the subsequent decades; ‘the great sitar explosion’ in the sixties changed both him and his music for better, and revolutionised the entire art of Sitar playing further. Infantile and artless musicians have complained, his exposure of the West in the second innings of his life made his music restless without noticing, restlessness was throughout a constant feature of his art, and there wasn’t any more of it in his performances in his international career than during the time he played the duet under discussion. The restlessness might have been a product of his acquaintance with post-War Europe and his experience with the IPTA movement resulting in his political consciousness a tad left off the centre.  It was this same restlessness that Annapurna Devi kept balancing with her firm, warm and assuring strokes which helped not only in the sustenance of the equilibrium of a musical presentation but also in establishing her formidability as an elegant Oriental grace. Despite the inadequacy in an equal audibility of the two Surbahars; for, Ravi Shankar sounded louder; Annapurna Devi’s depth was easily discernible from the particular part where in the lower octave she continued after the former completed one of his restive phrases. She picked up from the point where Ravi Shankar was expected to make further elaborations, justified his moves and finished his phrase with a layer over it providing it with enough room to breathe with perfect composure. Her subsequent left-hand exercises for deep meends covering no more than three notes aligning with the tonic major chord, made her stand out as unnerved, not contesting but complementing Ravi Shankar’s art with a far more admirable poise.

Annapurna Devi's music had agreat depth

I am personally acquainted with people who are in complete spell of the Manj Khamaj. I have asked myself if it is just an illusion, though my curiosity kept me on the positive track and convinced me to believe, the unfamiliar element is the reason of their as well as my own intellectual alienation from it. That Allauddin Khan made two variants of Manj Khamaj – one for the classical, and another for the general purpose – came to my knowledge much after I decoded the distinctive parts that made Annapurna Devi sound different without knowing, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan practically classicized the other version to suit their own tastes. For the pair, the resting notes became the natural fourth and the sixth, the supertonic being important in the ascending arrangements of the notes, and they seldom chose to come back to the tonic of the middle octave over the submediant of the lower octave which at times made the raga appear with the mediant tonicized for a while. Annapurna Devi avoided possibilities of such misinterpretations, did not use the second note in her ascensions and rested primarily on the tonic and the mediant in the middle octave; even if some phrases ended with the natural sixth, she came back to the fourth adding a tail to it for practical reasons. Her return to the tonic always added a reference of the leading note in the previous octave, an application found more in her rendition than in any of the pair’s duets or any of their individual performances of the raga. Furthermore, her moves along the vertical axis comprised an ascension to the tonic of the higher octave involving the natural notes from the third to the seventh in the middle octave in a consecutive order and a descension down to the natural fourth through a flattened seventh, a natural sixth and a short, apparently accidental, touch on the fifth. The fifth became all the more significant when she applied it to connect the fourth and the sixth on, once again, the basis of her sense of proportion; the difference is strikingly subtle, because both Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan considered the fifth as an independent note just to put the fourth and the sixth on their relevant places not unifying them like she did. For Annapurna Devi, the fifth worked as the platinum wire that catalysed their reaction itself, remaining unaffected by even any of their presence in the frame. Her ascensions to the tonic of the higher octave, this time to stay there and expand the note, did not involve the fifth at all; instead, she touched the flattened seventh thereby introducing an interplay between the flattened and the natural seventh with the sixth as its pivot.

Annapurna Devi avoided possibilities of such misinterpretations, did not use the second note in her ascensions and rested primarily on the tonic and the mediant in the middle octave; even if some phrases ended with the natural sixth, she came back to the fourth adding a tail to it for practical reasons. Her return to the tonic always added a reference of the leading note in the previous octave, an application found more in her rendition than in any of the pair’s duets or any of their individual performances of the raga.

The Kaunsi Kanada generally demands an in-depth knowledge of the listener about the raga and the other scales close to it, sometimes homophonic but not the same. The raga, derived from the natural minor scale, has been rendered both by Annapurna Devi and Ravi Shankar individually at about the same time; both have been extremely particular about their respective presentations and their strict adherence to the traditional format of the slow unfolding of a raga. The difference in this case is a lot more intractable, because apart from the varying duration of the fifth note which generally comes in the raga as an addition to the melodic frame centred on the subdominant minor chord, Annapurna Devi used the supertonic for her ascensions and eventual turns from the flattened seventh unlike Ravi Shankar who usually took off from the tonic. 

