WHEN I interviewed Gangubai Hangal for Mumbai’s Mid Day newspaper back in 2001, she was 88 years old. She was staying at the Hilltop hotel in Worli, Mumbai, with her daughter Krishna and son Baburao, and had chosen that place as it was close to Nehru Centre, where she was scheduled to attend a function.
Keeping in mind her age and seniority, the staff photographer Suresh KK chose to take pictures of her as she was sitting on the sofa and speaking. She was happy to know I belonged to the Dharwad-Hubli region of north Karnataka, and thus conversed in Kannada, reminiscing about the olden days and how classical music had changed.
The interview over, she asked Suresh whether these were all the photographs he wanted. Before he could reply, Gangubai joked: “Take some nice action photographs. We can go to the terrace and you’ll get some good shots there, and a nice background view. Come, I’ll walk up there. Do you think I am an old lady?”
ON Sunday, May 5, this incident came to mind, as I sat at the Karnataka Sangha auditorium in Matunga, Mumbai. The occasion was an audio-visual presentation cum listening session on the life and music of the great Hubli-based singer, who charmed music lovers for decades with her distinct, somewhat-masculine voice. In attendance were 100-odd diehard classical music fans, many of whom were above 70 years of age.
For a generation which has grown up on Gangubai and her guru-bhai Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, who both carried forward the Kirana gharana teachings of their guru Sawai Gandharva, the event was a treat. Presented jointly by Omkar Sur Mandal and Kalabharati, the performing arts circle of the Karnataka Sangha, it was compered by connoisseur and senior critic Prakash G Burde, who provided many interesting glimpses of the doyenne’s life.
Besides snippets of her television interviews given in Marathi, the two-hour session showcased her renditions of ragas like Adana, Todi, Yaman, Kalawati, Jogiya and Bhairavi, and the Carnatic piece Madhyamavati, besides a thumri in Tilang. Most often, she would be accompanied by daughter Krishna, whose mellifluous voice provided a wonderful contrast, but in Chandrakauns, Gangubai was featured alone. Another highlight was a live rendition of raga Prabhat Bhairav, which she sang at least five times at the Sawai Gandharva festival in Pune.
The event was also held as part of Gangubai’s birth centenary celebrations. She was born on March 5, 1913, just 16 days before the great shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan, and just less than two months before Indian cinema was born. And while the media has correctly highlighted the film landmark, it has unfortunately ignored the birth centenaries of two of India’s greatest musicians.
Gangubai’s life had many interesting facets. She was initiated into music at a young age by her mother Ambabai, who was a Carnatic singer. As Hindustani music was growing in popularity in the Hubli-Dharwad region, the young girl was keen to learn that style. In fact, besides Sawai Gandharva, Bhimsen-ji and her, north Karnataka also produced stalwarts like vocalists Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva and Basavraj Rajguru, and sitar maestros Rehmat Khan and Bale Khan.
Gangubai’s family settled down in Hubli so that she could focus on singing, even though people criticised her decision as her mother belonged to a lower caste where music wasn’t considered honourable. Her early gurus included Krishnacharya Hulgur and Dattopant Desai, but it was only through Sawai Gandharva’s guidance that she cultivated her unique style.
Gangubai would travel 14 km every morning from Hubli to Kundgol, and return at night after a hectic day of musical education. But slowly, she imbibed the finer nuances of the Kirana gharana, and was regularly giving concerts when she was 20, sometimes referred to as Gandhari, besides Gangubai. In 1933, she recorded a Marathi song ‘Tu tithe an mi etha ha’ with G N Joshi, and in 1936, appeared and sang in the film ‘Vijayache Lagne’.
Initially, she had a feminine voice, but there was a sudden change after a throat operation when she was in her early 30s. Instead of being disappointed, Gangubai was actually thrilled because it now sounded closer to that of her guru, and she could sing the lower notes more fluently. The rest is history, as it was that voice which made her different from most of the established female singers, including luminaries like Kesarbai Kerkar, Mogubai Kurdikar and Hirabai Badodekar, and her contemporaries like Saraswati Rane and Roshanara Begum.
Gangubai passed away on July 21, 2009, at the age of 96. Though she was very active for most of her life, her last few years had a couple of setbacks. She overcame bone marrow cancer in 2003, but was completely shattered when Krishna passed away in 2004 after suffering from cancer. Yet, Gangubai made a comeback in 2006, to give a concert to mark 75 years of her musical career.
Those who’ve seen Gangubai live in concert or even in pictures would have one lasting image of hers. Very often, she would cover her left ear with her palm, and sing in deep concentration. Like her voice, that image will stay forever.
For those fortunate to know or even meet her, memories of her spontaneous sense of humour and zest for life linger on. One just can’t forget the way she climbed the stairs as an 88-year-old, posing for photographs with the enthusiasm of someone 70 years younger.