Annapurna Devi obituary

Other lives: Indian musician and teacher

Annapurna Devi, who has died aged 91, was the first wife of the famous sitar player Ravi Shankar. She was also a talented musician and teacher in her own right.

Born Roshanara Khan in Maihar (now part of Madhya Pradesh), India, she was the daughter of Madanmanjari Devi and Allauddin Khan, a celebrated maestro, who was the court musician of the maharaja of Maihar. Annapurna, her brother, Ali Akbar, and Ravi Shankar were Allauddin’s pupils. She did not go to school but was taught to read and write Bengali by her parents.

A shy and unassuming person, Annapurna was only 14 when she married. She understood English but found it difficult to speak. Her mother tongue was Bengali. The more cultured Shankar, who was then 21, was fluent in English and French, as well as Bengali and Hindi.

Theirs was an arranged marriage to which both had agreed, and it was unusual since she was a Muslim and he was a Hindu. She converted to Hinduism and the marriage was performed according to Hindu rites. This was at a time, in 1941, when India was being torn apart by communal riots. Those who promoted Hindu-Muslim unity hailed the marriage as an example for the entire country.

She played the surbahar (bass sitar) and often appeared with her husband at festivals. Yet, often, Annapurna claimed, it was she who got the more favourable reviews, saying: “[Ravi] was not happy as I received more appreciation than he did from both the audience and critics whenever we performed together.”

Shankar denied these claims, but eventually Annapurna stopped performing in public. The couple separated in the mid-1960s, and formally divorced in 1982, when Annapurna married Rooshikumar Pandya, a sitar player and her former student. Shankar became world famous and Annapurna withdrew to a self-imposed obscurity. She refused to perform, but continued to teach music and meditate.

Through friends, I was once taken to meet Annapurna in her Mumbai flat, and sat in on her lessons. She was very precise and her improvisations while developing a raga were incredible. It is no wonder that when she performed in public both audiences and critics were as hypnotised as I was.

Annapurna’s son from her first marriage, Shubhendra, died in 1992. Rooshikumar died in 2013.

In later life, Annapurna became a recluse. Occasionally she would go to her balcony and feed the pigeons. She doted on Munna, her faithful dachshund.


Reginald Massey

The GuardianTramp

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