A life of music

Print edition : March 21, 2014

Gangubai Hangal. Photo: k. bhagya prakash

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi (seated, first left), Sawai Gandharva (fourth from left), Krishnabai Ramdurga, Gangubai Hangal and Krishna Hangal. Photo: picture courtesy: Gangubai Hangal Music Foundation

A captivating and perceptive account of the life and music of Gangubai Hangal.

GANGUBAI HANGAL, the diminutive singer with a big voice, dominated the Hindustani music scene from the early 1950s into the early 1980s. Her surilapan, or tunefulness, steadiness of pitch and disciplined imagination did not flag for an instant in this period; indeed her rendering of khayal not only bestowed lustre on the image of the Kirana gharana to which she belonged courtesy her guru, the redoubtable Sawai Gandharwa, but also added grandeur to a form of north Indian classical music in which the peregrinations of the imagination have to be informed by a disciplined sense of form, in the absence of which the bandish, or composition in a given raga, can lose its strength and fail to make the desired impact on the listener.

Gangubai Hangal singing khayal in its longer and shorter version seldom, if ever, failed to make an impact on the discerning listener. Her music, like her personality, had rock-solid reliability.

Deepa Ganesh’s biography, A Life in Three Octaves, brings alive the musical journey of Gangubai Hangal and her day-to-day existential struggles. It was a life fraught with financial difficulties, which was made worse by a lack of worldliness—singers with half or a third her talent were paid twice as much—and an innate modesty marked by a kindness of spirit that was rare even in her time; Ustad Bismillah Khan, the shehnai maestro and her dear friend, was the other exception in Hindustani music. The writer, through a proliferation of detail gathered from conversations with Gangubai Hangal and those close to her, manages to make the reader connect with the deeply compassionate, giving woman who sang with such power, conviction and feeling.

Gangubai Hangal came of devadasi stock. Her mother, Ambabai, despite considerable talent as a vocalist in the Carnatic tradition, could not go very far owing to a lack of opportunity. She was aware of her artistic merit but did not wish to barter it for the financial security that came from private soirees for the pleasure of well-heeled but usually debauched male listeners. To put it mildly, it was an uphill task for Ambabai to bring up her obviously talented daughter. Money was usually scarce as her common-law husband, Chikurao Nadiger, a man of means, did nothing to alleviate their suffering.

Ambabai had delved into old musical texts and was often consulted by vidwans. She was also a master at taking down notations; all she had to do was to listen to a composition once and she could take it down, with shrutis (micro-tones) and all. This ability alone should have put her amongst the great teacher-singers of her time, which she was, but nothing came of her life. It was filled with privation and humiliation; in fact, Gangubai’s first teacher, Hulugooru Krishnamacharya, refused to teach because his annual fee of Rs.120 could not be paid in one go.

Ambabai, who may well have been a far more gifted musician than Krishnamacharya but only a devadasi, could not raise more than a 100 rupees after selling a gold bangle, but he would not budge. Gangubai Hangal recalled: “My mother literally went down on her knees.... Exasperated by all this and the difficulty of our lives, I went to a priest who lived behind our house. He was good at astrology and predicted that I would be famous, make money and see better days. Well, things have worked out the way he’d anticipated.”

It was a tough life, to put it mildly. Ambabai, however, was determined that her daughter’s musical education be continued under a proper guru. Dattopant Desai, a music rasika and friend of the family, thought of his friend Sawai Gandharwa, foremost pupil of the great Abdul Karim Khan of the Kirana gharana. Ramchandra Kundagolkar, better known as Sawai Gandharwa, became Gangubai Hangal’s guru after a gandabandhan ceremony in which she offered him Rs.1,001, a sum she had put together with great difficulty. This time around, she found a truly learned and giving teacher.

Gangubai was 15 when she got married to Gururaj Kaulgi, a Brahmin widower and a law graduate from Bombay University. He greatly admired Ambabai and Gangubai’s music. Kaulgi’s parents wanted him to marry a girl from his own caste. Gangubai observed, “I felt it was only fair they thought that way. I told him to marry the girl of his parent’s choice; if there was still space for me, I told him I could come in after that.”

Deepa Ganesh writes, “Gangubai was a woman of no confusion: she knew her social standing and did not seek to violently change it. All her dilemmas were mostly artistic. With the help of a strong backing of her mother, she silently but steadily steered her life away from traditional devadasi practices. She was fully aware, however, that there were some things that couldn’t be changed or overlooked in her lifetime—for instance, her caste. She had, however, become a stepping stone to transformation for the coming generation” (page 57).

The author continues, “So Kaulgi got married to his sister’s daughter, as per his parents wish. His heart beat for Gangubai and he couldn’t think of being separated from her. He married her as well. Gangubai married Kaulgi as per the tradition of her caste—with the tanpura beside her. Marriage, of course, didn’t mean moving to her husband’s home—there was no societal consent for this.” She lived with her mother and continued with her music lessons.

Her father, Chikurao Nadiger, visited them often but took on no financial responsibility despite being in an eminent position to do so.

