Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The unmaking of a virtuoso..

Few in the annals of Indian classical music have achieved greater virtuosity, global fame and unfading aura of mystic lure than Pandit Ravi Shankar - the renowned sitarist, who died in San Diego a couple of years ago.. His transcendental concentration, absorption and austere stage presence has thrilled audiences all over the world. Since his migration to the United States in the early sixties, to join his brother- the versatile dancer Uday Shankar; they helped forge the deep traditions of the Hindustani music and classical dance forms within the ambit of other popular genres; and gave their successors and fellow artists a platform to explore and experiment. It would be fair to say that they were the first to step out of conservative restraints that tightly bound the schools of Indian art, and give it a voice that was truly universal.

However, this short essay is not about him. But about Ravi Shankar’s ex-wife Annapurna Devi, daughter and protégé of the legendary Ustad Allauaddin Khan. She was christened with a Hindu name by Maharaja of Maihar, where her father was the court musician. Ravi Shankar and she learnt the rich nuances of the Sitar from the same master; married each other for convenience in 1941, and divorced in 1961. When Ravi met her in the home of his guru, she was already an accomplished bass sitar artist. What came laboriously to Ravi, swelled effortlessly in her. Even today, when one hears a rare recording of Annapoorni (where else, but on YouTube) one can feel an electric artistry that flowed out her fingers. The swiftness, the gusto and controlled speed seems almost magical to be true. For twenty years, the duo performed together to enthralled audiences. Those who had privilege of being a part of their concerts vividly remember the magic they created on stage. The Measured nuances of Ravi; the gay abandon of his wife, transformed Raagas Yaman and Kaushi into raptures of spiritual and cathartic delight. Interestingly, it was Annapurna who gathered all the applauses. The duo was great together, but it was her subtle mesmerizing touches of brilliance that raised the bars of excellence. It is ironical but true, and history vindicates that the male ego has always been a suspect when the better half overshadows his majesty. And Ravi, a gifted mortal (after all!!!) began to suffer pangs of jealousy; and its repercussions cut through the seams of their relationship. The subdued, conservative and affectionate Annapurna had a difficult choice to make: the preservation of marital bliss, or pursuit of her inner gift. She chose the latter, but unfortunately, lost the first in the process as well. She secluded herself from society and stopped performing on stage, after Ravi left her in 1961. Those divine fingers were silenced to bear the pains of separation and hurt. But life ensured that such talent cannot go wasted, and slowly over the years, she took into her fold young vibrant artists like Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nikhil Banerjee among few others– who absorbed the distilled juice of her creativity, and transcended it in their own ways. However, she chose not to come back to limelight, or seek to touch the taut strings of her Sitar again in public.

As a side note, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s “Abhimaan” was loosely based on the story of Ravi and Annapurna. Hrsihida was close to the Shankar’s and did not quite relish the abandonment of Annapurna at the height of her prowess. His magnificent rendition of the trauma, jealousy and its reconciliation (a deviation from actual life...) remains an outstanding biopic on the frailty of marital vows, and the practical inequality of it. It remains one of my favorite films.

The Times of India carried a short news item today about Annapurna Devi that triggered this essay from me. As I read that article, I remembered Will Durant’s words of wisdom “….no man will go down the hill of life with a woman who has climbed it with him…” The young Ravi Shankar gained his individuality through his consort as they climbed the staircase to artistic perfection; but to sustain it, cost her a deal more than him…..

God bless….

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