In “Guru Maa”, director Nirmal Chander attempts to make sense of the life and times of one of the most reclusive exponents of Indian classical music

In the world of newsfeed narratives, recreating the story of an invisible maestro from the last century is a formidable challenge. Annapurna Devi, remains an enigmatic legend of the Hindustani classical world whose absence from the spotlight of a promising performing career, is matched by her mythical musicianship that was shared only with her circle of students. Known fondly as Guru Maa to her disciples, she mentored several renowned musicians including Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nikhil Banerjee, Nityanand Haldipur, Kartick Kumar, Basant Kabra, and others. Capturing her life through a documentary film, “Guru Maa”, posed a fascinating puzzle that led to a transformative journey for the director, Nirmal Chander.

The absent artist

The National Award-winning filmmaker says, “When I was approached by Sangeet Natak Akademi to make a film on Annapurna Devi, I took it up as an interesting challenge. First of all, beyond the classical music fraternity, no one knows much about her. Since she chose to live away from the public eye, people mostly know her as Pandit Ravi Shankar’s first wife, Baba Allaudin Khan’s daughter or Ali Akbar Khan’s sister. I felt this film is an opportunity for the world to get to know her beyond this. I tried to interpret her from the narratives of her disciples. She tried to make sense of life through music, I attempted to make sense of her life through the camera, as a fellow traveller.”

Nirmal Chander

Nirmal Chander  

Produced by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the film traces the contours of her life through the places she lived in and moved through – mostly focusing on Maihar where she was brought up, and Mumbai, where she lived a reclusive life after her separation from Ravi Shankar. The film follows a leisurely pace, putting together the puzzle of her life and persona through the voices of her disciples, relatives and a few family friends.

Shekhar Sen

Shekhar Sen  
| Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

The musician herself appears fleetingly on screen, through an excerpt from an interview conducted by Shekhar Sen, Chairperson, Sangeet Natak Akademi. Introducing the film at the screening, and sharing his own fond memories of frequenting her home along with his mother as a child, when she was learning from Annapurna Devi, Sen recollected, “I was given stern instructions by my mother to wait quietly, not to ask anything, or touch anything in the house. I was in awe of Guru Maa. Even her dog, named Munna, was attuned to music and could follow notes, such was the ‘mahaul’ of music and discipline!”

Annapurna Devi passed away at the age of 92, on October 13, 2018. This was just five days after Chander started working on the film. The absence of the protagonist intensified the theme of her life – an opaque public persona, a closely guarded existence, and an austere approach to music. “When I got the film, there was no one from her immediate family that I could speak with. It is not easy to access her life. In my research, I realised that the film is not about music, or a life lived in the public domain. It is about using music as a tool to reach somewhere else. I think for her it was about surrendering to music with love. Informing myself in that manner, I structured the film accordingly. The film doesn’t describe her life or analyse her music; it is simply about devotion to music.”

Silent notes

The film pieces together her early life through archival photographs, while it is also mentioned that she ‘hated the camera’. At the age of 13, she was already an accomplished surbahar player, daring to take up an instrument that was lesser-known, more challenging to play and even bigger in size compared to her petite frame. Her brother would often tease her about it, and she even had to sit on a stool to hold it properly. Yet, in her stubborn, determined way, she took this up. “I am still a child, finding my way in the world of music,” says the artist in her brief presence in the interview.

Her last known performance was in 1963. Consequently, she denounced public performance, and wilfully withdrew into oblivion. The reasons for this decision have never been clearly known but speculatively attributed to the tragic tale of the marriage breaking apart in the aftermath of professional jealousy, incompatibility, and infidelity. Why did she stop performing, and what if she hadn’t, remain the key questions that underline any work on her life and music.

For Chander, it was important to turn this question inside out, “We think in a certain way as artists, as audience and society, that is why it is so difficult for us to understand or accept this act of turning away from the active performance,” he opines. “But why is it so unbelievable? Her world was different, for her, maybe, it was natural to do so. Maybe she did not want any credit for her music, then who are we to question it! I don’t find it very strange that she didn’t perform, I can relate to it. Did she do a disservice by not performing in public? Again, who are we to judge that!” he says.

