The enigmatic Annapurna Devi died in Mumbai at 91 last week. Her gift with the subahar and as a singer were legendary; but almost no one ever heard either, except if very selectively allowed into her home as a disciple. In her youth, she was also the first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar. In an attempt to quell his jealousy and salvage their marriage, she took a vow that she would cease to publicly perform, and continued to keep it even after their divorce.
The Malayalam author KR Meera has spoken often of women she met when she was a young journalist who were introduced to her as the wives of eminent men, but whose true talents had been suppressed. As she once told me in an interview, a particular incident illustrated this state of affairs. An elderly woman who was married to the great man she had come to meet seemed especially intrigued by Meera’s work. Out of politeness, Meera asked her if she had ever been a writer herself. As the author recounted to me, “The graceful woman who was the incarnation of love, care and compassion turned angry and ferocious, and said: Used to write? Who? Me? This man sitting here saw me for the first time on a stage while I was reciting poetry. The great poet Vallathol had blessed me, saying, ‘You are Saraswati, the goddess of learning’. And this fellow fell in love with me and married me and then what? My literary career ended then and there.And he was climbing up the ladder while I was toiling in the kitchen and giving birth to his kids.”
Annapurna Devi, too, had been called the embodiment of Saraswati. By her father, the celebrated composer and musician Allauddin Khan. One could say he was possibly biased, except that he had first refused to teach her music. He had educated Annapurna’s older sister, and because this had caused problems in her marriage, he’d refused to teach the younger girl. She’d learned from simply listening to others’ lessons, and when her father eventually discovered her talent, he felt compelled to begin her formal studies in music. Eventually, it was an unfortunate marriage that thwarted her career too.
Some obituaries of Annapurna Devi romanticise her reclusiveness and praise what is perceived as her non-attachment to the material world. Doubtlessly, she found a way to sublimate her creativity into a spiritual life, of which teaching was an extension. But it’s dangerous to call that her choice. It’s, firstly, an erasure of her truth, which she shared in rare interviews in which she did not mince words about Ravi Shankar’s abusive and deceitful nature. But it’s also dangerous for all those out there whose passions are simply called hobbies, who rub the ink on their fingertips onto their aprons and watch as the words they wanted to inscribe evaporate like steam from a boiling pan, whose thoughts unfold in ragas they must wait for a secret hour to hum, who hide their illustrations inside plain notebooks that lie like obsolete currency in locked drawers. To call such sacrifice a choice is to abet their suppression.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.