Though she is one of the key figures in the pantheon of contemporary Hindustani music, Gangubai Hangal has still not received the kind of attention that some of her contemporaries like Bhimsen Joshi or Mallikarjun Mansur have.
MOHAN NADKARNI profiles this unusual artiste and her powerful music. Illustrated Weekly of India, October 25, 1987
Music cannot be performed without feeling. Your flaws and mistakes are not important, compared to the devotional feeling you have shown,” intoned the great Yehudi Menuhin at a gathering of musicians and connoisseurs during one of his visits to Bombay in the sixties.
This observation comes to mind whenever I think of the music of Gangubai Hangal. It is not difficult to find an artiste with a more mellifluous voice and a wider range than Gangubai’s; there are also veterans with a much wider raga repertoire than hers. Gangubai’s achievement lies in her thorough command of her medium of expression through years of arduous practice. Added to this is her deep sense of emotional involvement and personal commitment to her art. These qualities have earned her pride of place among the great musicians of our time.
Gangubai Hangal is one of the four Kannadiga celebrities (Mallikarjun Mansur, Bhimsen Joshi and Kumar Gandharva being the other three) whose contribution to the enrichment of Hindustani music is abiding and significant. At 74, she is the second oldest Hindustani vocalist from Karnataka still active on the stage.
Paradoxical but true, a Gangubai concert is a rarity in a music-conscious metropolis like Bombay. If she has not been heard as often as her confreres, it is because the sponsors of periodical concerts and commercially organised sangeet sammelans, moving in a vicious circle of their own making seem to believe that her music does not command much ‘popular appeal’. But the position is, more often that not, quite the contrary.
I had the opportunity of enjoying three of Gangubai’s concerts in the course of the last few months, in Bombay, and at Bangalore and Hubli. At all these mehfils, although advancing age seemed to be telling on her muscle power, it was so only initially. It took her little time to regain her form and enthrall audiences with her contemplative singing.
Her Bombay concert, the finale to the soirees organised in honour of the birth centenary of her illustrious guru, Sawai Gandharva, proved to be the most moving. From beginning to end, her impassioned offerings of Bihag and Nat Malhar were suffused with something far deeper than a mere display of an art cultivated through a lifetime of deliberate concentration. The very spirit of her mentor’s music permeated her being, and every note, every phrase, every pattern poured forth as a consecration to the departed stalwart. The robustness and clarity of her voice and the assertive dignity of her manner completely belied her age.
Gangubai’s is possibly the only female voice which is very unfeminine in tonal quality. Although she once told me that tonsillitis and the subsequent operation she had to undergo, while still in her early twenties changed the character of her voice, one is inclined to infer that it had some inherent limitations – as was also the case with Sawai Gandharva. But like the guru the shishya also turned her shortcomings to her advantage. She evolved a style that was her own and not a blind imitation of her master. And she perfected it to suit her own voice and temperament. The masculine quality of her loud but musical voice invests her renditions with a verve and vigour all her own, as much as her easy transitions from one saptaka to another carry a typical punch.
Born at Dharwad, now in Karnataka, Gangubai Hangal comes of a musical family. She had her lessons in Carnatic music from the age of seven from her mother Ambabai who first put her daughter through a course of rigid swara sadhana and then taught her a variety of Tyagaraj kritis. Gangubai acknowledges that her mother’s sound knowledge of sarigama (notations) provided her with the solid foundation for swaras.
When and how did she switch over to Hindustani music? According to Gangubai, she was fascinated by the music that was played by shops selling gramophone records in the city market area. She would listen to classical and Marathi stage songs with rapt attention and keep humming them at home. Sensing her daughter’s inclinations, Ambabai put the youngster under the tutelage of Krishnacharya Hulgur, a noted musician from the Hindustani parampara. In the course of this two-year studentship, Gangubai learnt as many as 70 drut compositions in various ragas from her guru.
Not many are aware of her two-year stint in training in Kathak, side by side with her grooming in music. Shamlal and Prataplal, the dancer brothers from Jaipur, were teaching Kathak in Hubli at the time and Gangubai was attracted to this dance form. But she gave up her new pursuit on the advice of her mother and music teacher, as dancing, according to them, could prove harmful to her voice.
Soon after, there was a short break in her musical training as well. At her mother’s request Dattopant Desai, a family friend and vocalist by inclination, coached the teenager and later persuaded his friend Sawai Gandharva to give her further training. Gangubai was 16 when Sawai Gandharva took her on as his disciple with a formal ganda-bandhan ritual at which 20 tolas of gold were presented to the master as gurudakshina.
As is well known, Sawai Gandharva (Rambhau Kundgolkar was his real name) was a resident of Kundgol, a village near Hubli. His concert tours took him away from home at regular intervals, and, as a result, Gangubai’s apprenticeship in the early years was not all smooth sailing. But later, Sawai Gandharva reduced his touring and was able to devote greater attention to his disciple.
Gangubai was barely 20 when she lost her mother who had been a tower of strength. But this calamity only served to strengthen her determination to continue her musical quest under the guidance of her guru.
Though she had an infant daughter to look after, she did not hesitate to undertake the gruelling daily railway journey from Hubli to Kundgol. To suit her convenience, her guru would teach her in the evenings. This training which began in 1937 lasted three years during which the master taught her some eight ragas.
Awards, titles and accolades have come to Gangubai in plenty, both at the national and state level. Prominent among these are the Bharatiya Kantha from the prestigious Nagari Pracharini Sabha of Varanasi (1947); Swara Shiromani of the equally reputed Prayag Sangeet Samiti of Allahabad (1962); the Karnataka State Award (1970); the Padma Bhushan (1971); the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Hindustani vocal music (1974); and the Tansen Award, instituted by the government of Madhya Pradesh (1984). She also has the distinction of being the first woman to chair the Karnataka state Sangeet-Nritya Akademi – a position from which she resigned, curiously enough, on political grounds amid the public agitation launched in 1982, demanding that Kannada be declared as the sole state language in Karnataka. This was the only instance of her participation in linguistic politics.
Gangubai has had many ups and downs in her personal life. Yet, she retains her gay and affable temperament and an impish sense of humour. Besides Krishna, her eldest daughter, she has two sons. Now a happy grandmother, she lives with her family in a house of her own, significantly named “Ganga Lahari”, in Deshpande Nagar on the outskirts of Hubli. She has no regrets and is still in demand in musical citadels like Delhi, Varanasi, Lucknow and Calcutta.