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Gangubai Hangal

Gangubai HangalThere are many artistes who claim that once they hold the tanpura all happiness and sorrow is forgotten. This has not been my experience. When I sit for riyaaz emotions well up. I can vividly remember the hardships I've been through ... the worry of what the next day will bring in its wake. "Hindustani classical vocalist Gangubai Hangal's voice still quivers as she remembers the lessons learnt in the past. Turning 86 on September 23, the doyen of the Kirana gharana is one of the seniormost performing artistes in the world today, and yet she seems moulded by the lessons she learnt as a young girl.

"I've learnt that life has both good and bad to offer". For example, as a child, Gangubai recalls that the brahmins in her neighbourhood would accept pickle made by her mother, Ambabai, or use the dry leaf plates which they sold but urchins would throw cow-dung slurry on her when she passed their houses. "Our status as a family of hereditary courtesans did not stop them from helping when my mother was unwell but they would begin banging tin-pots to drown my music making every time I sat for riyaaz."

Born in 1913, to a family of musicians from Hangal (a small village in north Karnataka from where she gets her second name) her family shifted to Hubli where she has lived since 1928. In keeping with the tradition of hereditary courtesans settling down with one patron Ambabai settled down with a Brahmin, Chikkurao Nadgir. And following in her mother's footsteps Gangubai settled with Gururao Kaulgi at the age of 16. "I was only 20 when he died of an illness." And yet the four years spent together cost her dear. "He was an LLB but he did not have the acumen to attract clients. He took to running various businesses and lost money in all of them. I had to keep selling jewellery and utensils to
pay bank loans. This happened so often I lost count."

She also cannot remember exact dates in her life but the joy of nostalgia is still there.   "For my first recording when HMV invited me to Bombay I went because they were taking care of the journey and sight-seeing. Later they gave me Rs 400 for my third recording but my family was annoyed as my name read Gandhari Hubali on the record."

Why did she train Hindustani music and not in Carnatic like her mother? "Mother wanted it as she was very fond of Hindustani music. Light music was never my forte. My voice is more suited to singing only pure classical." Which is why she prefers to sing at a concert rather than a recording. "Of course I am tense on stage till the right note is struck but once that happens I am in the flow of the raga." And the audience cannot distract her. "I remember a concert where the audience went on sending chits asking me to sing Marathi songs. I did namaskar and entreated them to listen to what I sing. My feeling moulds my music. If you kill that my music ends."

There is none of the affected stylised demeanour that one has come to identify with senior artistes in Gangubai. In fact her charm lies in the fact that she knows what she does not know. "I have shortcomings like everybody." And her sticking to khayal is yet another expression of her integrity to art.

Awards Received

Padmabhushan 1971 Central Sangeet Natak Akademi 1973
The State Sangeet Natak Akademi 1962     Dinanath Pratishthan 1997
Manik Ratan        1998  

Subject: Classic Revisited -- article on Gangubai Hangal
Date: 21 Apr 1999 20:58:35 GMT

article from Indian Express
Wednesday, April 21, 1999
Classic revisited
Yogesh Pawar

'You eat food don't you? Music is my food' the reply Gangubai Hangal gave when someone asked her why she still sang at her age. As the city's music lovers await a felicitation-cum-concert of the legendary artiste next week, Shanta Gokhale tributes her profound talent and integrity.

Hubli, where Gangubai Hangal lives, falls in one of those friendly zones of mixed cultural and linguistic heritage which soften the chauvinistic rigidity of state borders. Lying just south of Maharashtra, the Dharwar-Hubli belt has contributed as much to Marathi culture as it has done to Kannada. Gangubai's mother, Ambabai, from whom she took her earliest training, was a renowned Carnatic singer while she herself was to become one of the staunchest vocalists of the Kirana gharana under the tutelage of Pandit Rambhau Kundgolkar, popularly known as Sawai Gandharva.

