Beyond voice

Print edition : August 14, 2009

Performing in Bangalore, on August 12, 2006.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

ASK Baburao Hangal what he remembers most about his legendary mother, Gangubai Hangal, and he says: As a child, I would apparently cry when I heard my mother sing. Her own children took a while to get used to her full-throated, powerful voice. She had no choice but to lug us along everywhere. Someone in the studio or backstage would carry us around and pacify us. But as we grew older we were awestruck by the masculine power of her voice and the unselfconscious way in which she dealt with it. Nothing mattered to her more than her music, he recalls. Baburao, her elder son, made an effort to sing in his teenage years, but gave it up very soon when he felt his limp renditions would be a poor contrast to his mothers music. Gangubai Hangal passed away on July 21.

The inimitable exponent of the evocative Kirana Gharana was often caught making fun of her own booming voice. I was to broadcast live from All India Radio, Delhi. I was staying with a friend and asked her daughter to listen to my recital without fail. When I returned home, she said, They didnt play your music. Some man was singing, so I switched it off. I told her I was the man, and the next few minutes both of us laughed uncontrollably, she would recall, laughing.

The other incident that she loved recalling was of her concert in Madras (now Chennai). The organisers came to the railway station to receive me. They got into the compartment and frantically looked for me. They had only heard my music, but had never seen me; they were trying to connect my voice and form. Obviously, they didnt think it was me; I looked a complete village bumpkin in my nine-yard sari, and puny at that. With garland in hand, they ran towards a huge woman who looked like the lady with the manly voice. This woman, sitting by the window, looked completely startled by this high drama. Suddenly, one voice shouted, Gangubai is here, on this side I think it was Raghava Menoncant rememberI was watching everything in great amusement, she would say, giggling.

When Gangubai discovered she had tonsillitis, she was hardly worried that her voice would never be the same. She only wanted to know if she could continue to sing. With her grave, robust voice, Gangubai remodelled her singing, undeterred. It is a myth that great voice and great music are related.

Gangubai, transparent and simple in her emotions, was intellectually complex. She had a deep understanding of her art, and nothing could persuade her to alter her beliefs. Her understanding of the music tradition she belonged to was so perfect that while she worried about the structure of the raga, her articulation of it, and if she could make a spiritual-emotional connect, she never worried about the texture of her voice.

The Hindustani music tradition pushes the individual to explore the inner depths. The great masters, in the course of the rigorous training they imparted, prepared their students for such discoveries. The final pursuit of this music is not the cultivation of an attractive voice, but the ability to articulate in all its infinite possibilities.

Musicologist Sheila Dhar says: The physical sound of the music is, in ideal circumstances, only a medium and not the end product. To the connoisseur, a voice is only as beautiful as what it conveys. The listener is trained to tune into the highly charged state of consciousness of the performer rather than to the physical sound that carries the music. The glory is in the truth of the experience and the purity of intention.

Early in her career, Gangubai was often put to test by concert organisers. They would ask her to make a small presentation, and only if it convinced them enough did she get a chance to sing. There were apprehensions about the quality of my voice; it teased their notion of the feminine. But I was always convinced that music was beyond voice. It was a vehicle, not means to an end. For me, music was prayer, it was a sublime experience. I would close my eyes and sing; nothing else mattered to me, she said.

With shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan.-SAGGERE RAMASWAMY

Whether it was Bhairav or Marwa or her favourite Abhogi Kanada, Gangubais music soaked in selfless devotion. Her melodic movements are replete with pure notes, broad glissandos and bold strokes. Her full-bodied, robust evocations had no embellishments; it was austere in its intent.

If Kumar Gandharv refashioned his music to suit his single-lung power, Gangubais was no mean achievement, either. She quietly reworked a voice that had transformed from mellifluous to manly. Kumar Gandharvs music was marked by a restless search, enigmatic and mystifying; Gangubais music was at once intense and introspective. There was devotion, there was anguish as well. It was chaste, shorn of flamboyant airs.

