In Delhi the greatest musical duo in the history of music teamed up to play Raga Yaman Kalyan in one of their five concerts together. The programme was organised by Narayan Menon in the Constitution Club Barracks, Kyne Road. In the same place, they had also played Raga Kaushi-Kanhara in one of the sittings of the Jhankar Music Circle started by Ravi Shankar. Annapurna gave another performance at the Suburban Music Circle, Santa Cruz, Bombay, after 1956, after leaving Calcutta and the Ali Akbar College of Music to live with Ravi Shankar and give the marriage a chance.
Ravi Shankar and Annapurna were back home after the recital. Annapurna went to the kitchen. Subho was busy with his pencil and sketchbook. Ravi Shankar came out after a refreshing bath. He was unusually grave.
The debate with Annapurna had just subsided. He spoke most of the time. And Annapurna stubbornly kept her silence. After the storm both of them were exhausted.
She had always been like that. She withdrew into her shell. And then she sealed herself off with an iron fence. If one knocked his head against it one would only listen to the sound of his futile knocking. Nothing else.
As they sat for dinner Ravi Shankar tried to unburden his heart.
“I am facing some problems adjusting the duet programmes...,” he said tearing away at the chapati.
“What kind of problems?” Annapurna asked but her voice lacked inquisitiveness. It seemed she already knew what her husband had in store for her.
“I am trying to put it into your head that things are changing. The wind of change is blowing. We must catch up or we would fall behind.”
“Why do you say so? Why this?”
“This is very simple. We have to bring in some modern touches to our music.”
“I do not follow...”
“Not that you do not follow. You deliberately refuse to follow. From the very first day of our marriage, I have seen that you have not tried to modify or change yourself.”
“For example?” Annapurna chipped in with a touch of sarcasm.
“I wanted you to dress up for the occasion. You just threw away the sarees and left aside the ornaments. How very odd.”
“This talk has been going on forever. I thought we’ve had enough of this. Why do you unnecessarily raise it again? Don’t you remember what I said when you complained of my showing scant regard for your suggestion? I had told you that I shall listen to what you say, wear colourful sarees and flashy ornaments, but then in that case you will have to change yourself too. You have to be faithful to me. It was not possible for you to keep your word. I made all kinds of adjustments and now you are throwing all these accusations at me. Before you call me a ziddi just search your heart. But let that go. I wonder why you are saying all these things here today?”
Ravi Shankar was accustomed to the sternness in the voice and the attitude. He said whatever he had to say.
“I know it’s all useless,” he said, “You have never seen nor will see reason. You are orthodox. Opinionated like a school mistress, a spinster, glossing over all the good things of life.”
Such words gave him a little relief and he carried on: “Listen, Anu, we cannot play like this. In fact the artists should create the prevailing taste for the audience. As in literature the poet or the novelist strives to change the taste of the reading public by introducing a new style and new idiom. If we always cling to the old, that will not do. The times are changing. We are not in the age of the maharajahs when life was slow and idle. Life now is fast and complicated. So the days for your elongated vilambit meends are out. You may get applause and appreciation now, but...”
“I am playing whatever I have learnt from Baba. He taught us the dhrupad-ang alap. I dwell on each swara for a long time and love to play alap. I do not know what the changing times will require.”
“But...” Ravi Shankar tried to intervene.
“I want to play Baba’s music whatever happens. All my life I shall play that. I won’t budge an inch,” Annapurna said.
“I know. I know. You can bring in some feeling into your music. You stick to a note and squeeze out every ounce of sur from it. Everyone raves about it. That is the beauty of the surbahar. The sitar suffers from an inferiority complex. But still I feel it is no use sticking to the old world. One should move with the times. I have decided to call it off.”
Annapurna knew it would be futile arguing with him. Ravi Shankar was a person with a marvellous sense of timing. So whatever he would decide would be best for him. Only she might not agree with him. She looked fixedly at Ravi Shankar so that he would not stop and elaborate on whatever he was thinking inside.
“This is the age of the sitar. So I prefer sitar and not the surbahar. Like this is the age of the khayal and not the dhrupad. Dhrupad may be very rich, but the modern man just cannot afford to patronise the slow movement of the dhrupad.”
Annapurna remembered Ravi Shankar could play many instruments. He had taken talim from Baba on sarod and esraj also. When Niharbindu Choudhury came from Calcutta to learn the sarod from Baba, Ravi Shankar was sitting by his side. He was to have his sitar lessons next. Baba was teaching Raga Bhimpalashree. Niharbindu failed to play a taan on the sarod. Baba Allauddin Khan thundered: “...Ravi, play it. Show him how it’s done.” Ravi Shankar was in a fix. If he did not play he would be out and if he executed the taan badly for want of practice on the sarod then his fate would be no better. Anyway, he took the sarod and played the taan. That did it.
He got acquainted with the big sitar of Lucknow’s Yusuf Ali Khan in Maihar. And that prompted him to graft some of the properties of the surbahar on the sitar. Every instrument has a unique feature of its own – the sound reproduction, the tension in maintaining the sut and ash of sur. After making the necessary changes he had left the surbahar forever.
Annapurna did not feel like replying to Ravi’s argument. She felt Ravi was suffering from an inferiority complex because she got rave reviews.
The jugalbandis, in their five or six concerts together, were enough to establish her superiority over Ravi Shankar as a performer and musician. That time Ravi did not know that she would willingly withdraw herself from public eye. She was on the rise. The connoisseurs hailed her as great. The surbahar also helped to establish her supremacy, because it is a more difficult instrument than the sitar, heavier and more satisfying musically.
Ravi was justifiably jealous. And so he elicited a vow from his wife that she would no longer play in public. There are many versions of this anecdote afloat, mostly apocryphal. Annapurna, however, told me that something worse had happened than Ravi attempting to make her take this oath. But she added that she would divulge it to none. “That will go with me when I go,” she said emphatically. This was bound to happen if the husband and wife shared the same profession. It is the male ego. For Ravi Shankar it was worse. He was ambitious and egocentric; he would not allow anyone to rule his world. Truly he was the sun and loved to shine alone in the sky. So perhaps he had decided to take her away from public performances.
Annapurna listened to her husband patiently. Yes, perhaps Panditji had guessed correctly, she thought, the world would crown the sitar. “Let that be. Whatever happens, I am not going to sacrifice the surbahar, throwing my dream to the winds. My essence is in the surbahar. But I won’t stand in his way.”
Though it is difficult to find out whether she actually played better than Ravi Shankar, however, a look at the photographs of the mehfils in which Annapurna played show her totally absorbed in her playing. Her eyes are closed and she seems totally cut off from the world, and Ravi Shankar looking admiringly at her. The body language expresses it all. Even listening to their jugalbandi in Raga Yaman, one feels that Annapurna sounds more focussed. The bass of the surbahar, the undulating meends spanning five notes, the high seriousness of approach and flawless execution leaves one spellbound.
Excerpted with permission from An Unheard Melody: Annapurna Devi, An Authorised Biography, Swapan Kumar Bondyopadhyay, Roli Books.