Guru Maa portrays Annapurna Devi tenderly, as a devout musician who shared an enriching relationship with art

Anupam Kant Verma

Oct 20, 2019 09:55:12 IST

Guru Maa is a tender, lovingly assembled tribute to Annapurna Devi, a legendary figure in Indian classical music. Shot in multiple cities, it features interviews with fellow musicians and devout disciples, all of whom are in thrall to her enormous talent and uniquely elusive personality. Devi’s unparalleled prowess on the surbahar, a tricky instrument to master, is matched by the near mythical status she acquired during her lifetime. Only three recordings of her performances exist, all made secretly, for she quit performing in public in 1964, was famously camera-shy and hardly ever stepped out of her house in South Bombay where she continued to teach her students individually till she passed away last year.

Devi poured her being into music without desire for fame or applause. And it only served to fortify her legend among those in the classical music fraternity. Therefore, it is noteworthy that director Nirmal Chander Dandriyal manages to assemble a documentary that isn’t distracted from her umbilical ties to music by the sheer weight of the myth surrounding her. Devi’s pursuit of music was imbued with a purity that’s at odds with modernity owing to its childlike fervour and a true devotee’s sensibility. Dandriyal attempts to do the same with this 69-minute ode to a titan of contemporary art.

 Guru Maa portrays Annapurna Devi tenderly, as a devout musician who shared an enriching relationship with art

Annapurna Devi with her father, Allauddin Khan

Annapurna Devi was born in Maihar, Madhya Pradesh. Her father, Allauddin Khan, founded the famed Maihar gharana and taught her and her brother, the sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan. Her marriage to her first husband, Ravi Shankar, who took the sitar out into the world, and her complex relationship with her son contributed to the course her life would take. She would marry again in 1982. Things would come and go. But music would remain the only constant in her life. She’d turn away from the public but continue to teach scores of musicians whose artistry, edified by her knowledge, would enthrall audiences far and wide.

Also read on Firstpost ⁠— Annapurna Devi passes away: A glimpse into the mind of the elusive Indian classical music legend

Her disciples from all corners of the classical music world enliven the documentary with anecdotes from their interactions with Devi. They provide insights into her pedagogical method and her intuitive command of music. She would encourage her students to develop an individual style that resonated with their being. It sounds easier than it is. For it would require them to dig deep into themselves, far beyond the realm of technique, and mine for the traits that rendered them unique. She was by all accounts a demanding teacher. But she was cognisant of the long journey that artists must take in spite of their gifts and she knew that the journey is always only beginning. She reiterates the same thought in the rare video interview that features in the film.

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Devi's was a life spent giving the greatest gift of all: her self mined from her extraordinary duet with music itself

Dandriyal never tries to give a definitive answer for her shunning public performances for good. He lets talking heads provide their views on the subject. It’s obviously a personal decision and must be respected as such. The music that once reverberated in her apartment and that now lives on in the performances of her many students thus remains the subject of the documentary. Dandriyal trawls through the scant archival material and meets as many people as he can to gain an understanding of her relationship with music. He finds notebooks where she jots down thoughts and musical notes from her father. His camera roves and caresses the nearly 70-year-old surbahar that Devi played on and kept in mint condition till the end of her life. The camera floats through the rooms that she once moved and played in, as if trying to pick up snatches of music that might have lodged themselves in the niches and corners. Throughout, graceful, languid and extraordinarily simple musical notes play over the images, establishing presence from the weight of absence.

The Annapurna Devi that comes through Guru Maa is a devout musician who enriched and was in turn enriched by music. Her saintly aspect hangs above the documentary. A person who perplexes even her fellow musicians with her remarkable austerity and immaculate dexterity. To peddle a cliche, a person from another time. The more she understood life, the deeper she went into the arms of music, until it became synonymous with her life. A life spent giving the greatest gift of all: her self mined from her extraordinary duet with music itself.

Updated Date: Oct 22, 2019 09:28:27 IST