Our world has always been a man’s world. Countless talented and gifted women have been lost, their names erased from our history because men couldn’t bear to see them soar and become successful. Women have been put on a pedestal for their talents, but very quickly brought down too when it threatened certain men. They were then locked up, and when they tried to break free, they were demonized. Such was the case with Annapurna Devi.
We all know about Pandit Ravi Shankar, the renowned and legendary Indian sitarist and composer who was the receiver of the prestigious Bharat Ratna. We are well aware of his artistic prowess with a musical career spanning over decades in the domain of Indian classical music.
But what a lot of people do not know is that his wife, Annapurna Devi, was considered an even better musician than him.
Annapurna Devi was the daughter of the great Ustad Allauddin Khan and the sister of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Coming from a musically-invested family, she quickly became a master of the surbahar and the sitar. On May 15, 1941, she was converted to Hinduism and married to Pandit Ravi Shankar according to Hindu rites.
According to an article published by Man’s World, connoisseurs and music critics believe that she is a more gifted musician than her husband, Ravi Shankar. In fact, Ustad Amir Khan once said, “Put Ravi Shankar, Pannalal (Ghosh) and me on one side and put Annapurna on the other and yet her side of the scale will be heavier.”
Anybody who witnessed Annapurna Devi perform within close proximity to Ustad Ravi Shankar could see how insecure he was of her musical prowess. He knew she was better than him, the audience knew it, fellow musicians knew it, everyone knew it. And that angered Ravi Shankar.
“She was outshining him. He would play a raga, and she would follow it up playing faster, and Pandit ji was very clearly not happy with it,” said a music teacher from Chennai, Shakuntala Narsimhan who attended Annapurna Devi’s one of the last concerts at a music academy (unnamed), reported The Print.
“Whenever I performed, people appreciated my playing and I sensed that Panditji was not too happy about their response. I was not that fond of performing anyway so I stopped it and continued my sadhana,” Annapurna Devi herself had revealed.
His insecurity and ego came in the way of their marital bliss and caused massive discord in their relationship. To save their marriage, she even vowed never to perform in public again. But even a sacrifice so great as this couldn’t save their marriage, which eventually ended in divorce.
There was also this one significant incident in Annapurna Devi’s life which strengthened her resolve to never perform in public. She was on the receiving end of widespread slut-shaming and character assassination after a rumour spread about her having an extramarital affair with Bimal Ghosh, a friend of Ravi Shankar. In a documentary, Annapurna Devi’s students revealed that the rumours were downright false and fabricated by Ravi Shankar himself to defame her.
“It was almost like she didn’t want to let any sentiment pollute her art, her music. The minute Ravi Shankar’s gaze of contempt and jealousy fell on her art, she snatched that power from him by giving up the stage. She became a musician without an audience,” wrote The Print.
She spent the rest of her life in her apartment – 6-A Akash Ganga in Mumbai – teaching her craft to a handful of students who later went on to become some of the greatest musicians of our country. These students were Nikhil Banerjee, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur, Basant Kabra, Amit Bhattacharya, and Amit Roy.
She passed away on October 13, 2018, at the age of 91.
Let us remember her not as a “could have been”, but as the greatest of all time.