A life in three octaves

Print edition : March 10, 2006

The Hindustani vocalist Hangal relives memories both pleasant and painful.


ONE does not expect a 94-year-old person to be as busy as Gangubai Hangal. "Either she is travelling to other cities or she is full up with appointments in Hubli," is her grandson Manoj Hangal's refrain every time I call her home in Hubli. It is after I speak to him on the phone several times that he fixes a meeting after assiduously looking through the schedule of the grand old lady of the Kirana gharana.

When the photographer and I land up at Ganga Lahari, the residence of the doyenne, and see 50-odd pairs of footwear in the front yard (see page 83), we almost give up hopes of meeting her. "I don't think this is going to work," we tell each other. But Manoj does a quick estimate of my feelings and says: "Don't worry, they'll be gone in an hour."

Gangubai, frail and shrunk, sits on her bed in her tiny room, eager to welcome every visitor. Her illness, her emotional vacuum after daughter Krishna's death in 2004, is writ large on her face. "That's my new wheelchair," she says, pointing to one corner of the room. Look around and you find her entire world compressed into that room. Her tanpura beside her bed, her mother's music books right next to her, pictures of gods, her medicines and a little black bag. "My family wants to renovate this house. But I have told them that such a thing could happen only after I'm gone. My husband built this house for me in 1943 and my guru stayed in this house for two years. My life's memories are all treasured inside these walls. It cannot be brought down," says Gangubai with certainty.

It is a little difficult to reconcile to the fact that this "more manly than the best male voice" has taken a beating with time. Gangubai, with her robust, androgynous voice, projected a larger-than-life, hardy image. Despite the unmistakable quiver, her voice is still marked by the characteristic boom and base. "People who had listened to just my voice and hadn't seen me always failed to connect the voice to me," says Gangubai, talking of the pre-television era.

The organisers of a music concert in what was then Madras turned up at the railway station with a huge garland. As the train arrived, they got into the ladies compartment, and garlanded a well-built woman sitting by the window, much to her bewilderment. When they realised their folly, it was too late. "They had no garland for me!" Gangubai laughs uncontrollably.

A young Gangubai Hangal. This photograph is part of the collection at the Museum of Indian Classical Music in her residence in Hubli.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

On another occasion, in the early days of her career, she went to Calcutta (now Kolkata) for a music conference. The organisers, on seeing this thin, short girl in her nine-yard sari, felt doubtful if she could sing at all. To test her skills, the day before her performance was due, they ordered her to accompany Jaddan Bai, Nargis' mother, a well-known musician of those times. Jaddan Bai, impressed by Gangubai's singing, told the organisers to book her for the Bombay (now Mumbai) conference too.

Gangubai once told film-maker Vijaya Mulay, in the initial years of television: "If a male musician is a Muslim, he becomes an Ustad. If he is a Hindu, he becomes a Pandit. But women like Kesarbai and Mogubai just remain Bais." I expected Gangubai to belt out feminist discourses: on the cruelty of the Devadasi tradition into which she was born, the brutality of the caste system, a decadent society, the struggles of a woman who has to straddle more than one world, the discriminating world of music which sets different standards for man and woman, and more. But she is not to take any of those confrontational stances.

Gangubai looks back on her past quite effortlessly. She has an amazing memory that has not lost track of even minute details. "I was born in Shukravaradapete in Dharwad. It was a Brahmins' colony and those were conservative times," she says. It was forbidden to enter Brahmin thresholds. Gangubai remembers how, as a little girl, she went into the neighbour's garden and was caught stealing mangoes. They were aghast at the impunity of a singer's daughter. "Ironically, the very same people now invite me to their houses and spread a lavish lunch for me."

Her mother Ambabai was a Carnatic musician. She was so brilliant that the best of musicians came to listen to her. Abdul Karim Khan, the forerunner of the Kirana gharana, would often drop in to listen to Ambabai. In fact, Gangubai remembers how on one occasion he had remarked: "I feel I am in Tanjore." Ambabai tried to train the little Gangu in Carnatic music, but realised that her heart was elsewhere. On her way back from the National School (she repeats the name of her school several times with great pride) Gangubai would stop by to listen to the gramophone played at almost all the petty shops in Kamanakatte.

"They had a huge horn, you know," says a wide-eyed Gangubai. "I can't remember who the singer was, but it was `Radhe bolo mujhse'." Gangubai kept humming these tunes throughout the day, all the time. "You are not intelligent enough to keep the two systems separate. So you learn Hindustani," he mother said.

