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MUSIC TO HIS EARS

When India’s most famous flautist sought out his elusive music guru

AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi
The right notes.

The music of Silsila owes as much to the collaborative genius of Shiv–Hari (santoor player Shivkumar Sharma and flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia) as it does to the intense training Hariprasad was receiving in classical music and flute-playing techniques from his new guru, Annapurna Devi.

In a rare book titled An Unheard Melody: Annapurna Devi, An Authorised Biography, Swapan Kumar Bandyopadhyay, her devoted student, unspools the reasons why the gifted daughter of Ustad Allauddin Khan who had fallen in love with and married her father’s student, sitar player Ravi Shankar, moved away from life with him and practised her art as almost a complete recluse. Quoting Annapurna Devi, the book says, “My first performance was a duet in Delhi. I remember Panditji telling me before the performance that I should cater a little to the public taste. My response was that I would play only what I was taught. I think the audience enjoyed my playing… Whenever I performed, people appreciated my playing, and I sensed that Panditji was not too happy with the response. I was not that fond of performing anyway, so I stopped it and continued my sadhana (meditation).”

Later in the chapter, Bandyopadhyay goes on to say that when Annapurna Devi accompanied her husband to perform at about five public concerts to raise money to alleviate his debt, comparisons were often heard being made. “It was reportedly said that in her music there was 80% Baba Allauddin Khan, while Ali Akbar had 70% and Ravi Shankar had 40%.” Such remarks would further alienate the sitarist from his wife.

[…]

When Hariprasad decides to seek out Annapurna Devi, many friends warn him he is like a child crying for the moon. Annapurna lives alone, shut up in her flat, and will not open the door to visitors. And no, she was not inclined to take students beyond the few she had already agreed to teach.

The reasons for Hariprasad seeking a guru are manifold. For one, “I was doing very well, but I was missing my classical music. There was no time for it. And I felt I was losing my touch, getting mechanical in my playing. More often than not, my interventions in the music were for ten to thirty seconds, except in rare cases. How could I grow as an artiste with that! I realised the only way to progress to where I wanted my music to go was to find a guru and immerse myself in learning.”

In the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) face-to-face interview, he cites another reason. “Sanjeev Kumar, the actor, once told me, ‘I see you as Hariprasad Chaurasia, the flautist, not as a music director sitting with a harmonium.’ The comment shocked me at first, but also touched my heart. I thought I should leave films. Why was I slogging for banks to enjoy my money?”

At home, too, he was often gently steered towards his first love, classical music. “Learn classical music, find a teacher!” Anuradha would coax, seeing her husband running day and night between studios. She felt he was losing touch with his classical roots. “I could not exploit my talent now, but I wanted him to move ahead,” she says, explaining why she repeatedly urged him to change his way of life in music

[…]

The combined result of all the prodding from different sources leads Hariprasad to seriously consider finding a guru and immersing himself in classical music again. Recollecting the advice given to him by Baba Allauddin Khan in his childhood, he decides to seek out his daughter, Annapurna Devi. “I learnt she lived in Pavlova, near the Hanging Gardens in south Bombay, so I took myself there to meet her,” he recalls. The year was 1966.

He stands at the door of the flat. Hesitantly, he knocks. Softly at first. Then, receiving no response, a bit louder. The door opens. He asks to meet Annapurna Devi. But when he does see her, he finds himself at a loss for words

“Why have you come?” she asks.

“For a darshan (visit),” he replies.

She responds with, “Why me? Go and have a darshan of Ravi Shankar.”

He tells her about the meeting with her father, Baba Allauddin Khan, and the advice the musician had given him to learn from her. She listens to him, then is silent. He can sense she is angry. She says nothing for a long while.

“I play the surbahar, not the bansuri (flute),” she tells him. And nothing else. He senses her rejection. And paying his respects, gets up and leaves.

As he puts it, Hariprasad would keep “visiting her for three years and repeating my request, but she kept turning me away.” He would also notice signs of the diverse paths between Annapurna Devi and her celebrated husband. “He would dress very differently by then, his clothes were very modern. It was obvious he was in a different world.”

The three years would see Annapurna Devi’s marriage coming to an end. In 1968, along with her twenty-five-year-old son, Shubhendra, she would shift out of Pavlova and move to a small flat in Akash Ganga on Peddar Road.

“Now she would say she was busy in chores around the house, and had no time to teach me,” Hariprasad says of his visits to Annapurna Devi at Akash Ganga, “but I persisted and kept going back.”

[…]

Anuradha recalls the years Hariprasad spent persuading Annapurna Devi to be his guru. “For three years, he would visit her two or three times a month. She would ask him questions like an inquisitor, and send him away. She was adamant but he was just as stubborn. She told him, ‘You already have money, and are a flautist; I play the surbahar. How can I teach you?’ He told her, ‘I want gyan, teach me what you know in surbahar, music is music. I have come to you to learn music.’ When she finally started teaching, she would teach him by singing, alaap, jod, jhala, which is more vocal than instrumental. It was amazing listening to her voice. I used to go along too.”

Hariprasad remembers the day Annapurna relented. “Finally, one day, she asked me what I did for a living. ‘I play in films,’ I told her. To my surprise, she said, ‘I have heard that someone plays the flute very well in films… so it’s you!’ I could see her sudden interest in me. After a long moment she said, ‘Let’s hear something.’”

Hariprasad says he took out his flute and played Raga Yaman, very nervously. Annapurna Devi listened intently. “You are already an ustad (master). Why do you want to learn from me?” she wanted to know. When Hariprasad responded, saying he wanted to delve into the classical, learning from the very beginning, she told him, “I will call you—the mood and time depends on me.”

Hariprasad had to be content with that. But his tapasya (penance) was finally bearing fruit.

Excerpted from Sathya Saran’s Hariprasad Chaurasia: Breath of Gold with permission from Penguin Random HouseWe welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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