Speaking of her teacher Sawai Gandharv, she said: Sawai Gandharv guruji in all the years of training he imparted probably taught me 10 ragas. But he chiselled and polished them to such finesse that one gained the confidence to handle any raga. For months and years, one would be at a single raga. There were times when he locked me up in a room from ten in the morning until five in the evening and made me practise a single sargam it was ga ga re sa ni sa, ga ga re sa ni sa, ni da pa ma ga re sa I may have uttered it a few hundred times I was so exhausted once that I started weeping loudly. He opened the door after that. Sawai Gandharv spoke little, never praised his students, but was a very committed teacher. Like the founders of the Kirana Gharana, Abdul Karim Khan and Abdul Wahid Khan, he did not believe in building a vast repertoire. He emphasised depth. But for him, do you think there would have been any meaning to my life? Gangubai would ask, tears welling up in her eyes.

The progress of an artist is a process of continual self-sacrifice, negating the self and surrendering to the moment. Gangubai put in eight to 10 hours of arduous practice every day, in the middle of grating problems. However, music was never a prepared exercise for Gangubai; it was a process that took place right there, at that particular moment, acquiring a breath and movement of its own. While she was conscious of this, she was honest to admit to its flip side as well. There were times I could never submit, much that I wanted to. The unending problems of my life would crush me and I would feel choked. I have felt like putting down my tanpura and fleeing but then, I had promises to keep and the hearth had to burnnothing was ever easy for me, she said.

The Kirana Gharana, as musicologists recognise, was born out of a deep urge for self-expression. Its music, therefore, emerges from a large canvass of silence. It is marked by restraint and contemplation. Gangubai was a strict adherent of the Gharana principles. Unlike her guru-bandhu Bhimsen Joshi, she did not lend herself to other musical influences. Bhimsen Joshi, who knew this only too well, once famously told Gangubai: Nimdu Kirana Gharana, namdu Kirana angadi (Yours is Kirana Gharana, mine is kirana shop). Gangubai shaped her own, original creative urges and expressed it through the traditional idiom of the Kirana Gharana.

Every aspect of Gangubais life was interconnected with her music; all roads led to music. There are legendary stories about the kinship of food and music. In fact, Sheila Dhar has written a brilliant essay on the food habits of great maestros in Cooking Music. Gangubais life, her music, her foodeverything was marked with a remarkable simplicity. My mothers simplicity has always moved me, reveals Baburao. Even when she was at the peak of her career, she would travel by train in a class called inter that was just above third class. She never troubled the organisers for anything. She would even carry her own food. There couldnt be a non-fussier maestro, he says. Gangubai invariably spoke about food; in fact, a conversation with her was full of everyday, domestic metaphors. I always carried a bottle of chutney podi and home-made ghee. Wherever I went, I would ask for a cup of hot rice and my meal was ready, her eyes would brighten up.

Until her last day, hot rice, a dollop of ghee and chutney podi was her meal. Gangubai loved recounting how Pandit Ravi Shankar, Hirabai Badodekar, Ustad Bismillah Khan and a whole lot of other musicians would put out their hands asking for some more of her chutney podi. Ravi Shankar has apparently written about my cooking in his autobiography, she would say.

Indian music tradition is a celebration of fluidity, the enormous possibilities that are there within a single framework. This includes the diverse expressions and also the amazing manner in which it brings together people of different sensibilities, class and caste together only to enrich it. And hence, Gangubai could never have sounded like Bhimsen Joshi. Nor did she have traces of Firoz Dastur, who was also her fellow disciple. While tradition plays an important role, how the individual plumbs through it makes most of it. Indian classical music is neither a perfect piece of poetry nor a premeditated symphony; it does not have even a definite aesthetic ambition. It takes birth and evolves at the given moment. Gangubai was a celebration of such imperfections.

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