Ambabai decided to get her daughter trained in Hindustani and shifted base to Ganeshpete in Hubli. "My driver tells me the house is still there, I want to go see it one of these days," Gangubai says. Her mother, anxious to ensure that her daughter did not get influenced by the Carnatic style, actually stopped singing when young Gangu started her lessons. "I used to learn from Krishnamachari Hulguru, a student of Abdul Karim Khan Saab. I was very weak in taala and so during my lessons my mother would keep the beat on my back. Once when she told him that I had to get better with my rhythm, he got angry and demanded his fees for six months that instant." They led a hand-to-mouth existence and Ambabai had no money on her. She gave him a gold ornament she had. But the angry teacher threw it and stormed out of the house.

The next time Abdul Karim Khan saab came he asked Gangubai to sing. On listening to her, he said: "Dekho beti khoob khana, khoob gana." (Look, daughter, eat well and keep on singing.) "Where was the food? There was only music," comments Gangubai wryly.

Gangubai began learning from the architect of the Kirana gharana, Sawai Gandharva. When he fell ill, she moved to Bombay to take lessons with him. He used to put her through rigorous practice and could not be satisfied easily. "I remember a time when I was taught a particular phrase. Ga ga ri sa ni sa, nini ni da pa ma pa, ga ga ri sa ni da pa ma ga ri sa. I locked myself up in the room from morning to evening and practised it for more than 200 times. I was in tears, because my guru would not tell me if it was okay. Finally, late in the evening, he came over and told me I could stop.

Gangubai's life was difficult, but it was eventful. She interacted with great musicians, great poets and great thinkers of her time. She remembers how the Kannada visionary poet Da. Ra. Bendre loved the way she sang and taught her so many of his poems. Was it not he who said: "If Gangubai sings it touches the sky and if Krishna sings it touches the heart."

Pleasant memories coexist with unforgettably bitter ones. The Belgaum Indian National Congress ses<147,2,1>sion of 1924 is one such. Gangubai, along with five classmates, sang the invocation "Svagatavu Svagatavu Sakala Jana Sankulake". Those were times charged with the spirit of nationalism and Gangubai was elated that she was singing before Gandhiji. But beyond all this, she was worried that, born in a low caste as she was, she might be summoned to clean the place once the upper castes had eaten. Her schoolteacher asked her to eat with everybody else and Gangubai, full of trepidation, could barely lift her head. "I don't feel angry. Those times were different," she says, willing to forgive it all. "In some ways, I'm unfortunate, I must say. The people who loved me most weren't there to share my happiness."

At home with young visitors.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

She talks of how she ran to her maternal uncle Ramanna's house in the dead of night when she received a telegram that said she had been conferred the Padma Bhushan, and cried till the next morning, remembering all her hardships. By this time, her mother, teacher and husband were dead. "The difficulties of my life were like orchestra to my music," she says.

Not many could have lived Gangubai's life with the equanimity with which she has. Not even the stigma of not being "officially" married tainted her great music. Gangubai never had a civil marriage with Gurunath Kaulgi. In fact, the story goes that he offered to marry her but she refused. She forced him to marry within the Brahmin community.

There were times when familial problems bogged her down. In her autobiography, Nanna Badukina Haadu (The Song Of My Life), she states how even music did not offer solace. "I used to sit down to practise and felt besieged by the problems. My voice would choke and I could sing no further." But now, Gangubai has a different story to tell. "Everybody has problems. And so did I. But I had the strength to sail through them." And then she surprises you by moving on to an entirely different plane and talking in a lighter vein about how the biggest problem of her life was that of food. Most of Gangubai's concerts were in North India and like a true-blue South-Indian, she needed her daily dose of rice. But what she mostly got was pooris and chapathis. "I would feel like crying. After a while, I used to carry with me a bottle of home-made ghee, some chutney pudi, and mango pickle. I would plead with the organisers to make some hot rice for me. And I would happily eat it with chutney pudi and ghee." Her chutney pudi got so famous that everywhere she visited people would place orders for their bottle of it. "There are some moments of happiness that I want to cling to. I want to make them permanent. But how is that possible?" She extends the same logic to her music. There were times when people gave her a thunderous applause. But it did not necessarily satisfy her.

"There was some phrase, some note that I wanted to hold on to that came in a flash. Pity these things are transient." That strand of philosophical thought suddenly reminds her of her late daughter, and she starts crying inconsolably. "No parent should live to see their children die. Krishna was so talented. She had a naturally mellifluous voice that did not need much practice." Krishna chose not to get married and lived her life as her mother's shadow.

One memory comes rushing upon the other and it is a virtual flood: her tonsils operation that shattered the world's notions about a female voice; Mallikarjun Mansur sleeping under a crying Krishna's cradle and rocking her to sleep; her brief stint with Kathak; and her more immediate, secure present, teeming with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Gangubai talks about her past, zooms to a more snug and cosy present and moves back to something else in the past - a grand stream of consciousness journey. Her life has been full of turmoil and music, even though for Gangubai herself, the two things were never separate. Music had to feed her family.

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