Born in 1913, Gangubai completed 86 years this Mahashivaratri. She started performing in local celebrations and Ganeshotsavs in Mumbai when she was in her mid-teens. So her performing life spans something like 70 uninterrupted years during which there is no record of a single tantrum being thrown or a single line of publicity being peddled to the press for self-glorification. She has made music because she has felt duty-bound to pass on to future generations what her guruji gave her. She has done this with unflagging sincerity and dedication, winning love and respect along the way for her transparently good nature.

When Gangubai was in Mumbai last November, an interviewer asked her in awed admiration what motivated her to continue singing even at this age. She looked at the man as if he'd come from outer space, then stated what to her, was the obvious -- "You eat food don't you? Music is my food."

She is the last person to deny the importance of the monetary benefits her music has brought her. For, with them she has been able to look after the needs of her dependents which included a maternal uncle and his family. In the course of an exhaustive interview with the Kannada novelist S. L. Bhyrappa, she admitted that her decision not to marry Mr Kaulgi, who was to all intents and purposes her husband, came out of concern for the future of this extended family.

Though she came to terms with her responsibilities as sole bread-winner with a rare generosity of spirit, and though she hardly demanded anything for herself, the strain told on her and, worse, affected her riyaz. With sad irony she scuttles the romantic notion that a musician forgets all else once she has her tanpura in hand. "This has not been my experience," she said to Bhyrappa. "When I sat down for riyaz I would start crying. I could see before my eyes the daily scene, the next day's worries. It was as if a cloud was permanently wrapped around me. I felt suffocated with my responsibilities."

The cloud coloured even her moments of triumph grey. On the night of January 25, 1971, she received a telegram from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi congratulating her on having been nominated for a Padma Bhushan. She ran with the telegram to her uncle's house and they sat talking through the night. "I remembered all that I had suffered through life, the mental tortures, the pain, everything that one tries to forget. What a joyous moment it was. And I was thinking of old pains and sorrows."

Some pains never go away. As a young girl, Gangubai had known what it was to belong to a family of professional musicians. As the daughter of Ambabai and her brahmin benefactor Shri Chikkurao Nadgir, her position in society was painfully undefined. She could claim neither freedom from the brahminical order nor its privileges. To add to this, her musical training in the early years had been chancy and irregular. Unable to leave her family and home, she had to find a guru nearby. It was immensely fortunate for her that Sawai Gandharva who had already accepted her as his shishyaa, returned to his native Kundgol, near Hubli, in his last years. For that is when, for the first time, Gangubai was able to get regular talim from him.

It is Sawai Gandharva's music, no more no less, that she has made her own. Not once in all these years, not even when she was surrounded by maestros like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb and Amir Khan Saheb, whose gayakis she greatly admired, did she fall for the temptation of trying to imbibe elements from other styles. Nor did she ever sing anything other than pure classical, though thumris and natya sangeet were very much part of her guru's repertoire.

In keeping her music purely classical, she was not making a hierarchical statement, but a personal one informed by self-knowledge. She decided she wouldn't sing the lighter forms of music because she was certain she didn't have in her the requisite feelings to make them sound right. On one particular occasion, the audience kept requesting her to sing stage songs. She was utterly nonplussed by their insistence. Finally she folded her hands before them and entreated them to listen to the music she had learnt. "When I start singing," she explained to them, "certain feelings rise in my heart and mind. It is those feelings that I try to convey through the medium of notes. They mould my music. If you kill those feelings, my music ends."

How bound she feels to her guru's music is evident in the way she projects her voice. Its masculine timbre may have been the result of a small operation she had to undergo when her throat began troubling her, but she had always practised to sound like Sawai Gandharva. "I would try to sing loudly for hours together." The aggressive style of Zohrabai Agrewali had also fascinated her. Luckily for us, masculinity of voice and style didn't seem to have damned women artistes automatically in those days. Else Gangubai's career would have been squashed the minute her voice changed.

The interesting question about Gangubai's music is: what makes it valid even today in the midst of our radically changed performance and listening environment? She is not, not ever was, a crowd-puller. But whenever she has performed, she has always compelled total attention. Perhaps her listeners sense her profound integrity, respect her refusal to reduce them with populist tidbits, her closed eyes shutting out this world of external demands. Here is the voice of an artist who is being true to her beliefs, who has beliefs to be true to in the first place. 

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