Mystique of a maestro 

Nirmal Chander Dandriyal’s new documentary 6-A Akash Ganga will present a rare insight into the life of Annapurna Devi. 
Annapurna Devi. (Photo| Youtube screen grab)
Annapurna Devi. (Photo| Youtube screen grab)

CHENNAI: Imagine a house overlooking the serenity of the vast Arabian Sea in Mumbai and within it the whispers and memories of one of the most prolific artistes of Hindustani classical music, Annapurna Devi. The renowned surbahar (bass sitar) player was hailed as a virtuoso and seen as unmatched in her craft but soon she was to withdraw from the public eye. It is in the exploration of this enigma that Nirmal Chander Dandriyal’s new documentary 6-A Akash Ganga will present a rare insight into the life of Annapurna Devi. 

Pt Ravi Shankar
Pt Ravi Shankar

“The Sangeet Natak Akademi had approached me in 2017 to see if I could do a film on Annapurna Devi. But things were not working out so I reached out to the Annapurna Devi Foundation and her disciple Pt Nityanand Haldipur, who manages the foundation, convinced Maa (Annapurna Devi) to do this film. She agreed only to let me in the house but I was not allowed to meet her. I saw it as an interesting creative challenge with all the myths around her,” says Nirmal, three-time recipient of National Film Awards. 

The long journey of filming her life’s story was also amid which Chander directed a film for the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Guru Maa, after Devi passed away in 2018. “Guru Maa focused on her as a guru. I wanted 6-A Akash Ganga to focus on her as a guru, as a mother, as a wife and as a woman as well as explore the guru-shishya relationship. There was this lovely atmosphere in the house, which is why the film is named after the house she lived in. We also have never heard material of her so a lot of things are completely new,” he says.

Annapurna Devi’s withdrawal from public life is often relegated to her relationship with her first husband, the renowned sitar virtuoso, late Pt Ravi Shankar but the film tries to go beyond the myths. “The big story about Ravi Shankar and her life is also part of the film but the final thing for me was what she did with it; how she still gave back so much to the music world. She created these great musicians, such as Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pt Nikhil Banerjee, Pt Nityanand Haldipur,” says Nirmal. He further adds, “Even though she didn’t perform, she became this great guru. She didn’t want anything. In this day and age, when everyone is running after quick accolades, there was this musician who the whole world wanted to listen to... but she wouldn’t perform.” 

Reportedly the only outsider to hear her play after her public withdrawal was George Harrison, the lead guitarist of the famed band Beatles, whom she allowed to sit in on one daily practice session. Talking about the challenge of filming and cutting through the myths, Nirmal says, “There is hardly any material available on YouTube; the little that is available, is badly recorded and without her permission. People will agree or disagree but the effort was to not make a film on hearsay.” 

The documentary is told through the eyes of her disciple and flautist, Nityanand Haldipur, who says that her side of the story was important to be told. “It was a difficult task because there are so many things that people might not like and it is her side of the story that she never uttered to anybody except us. Her truth is what we try to show here,” he says. 

“What you will see is the final 80 minutes of a journey, so much is outside it, where one is just sitting quietly in her house, facing the Arabian Sea and the breeze hits you. These quiet moments when she’s inside the room not meeting you is what helps shape the film,” says Nirmal.

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The New Indian Express