A recent special screening of a performance of a young Gangubai Hangal from the Doordarshan archive in New Delhi was a one-of-a-kind experience. If only DD thought of making such recordings more widely available
Why can’t our public broadcasters take our rich musical heritage seriously? They either show apathy towards it or, even when they take an interest, they do a shoddy job. All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan (DD) had fabulous archives which attracted nothing but neglect from the authorities for a long time, and when the realisation dawned on the powers-that-be that this treasure had to be saved, a large number of priceless recordings — both audio and video — had been lost for ever. Both the AIR and DD have brought out some excellent recordings in the form of audio CDs and DVDs for the benefit of music lovers but both have followed a warped marketing policy that makes little sense in today’s world. They shy away from introducing their CDs and DVDs in music shops and one has to go to their retail outlets — for example, the offices off AIR and DD Directorate General in Delhi — to buy them. This has resulted in these recordings not reaching their target audience in full measure.
Perhaps the authorities in DD too sensed this and held special screenings of its DVDs on M.S. Subbulakshmi, Bhimsen Joshi and M.L. Vasanthakumari at the India International Auditorium in New Delhi this June. Last Tuesday, its DVD, originally released in 2007, on the great Kirana gharana vocalist Gangubai Hangal, was featured in this series and it was heartening to see that the auditorium was nearly full despite the scorching heat outside.
However, one was disappointed that nobody from DD was present to introduce the series or the film. A note carrying an extract from N. S. Kulkarni’s conversation with the legendary singer was distributed and it obviously referred to Gangubai in the present tense. A less informed person would have thought that she was still alive.
The film opened with a vintage recording of Yaman sung by a middle-aged Gangubai Hangal, accompanied as always by her gifted daughter Krishna, and it became clear to the viewer why she was considered to be one of the great vocalists of the last century. Yaman is one of the most common yet most difficult ragas in the Hindustani system and it poses the same challenge to the musician as a chessboard would to a grandmaster who knows that every move has already been attempted by other players. The recording brought back many memories of unforgettable concerts of Gangubai that this writer had the privilege to attend. She always hit the bull’s eye and did not believe in beating around the bush. Her Yaman was a very fine specimen of chaste classicism and a no-nonsense approach to music. When she sang, the diminutive and frail Gangubai looked like a colossus on the stage, always in total command of the situation. The recordings of Shuddh Kalyan, Kalawati, Miyan Ki Todi, and Jogia showed Gangubai in her advanced years. The film once again made one aware of the mystery regarding Krishna Hangal who was such a good singer but never tried to create a space for herself as an independent artiste and remained contented with accompanying her mother. Her death was a great blow to Gangubai.
Gangubai Hangal’s greatness as a vocalist becomes apparent when one thinks about her unusually masculine voice. Contrary to what many would believe, she had an utterly feminine voice in her youth and her 78 rpm recordings of the 1930s and 1940s bear witness to this. However, her voice underwent a complete change after she was operated upon for tonsillitis. But, instead of losing heart, Gangubai rose to greatness and made the best use of her masculine voice. In fact, she felt blessed that now she could sing like her guru Sawai Gandharva.
One hopes that DD will assign classical music the pride of place it deserves by not consigning its programmes to late night slots. Holding special screenings of its DVDs is a welcome step but unless these DVDs are marketed well, such efforts will not go a long way to improve the situation.