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Grand legend

A woman of extraordinary talent and courage, Gangubai Hangal has kept her place in the male-dominated world of Hindustani music for almost a century, writes LAKSHMI VISWANATHAN.


Holding her own — Gangubhai Hangal has dedicated her life to the arduous cultivation of her style of expression.

ON March 5, Gangubai Hangal, the renowned Hindustani vocalist, celebrated her 93rd birthday. A news item informed her rasikas that her grandson planned to open a cultural centre, designating the Hangal home as a museum for music as a tribute to this grand lady.

I first heard her sing when I was a child. It was in the 1950s that Gangubai, accompanied by her daughter Krishna and brother Seshagiri who played the tabla, made her first concert appearance in Madras. She was our guest for nearly a month. With eager expectation, we went to her first concert.

What struck me, as well as all those who came to hear her, was that this tiny woman just grew in stature on stage. Her booming voice was a total surprise. With an air of authority and an almost masculine majesty, she filled the open-air auditorium in Triplicane with the sonorous strains of her guru Sawai Gandharwa's style of singing. It was almost the first time that we heard a Hindustani musician explore every nuance of the raga Abhogi.

One of four celebrities

Belonging to the Kirana Gharana, Gangubai's music was filled with bhakti. Her voice, which was both husky and robust, had a timbre that left a deep impression on the listeners. She took Madras by storm. In the shadow of this wave of appreciation, she remained a simple woman, wearing a nine-yard Poona cotton sari at home, doing her riaz (practice) and treating us to several impromptu sessions of soulful music.

Gangubai is one of the four Kannadiga celebrities of Hindustani music. The others are Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva and Bhimsen Joshi. She may not have a high profile like the men in this pantheon. Nevertheless she has held her own and has dedicated her life to the arduous cultivation of her style of expression. Her followers know her emotional involvement with music and appreciate her personal commitment to creative endeavour.

These qualities have earned her a pride of place among the great musicians of our time. She always did justice to the Khayal in all its intricacy, taking her time over the alaap in slow tempo, and thundering her way through the fast swaras. She gave new dimensions to raga Khamaj. Durbari Kanada, which Gangubai usually began in the lower octaves, was also a raga suited to her majestic style.

She knew the power of each note and filled the air with the right rasa that the raga represented. Perhaps because of her South Indian leanings, Gangubai, like Kishori Amonkar after her, reserved devotional songs for the latter half of a concert. The Thumri was not part of her repertoire.

One can safely assume that she led the way in making Hindustani music a pathway to bhakti. While she did this with deep involvement, she never compromised with the wide spectrum of classical nuances.

Gangubai was born into a musical family in Dharwad. Her mother Ambabai is said to have taught the young Gangubai Carnatic music with a variety of Tyagaraja's compositions.

This laid the foundation for her later prowess in swara singing. Soon she was listening to gramophone records of Hindustani music, particularly the popular Marathi "Natya Sangeet".

Sensing her interest, her mother put her under a Hindustani music guru Krishnacharya Hulgur. She even learnt Kathak from Shamlal and Prataplal, the Jaipur brothers who were then in Hubli.

A start at 16


... the early years.

But fate had ordained her for music. She was 16 when put under Sawai Gandharva, after a typical ceremony gandhabandhan, at which 20 tolas of gold was given as gurudakshina.

Sawai Gandharva lived in the village of Kundgol near Hubli. Here Gangubai's talents were fine-tuned. This was in the 1930s, when Gangubai — a young mother herself — struggled to do her sadhana.

Her mother's death made her more determined to pursue a career in music and she gradually gained a footing in the right direction. Over time, she became a name to reckon with and went on to prove her might as a musician in many national festivals.

Her debut was at the Belgaum session of the Indian National Congress in 1924. But her concert career took off in 1933 in Bombay. Immediately noticed by HMV, she started cutting discs.

Gangubai received several honours in recognition of her music. Padma Bhushan, Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Tansen Samman are just a few top accolades. Gangubai has toured abroad, notably France, the U.S., Canada and Germany.

A purist and a traditionalist, Gangubai has always believed in the classical tradition of music. But she has never denied the usefulness of adaptation to changing times. She has never believed in image building at the cost of honest music.

She has also expressed herself in interviews, favouring solid learning under a guru, and shunning meaningless experimentation.

As one who knows both Hindustani and Carnatic music, she has said "The two systems have enjoyed peaceful co-existence without shedding their basic character and identity. Shouldn't we leave them alone to grow and prosper on their own?"

Gangubai is a legend in her lifetime. Her stature does not stand in her way of expressing her affection to old friends with spontaneity. A woman of extraordinary talent and courage, she has kept her position in the male dominated world of vocal music right through a whole century.

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