When asked to write a piece about Gangubai Hangal on her death anniversary, I remember wincing at the unfamiliarity of the name. I sat down to do some basic research and the internet resources were sparse, inadequate and dotted with news articles about her death. On piecing together conversations, biographies and career maps, it was evident that Gangubai Hangal's life was a triumph speckled with struggle, happiness marred by bitterness, but one that exemplified talent intensified by ceaseless hard work.
Life as a Shudra Woman
Born in 1913, Gangubai's life spanned generations, eras and times which makes it easy to bury her struggle. Born into a family of Gangamats, or a class of simple boatmen, Gangubai bitterly recalled anecdotes of stealing fruit from her neighbour's garden and watching them look horrified while an impure Shudra trooped through their compound. These were the same neighbours who later treated her with reverance. "Her biggest fear when asked to sing at the Belgaum Congress session, attended by Gandhi Ji, was that she would be asked to sit and eat separately."
Love and Loss
Like her mother, she became the second wife of a Brahmin and was supposed to take care of him and his children, while living separately. They overcame the inherent difference of caste between them and found love."Her biggest sacrifice was to turn down her husband's offer of civil marriage because she wanted him to retain his upper caste status and live a life of comfort."
Her husband Shri Kaulgi never worked and whatever Gangubai earned, she gave to him. He would attempt to invest it in business or trucks, but would invariably lose it, an outcome that was foreseen by Gangubai. She sold all her assets to pay off his loans. While performing at a concert she agreed to do for money, her husband passed away.
If Music be the Food of Love...
Aside from her mother, her guru was Sawai Gandharva who also taught Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Firoze Dastur. He lived 30 kilometres away from her and Gangubai travelled daily by train to learn from him.Her guru was a hard task master, notorious for unceasing riyaaz of the same taal; she recounted how much she respected him, and while learning from him was often boring and monotonous, she could never question him because she trusted his judgement and intentions unflinchingly.
"This generation does not want to stick to one Guru and to get complete training for longer period. You spend 20 years to get one degree in any discipline, but want to get mastery in music by just attending a few classes and changing teachers. How would it be possible?"
Gangubai Hangal, on her 75th birthday
Throat surgery left her with a masculine voice, but the doyenne of the Kirana gharana turned it into an advantage through years of hard work. At a music conference in Calcutta, Gangubai was asked to sing in a private sitting the night before her concert was scheduled. She was asked to do so because the organizers couldn't imagine a frail girl like her singing. She was awarded a gold medal by the Maharaja of Tripura that day.
Gangubai spoke of the charm of the All India Music Conference where, for nine days, artists would perform and, more importantly, watch other artists perform. Performers had strong bonds back in the old days and Gangubai visited Siddeshwari Devi while she was lying paralyzed in bed, and even sang Bhairavi for her.
Apart from travelling the length and breadth of the subcontinent, including Pakistan and Nepal, she sang in Germany, France, the United States and Canada." Ramanna and I stayed up the whole night before I won the Padma Bhushan and remembered all the things one would like to forget - the mental traumas, the pain, the suffering. What a happy moment and such unhappy thoughts!"
Gangubai was awarded the Padma Bhushan, Vibhushan, the Tansen Award, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award."A penetrating search for the note was more important than ornamentation. She never found the need to introduce any frills in her music. She sang the truth, as it appeared to her, and that was Gangubai's virtuosity."
Deepa Ganesh, Singer
Gangubai is credited for the change in calling prominent female singers 'Bai', 'Begum', and 'Jan' to addressing them as 'Pandita' or 'Vidushi'. She openly protested against the double standard that existed in the industry and was a feminist who wished to make the industry more accessible to women, including her daughter Krishna.
She is a mother figure to many, including Bollywood actor Nana Patekar, who never missed an opportunity to attend her concerts.At 94, Gangubai gave her last concert at Nadagir Wada, Kundagol where she mesmerised the audience for over half an hour.
Gangubai Hangal passed away at the age of 96 on 21 July 2009. Today, as we remember her, we need to understand these traditions passed down to us and cherish them in order to preserve them and learn from them.