While she stopped performing, she never stopped teaching. Reflecting on her dedication as a guru, Chander says, “How do we know she was great? But you have to be a great musician to produce so many disciples of that stature.”

Music and muse

Chander’s earlier film, “Zikr Us Parivash Ka”, was about another legendary personality of Hindustani music, Begum Akhtar. Both artists occupy divergent, contrasting ends of the spectrum in terms of their persona and approach. Akhtar’s exuberant and charming public persona kept her at the helm of stage success, and her personal life was often the most openly scandalous for her era.

Reflecting on his own journey as a filmmaker, Chander says, “I feel very happy for this opportunity to make films on two women artists on different ends of the spectrum. For Begum Akhtar, the context where she came from was very different, the way she reversed the cultural narrative about tawaifs was highlighted in the film, giving them due credit. On the other hand, Annapurna Devi broke another kind of myth. We think art is for public display and applause, and she breaks that idea. To really understand this, one has to introspect and rethink one’s own art form.”

Chander points out that Annapurna Devi also played a major role in reclaiming the space for women instrumentalists in the 20th century. “Her achievement is extraordinary. We wanted to bring that out in a humble way. Choosing to play the surbahar, was an extraordinary feat, and opened up the way for so many women performers in the last century even though she herself did not perform.”

The film also deepens the poignant speculation about the idea of solitude, emotional pain, and how that translates into life and art. “Of course, she lived with a lot of pain,” reflects Chander, “to be able to live alone with that and have the strength to give, is rare. As an artist, how one processes that pain, sorrow and love, that is important. It is something she lived with and did not let it destroy her. She chose the people she wanted to share her music and life.”

In treatment and aesthetics, the film attempts to resonate Annapurna Devi’s approach to life – it is austere, inward-looking and in many ways keeps the enigma intact. “Guru Maa never sought approval from anyone, she lived with and for her art, for me, it was important that the film also expresses that. It changed me as an artist, and I hope it will make the audience also rethink their own approach to art and life.”

Lens on life

The camera captures verdant expanses and the scenic beauty of Uttarakhand, juxtaposing that to the lonely struggle of a farmer poet as he haltingly shares the journey of a lifetime. India’s nomination to the Oscars, “Moti Bagh” is Nirmal Chander’s documentary film that trails personal narratives and poetry, expanding them into larger political questions about migration, displacement and community.

A film on the enigma of 'Guru maa' Annapurna Devi

For the filmmaker, the themes are structured around his observations of the world. He feels the urge to make a film, to understand better, the world around, and within. It’s a part of me trying to make sense of the world through camera,” he shares. “For me, ‘Moti Bagh’ is deeply personal. At one level it is about my own uncle, someone I have known forever. In a way, it is also about my own roots. And then it explores larger issues around our relationship with nature, decay, loss, moving away, migration.”

The protagonist of the film is 83-year-old Vidyadutt Sharma, living in a remote Himalayan village called Sanguda in Pauri Garhwal. Immersed in poetry and farming, he survives amid abandoned villages, unravelling the world through his words and activism. “I remember the time when the entire roof of his house was blown away in the storm,” recounts Chander, “and he just sat down muttering to himself, ‘even my white hair can’t understand this cycle of nature, one moment it gives, the other moment it takes everything away!’”

The film tugs away at the idea of emerging from loss and the filmmaker paced out the film slowly to capture the entire agricultural cycle over all the seasons. “I marvel at the way Vidyadutt ji has become an inspiration for others; it takes a lifetime to understand and be one with this rhythm of nature, to make peace with it.” Reflecting on how his film has carried an unknown story into the limelight, Chander says, “We are so occupied with talking about prominent personalities, but it is these ordinary stories of everyday life that really draw me, these are our stories, and we need to recognise them as lives that are being lived extraordinarily.”

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