The biography is ironic at times, in a deadpan way. Gangubai Hangal, who did not have a mean bone in her body, remembers her father thus, “Whenever my father came to our house from Ranebennur [near Dharwad in Karnataka], I would invariably be sitting with a tanpura. ‘What is this Gangu, you are forever singing? Won’t you take a break and talk to me?’ he would chide me affectionately. He was a soft-spoken, loving person....”

The bizarre and the droll often exist side by side in this story. Ambabai, wanting to be at hand when Gangubai was expecting her second child, decided to get her troublesome stomach ulcers operated. The operation failed and she died of excessive bleeding. “Imagine my life without mother... she was the breath of my life.... I stopped singing.” Chikurao Nadiger, who had come rushing in on hearing the news of Ambabai’s death, lost his will to live and joined her soon after.

Gangubai, without a trace of irony, recalled her mother’s passing, “A few months ahead of my mother’s death, an astrologer had come to our doorstep. He predicted that my father would lose his wife. On hearing this, my mother was grief-stricken. She worried endlessly about how my father would manage with his wife gone. She often expressed her anxiety to me. But it was my mother who died.”

Despite all the adversities that came her way, Gangubai Hangal continued to learn from Sawai Gandharwa and polish her singing, which with time acquired an abiding beauty but was shorn of glamorous flourishes. She was a connoisseur’s delight. Her sense of musical architecture was formidable. She built a composition in a particular raga step by step, meticulously. Her voice was sonorous, masculine without being harsh. How she came to acquire it is an interesting and frightening story. She had a sweet, feminine voice before a botched tonsil operation left her with a manly voice. She took this blow in her stride and continued with her sadhana with the same dedication as before. Listeners quite correctly discovered the serene majesty of her singing. In her best years, she was deeply appreciated for her raagdari (classical music) and her ability to captivate without resorting to the theatrics that many of her younger contemporaries were given to. Her daughter, Krishna, her musical heir and her life’s breath, had a high, sweet, malleable voice capable of deeply emotive inflections. But that is another story.

Gangubai Hangal’s singing was as clear as her life was transparent. She felt that an artist’s life ought to be free of calculations. She was a straightforward person but her relationship with her gifted daughter Krishna was complicated. She was capable of having a dazzling musical career of her own but Gangubai Hangal, perhaps out of fear of loneliness, would not let her go. Krishna stuck it out with her mother without complaint and despite being artistically thwarted remained a boon companion to Gangubai Hangal. She wanted to get married but could not, thus the joys of motherhood and having a life of her own were denied her. She was stoic in her suffering and predeceased her mother. Cancer claimed Krishna the dutiful, sacrificing daughter and doting aunt and sister. In music and in her life, she gave her all.

Gangubai Hangal’s life was always difficult; money was tight despite her earning quite well in the second half of her career. She had at any given time 20 dependents, all close relatives, whom she supported as a matter of course. She probably felt it was her destiny to do so. She, no doubt, earned their respect. Her home in Dharwad was always open to all who came by. The author often cites her subject’s warmth, spontaneity and generosity of spirit as her abiding qualities along with her music.

She found politics to be a dirty business. “Gangubai became the voice of peace and harmony when the Idgah Maidan episode resurfaced in the [nineteen] nineties. The dispute over the ownership of Idgah Maidan in Hubli dates back to the [nineteen] seventies. When the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and its leaders descended on Hubli to ‘reclaim’ it as its territory, Hindu-Muslim riots erupted. Firing ensued and people were killed. Twenty years later, when she narrated this episode to me, the horror of the incident continued to assail her—she was witness to the murder of her neighbour’s son, an innocent teenager. ‘Did Hindu and Muslim gods war with each other? Why are they not our own?’ she asked me. ‘In music, we have learnt that they are all one. We sing in praise of Allah just as we sing the glory of Saraswati. Bismillah [Khan] is my brother, and he is an ardent worshipper of Kashi Vishwanatha. Why are we doing this to each other? Are there any greater or lesser gods?’” she had asked then in the Rajya Sabha as a member.

The book is mainly about Gangubai Hangal’s life with her music weaving in and out of it. To be sure, her life, despite her struggles was much more successful, at least materially, than her mother’s. She earned the love and respect of her fellow musicians as her mother had, but she had in addition the benefit of gramophone recordings, radio broadcasts, and the concert stage to reach out to a large listening audience throughout India for more than half a century.

Deepa Ganesh’s book is a captivating read almost all the way and is moving as well. She got to know Gangubai Hangal only in 2005, just a while before the singer’s 92nd birthday. The author, however, made up for lost time through dedicated, spirited research.

She goes a bit “stiff” towards the end, when she intellectualises, “I knew that giving an account of Gangubai’s life was a formidable enterprise. Entering her interiority, experiencing her truths, and then turning these abstractions into my own language. I was full of doubts and uncertainties, and with each meeting I realised I knew less and less of her.” Her fears are completely unfounded though her modesty is admirable. Her account of Gangubai Hangal’s life is both beautiful and perceptive.

There is a small caveat: the photographic reproductions could have been a lot better. However, the pictures are valuable as a record of great classical musicians from the past.

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