Gangubai Hangal: That strong, unique voice

March 10, 2022 06:48 pm | Updated 06:48 pm IST

Gangubai Hangal in Bangalore.

Gangubai Hangal in Bangalore. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Gangubai Hangal, who would have turned 110 on March 5, was a sparkling facet of the Kirana gharana

Gangubai hardly looked or behaved like the diva that she was. Her articulation was uncluttered and more often pointed to something very profound. In an interview, she once said: “Music is an art for the listener and the performer. Once the boundaries of the physical are crossed by the artiste and the audience, there remains no difference between them — the passage of experience will be the same for both.” She continued: “To relish Hindustani music, there is no need to be knowledgeable about the musical form. What you need is a good heart and a sharp mind. Both of these belong to the experiential realm. Knowledge at times helps, but also disturbs. I have seen enlightened audiences carrying out dry discussions on the subtleties of a raga or a form. But for an intuitive listener, the experience can be far deeper.”

Gangubai’s words echo the words of eminent musicologist Sheila Dhar in her essay: ‘The Raga: An Inward Journey’. The central object of a classical musician’s labour, she says, is not the cultivation of a beautiful tone, but the development of an almost limitless capability in articulation.

Thus, for the initiated listener, truth lies in the experience and not the beauty of voice. For Gangubai, music was her purpose, the voice was a mere medium — of this she was never in doubt. Nevertheless, her voice did become the focus of discussions and continues to remain so.

Most critics who wrote about Gangubai’s music could hardly resist the temptation of making a comment about her voice. Contemporary and younger generation musicians succumbed to this enticement as well; not surprising, considering the resounding power that her voice exuded. But what they all universally agreed to was the purity of her music. “Her voice is strong, not syrupy. It does not appeal to sweetness at all,” senior critic Raghava Menon wrote in his book, Indian Music. He compared her baritone timbre to the church bell — strong and chaste, resonant and carrying. Eventually, what emerged from her music was a noble passion and supreme strength of character. And voice did become, at the end of the recital, a trivial issue for the listener as well.

Significance of shadja

Gangubai’s voice was not the kind that soared three octaves effortlessly; however, between the lower shadja and the upper shadja, she painted a picture of totality. Interestingly, a lot has been written and said about how musicians treat their shadja. The character and temperament of their music is largely determined by their treatment of this fixed (sthayi) note. Abdul Karim Khan’s shadja had a mesmeric quality; Bhimsen Joshi’s shadja bore resemblance to Kesarbai Kerkar’s shadja of bold and emotive resonances.

True to the Kirana stamp, Gangubai was also a pursuer of the ‘sur’. For her, tradition was of immense value. She would say, “It is the labour of one who teaches and the one who learns.” When the air of change and novelty was blowing across the country, it was only Gangubai and Hirabai Barodekar who dared to stand up for convention. Tradition, for Gangubai (or Hirabai), was not conservatism, but a deep reverence for the knowledge that was passed on by the guru, a belief that it was complete. New depths had to be found within the framework of tradition itself.

Faith in the guru and her art was above everything else for Gangubai, hence she never had to battle with the effects of increasing commercialisation of music. Her music and her persona were never two different things: one was always the extension of the other.

Like her guru, she had a voice that was not very compliant: the initial minutes of a performance were always a raging battle between body and spirit, but she was not one to be cowed down. She battled with it out in the open, for all to see. The rugged masculinity of her voice is a stunning metaphor of her life and music entrenched in hardships. A Bhairav rendition at the Sawai Gandharva Festival, Pune, perhaps in the 90s, just refused to take flight. A voice that had gone as stiff as starch and an imagination that simply refused to find a language left her rendition dry and listless. But Gangubai held on for a good 50 minutes, trying to coax it with her solid faith, and what followed was a moving Hindol.

Gangubai Hangal.

Gangubai Hangal. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Emphasis on melody

The Abdul Karim Khan school of the Kirana Gharana emphasised more on melody and less on rhythm. In the true spirit of the founder of the gharana, Sawai Gandharva and all his students — Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal and Firoze Dastur — sang with their soul. It became impossible for any musician of independent India to resist the charm of these musicians. Abdul Karim Khan saab never indulged in complicated taan patterns; instead, his alaap was long and contemplative.

But a close study of his lineage reveals that, except for Bhimsen Joshi and Roshan Ara Begum, no other practitioner of the gharana employed complex taan patterns. An old recording of Roshan Aara Begum’s rendition of Jaunpuri is a case in point. Richly imaginative, her alaap is mellifluous; her boltaans and murkhis are sharp and nuanced. Roshan Aara’s inflections are Bhimsen Joshi’s too. The short, stunning rendition of Shuddh Kedar ‘Sawan ki boondaniyan’ captures the genius of Bhimsen Joshi completely. His long, breathtaking taans are replete with complex combinations of swaras. If the former’s rendition is torrential, the latter’s is serene. Yet, both deep and both touching.

A quintessential practitioner of the Kirana was perhaps Gangubai. Her music was austere and ascetic. She adhered to the gharana tradition marked by a slow tempo and the gradual unfolding of the ragas.

Gangubai Hangal performing at a felicitation function organised by Sri Rama Kala Vedike at Ravindra Kalakshetra in Bengaluru in 2006.

Gangubai Hangal performing at a felicitation function organised by Sri Rama Kala Vedike at Ravindra Kalakshetra in Bengaluru in 2006. | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash_K

Musical possibilities

Each note was a melodic idea, and was elongated in a manner that evoked tranquility. This is perhaps why the treatment of the shadja is so crucial to the Kirana practitioners. It seems as if the spirit of the musician merges with the spirit of the note.

Even when one is a strong adherent of tradition, it is rare that a student is a carbon copy of her guru. The guru’s thoughts and ideas pass through the student’s creative process and synthesise into an independent creation. So, even as the gharana tradition remains inviolate, new musical possibilities integrate with each new artiste.

One can observe these features in ragas that are sung by the Kirana practitioners. Take, for instance, Shuddh Kalyan. Gangubai carves exquisite glides as she descends into the mandra through the notes ‘sa’ and ‘dha’ while rendering the raag. Even Pooriya Dhanashree, her repeated enunciation of the swara cluster ‘ni, rie, ga, ma – ma, pa – dha, pa – ma, ga, rie, sa’ for the celebrated bandish ‘Ab to rutuman’ scales new emotional heights each time. When Gangubai engaged in repetition, she lent extraordinary force and intensity. Her renditions with long meend phrases and extraordinary taans had a sustained tension. Her singing neither had the magnificence of Sawai Gandharva nor the brilliance of Bhimsen Joshi, yet it had a distinct spiritual edge. Gangubai carved out a style of her own.

The writer is the author

of the book, A Life in Three Octaves - The Musical Journey of Gangubai Hangal.

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