Sunday, October 14, 2018

It should have been the musical marriage made in heaven


That photo shows Ravi Shankar with his first wife Annapurna, who died yesterday in Mumbai aged 91. Panditayen Annapurna Devi was the daughter of Ustad Allauddin Khan, the legendary sarod player, and married Pandit Shankar in 1941. Her Muslim religion presented a formidable problem to marriage as orthodox Hinduism does not recognise conversion if the aspirant is not a caste member. This means that when a Muslim marries a Hindu in India, the Hindu usually converts to Islam. But the obstacle was neatly sidestepped by Ravi Shankar and Allauddin Khan; with Annapurna being converted by the reformed and liberal Arya Samaj Hindu sect which practices conversion.

It should have been the musical marriage made in heaven, but it was not to be. In his autobiography Raga Mala, edited by George Harrison, Ravi Shankar writes that "Annapurna is definitely the best performer of the surbahar [bass sitar]: indeed it is a pity she doesn't perform for the public". Other accounts, including that of Annapurna Devi, challenge this view; instead suggesting that Pandit Shankar suppressed his wife's public career. Thankfully Panditayen Devi continued with her teaching career out of the public eye. Her diverse students included some great names of Indian classical music - Nikhil Banerjee, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nityanand Haldipur, Basant Kabra, Amit Bhattacharya, and Amit Roy; names that still, quite undeservedly, are little-known in the supposedly diverse West. An excellent article in, ironically, Man's World of India, recounts a story that is still very relevant today in a different culture; one where, however, women are still struggling to break through the glass ceiling of the arts world.

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