‘You Eat Food, don’t you? Music is my food’
Says Gangubai Hangal

Dr. Smt. Gangubai Hangal 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, Amambai,from whom she took her earliest training ,was a renowned Carnatic singer while she herself was to become one of the staunchest vocalist of the Kirana gharana under the tutelage of Pandit Rambhau Kundgolkar,popularly known as Sawai Gandharva.

gangu.jpg (14674 bytes)Born in 1913,Gangubai completed 86 years this Mahashivarathri.She started performing in local celebrations and Ganeshotsavas 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 if 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 the future generations what her guruji gave her.She has done this with unflagging sincerity and dedication, winning live 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 before the needs of her dependents, which included her 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 purpose her husband, came out of concern for the future of this extended family.

Though she came to terms with her responsibilities as sole breadwinner 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 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 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 Amambai 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 was Sawai Gandharva’s music, no more no less, that she was surrounded by maestros like Bada Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb and Amir KhanSaheb, whose gayakis she greatly admired, did she fall for the temptations 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 would’nt sing the lighter forms of music because she was certain she did’nt 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 started 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 practiced 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 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 has beliefs to be true to in the first place.

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