Ravi Shankar was clear and transparent with his phrases which often made the fifth appear with more prominence than expected, but that does not make Annapurna Devi’s enigmatic phrases with an elusive fifth any less attractive; rather, the derivability of the significance of the fifth in Annapurna Devi’s performance calls for a greater scholarship and with an even deeper understanding of the raga. Both the Kaunsi Kanada and the Manj Khamaj were probably performed on the same day at the inauguration of the Kolkata branch of the Ali Akbar College of Music during her stay with her brother in the city, the time she was allegedly separated from her husband. To counter the general expectation at this point, I would certainly not romanticise her separation to draw a parallel between her state of mind and the poignancy of her performance: one could look up some of the available documents to form a largely clouded idea on this. The performance is also usually believed to be her only solo performance; in other words, her debut and finale. Her skills were, however, definitely not mindlessly laborious nor was her recital a reflection of her disconnection with the audience as we see her treating the two ragas absolutely differently with no fast-paced taans in the Kaunsi Kanada unlike in the last segment of the alaap in the Manj Khamaj in every way suggesting the basic difference between the moods of the two ragas.

Annapurna Devi teaching her pupils

When I read more on Annapurna Devi from two of her biographies by Swapan Bandyopadhyay, a recent collection of memoirs by Atul Merchant and a purportedly first-hand personal account on the household of Allauddin Khan by Jatin Bhattacharya, I was surprised not to find a single disinterested explanation with no particular favouritism in any of them save the memoirs. All her biographies do is malign Ravi Shankar, promote misandry, and eulogise her as a mother with no proper reasons so as to justify the biographer’s viewpoint. She is deified, and the parallels drawn between her deification and her name, Annapurna, meaning a goddess in Hinduism, provide her character with an unjust religious connotation, and shackles her existence as an individual social being both of which she herself might not have approved of.

Furthermore, it is important that I added, such texts have, unfortunately, given rise to a group of Ravi Shankar haters in and around the country who base their hatred not on their perception of music but on what they derive from the over-generalized analysis of his broken marriage with Annapurna Devi; they keep assuming, they are entitled to carry her ‘burden’ which gives them the sheer convenience to celebrate her submissiveness as a woman. The personal account by Jatin Bhattacharya, on the other hand, reflects the writer’s chauvinism in his advertisements of his familiarity with Annapurna Devi with an ulterior intention to romanticise his initial infatuation towards her with occasional praises for her quietude and silent authority, and perpetuate her image as a woman obligated to him for his assumed success in providing her with a virtually unwanted moral support eventually facilitating her emancipation from a failed marriage. Jatin Bhattacharya’s admittance of his unflinching scopophilia while stating that he peeped into Allauddin Khan’s classroom through a hole on the door and kept Annapurna Devi, and sometimes Ravi Shankar too, on surveillance while they took their lessons, makes his narrative filthy; more so, when he assertively refers to her hysteria attacks and persuasively puts her desire to learn ‘abnormal psychology’ from him as complementary to that, in a way hinting at a supposed derangement in her otherwise deified character. 

Annapurna Devi with her only son Shubho Shankar

The frequent references to her multi-dimensionally complicated relationship with her son, Shubho Shankar, pervaded by her strong authority over him often reciprocated with mixed reactions, also throw no light upon her ideation of the content of her expression which even Ravi Shankar doubted was only a natural outcome of her innate femininity. Both the biographies, and Jatin Bhattacharya’s account somehow confirm Annapurna Devi’s acquaintance with Rabindranath Tagore’s literary works which comes as a continuation of Allauddin Khan’s personal association with Bard, Ali Akbar Khan’s accidental meeting with him as a child, and Ravi Shankar’s unsurprising liking for him. Who can now say if her deep, firm, warm and assuring strokes that might often suck even a hypothetical prototype of her into an introspective space were not manifestations of her realisation of the existence of her inner self as she kept combining and unifying the notes, for, Tagore’s poems were largely on the search for the self, the microcosm, in the entire cosmos, and finally finding it in the multitude of all its elements assimilated proportionately?

It is nevertheless quite tough now to conclude with an assertive note on her musicianship, because her unparalleled artistry must put any critic in a fix, and I am no exception. For, at this point, my robust scholarship betrays me once again after I have been over the initial bafflement and now on my way to healing and rediscovering my sensibility which might push my humility to get the better of my pride in having successfully decoded the secret vibrations in Annapurna Devi’s music that mostly appears to be obscure. Its ‘obscurity’ lies in its impenetrability which keeps the puerile audience alienated from it. The further mythicization of it as ‘pure’ provokes me to ask in trepidation, if there exists such an ultimatum despite a thing requiring the most mindful attention.

Images courtesy: Subhadrakalyan

Subhadrakalyan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language and Literature, and has just completed his postgraduate course in Comparative Indian Language and Literature, both from the University of Calcutta. He is a practicing young Indian classical musician and has been a regular professional performer for the past fifteen years. He is an equally passionate lyricist and composer, and has two original Bangla songs to his credit. Besides, he is a dedicated academic having presented his papers at a couple of national seminars. His academic interest primarily centres on the intersection of literature and music, and he has successfully combined the two in his discourses.

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