Across seven decades, musician Gangubai Hangal kept faith with her gharana’s classicism even as the landscape around her transformed, says Sadanand Menon
IT WOULD be narrow to understand the passing away of Gangubai Hangal, on July 21, as merely the end of a 96-year-old musician. We would be hurting ourselves if we failed to see it simultaneously as the shutting down of a musical university which thrived for some 75 years. With her ‘gurubhai’ Pt Bhimsen Joshi too in uneven health recently, we are close to the swansong of that musical Camelot of our times known as the Kirana gharana.
Ustad Abdul Karim Khan with his mastery of the nishad, his shimmering daughters Hirabai Barodekar and Roshanara Begum, his master shagirds like Pandit Rambhau Kundgolkar (otherwise known as Sawai Gandharva) and Amir Khan have all left behind an awesome repertoire, which has to be seen as a ‘national treasure’ in its own right.
Gangubai was among the last keepers of that vast musical archive and who, through a career of seven decades, did not budge from the core values of her lineage, staying faithful to the deep classicism of the gharana without straying into lighter fare likebhajans or abhangs or thumris.
Yet one gets goosebumps when thinking that right in front of our eyes, over the six decades of our existence as an independent nation, we have done pretty little to ensure that this heritage and archive not only survived, but also actively constructed a subsequent generation of music-makers. It is astounding that the idea of incremental or cumulative increase seems to be absent in our approach towards sustaining the best of our artistic riches.
Similar troubling thoughts arose when another south Indian nonagenarian female vocalist, the legendary Carnatic singer DK Pattammal, passed away in Chennai last week. That was another university declaring closure. The best flowers of the 20th century renaissance in Indian classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic, are now faded and it is going to be nigh impossible to till that soil again in a hurry.
Born in Hangal, in that magical area of Dharwad in Karnataka which has spawned some of the most important Hindustani classical musicians of the last century, Gangubai’s mother Ambabai and grandmother Kamalabai were from the devadasitradition and were reputed Carnatic musicians.
Gangubai’s early fascination with natya sangeet, heard on roadside radio relays, persuaded her family to initiate her into Hindustani classical music. After early training with local Hubli teachers like H Krishnacharya and Dattupant Desai, she was apprenticed with the exacting teacher Sawai Gandharva in nearby Kundgol. The propitious move was initiated by a chance meeting with the the Kirana gharana founder, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, who identified in the girl the makings of a musical genius. This resulted in long and sustained training for little Gangubai, who travellled the 30km between Hubli and Kundgol by train for 13 years before she was permitted to come out on stage.
In her autobiography Nanna Badukina Haadu, translated into English as The Song Of My Life, Gangubai gives insights into the prevailing social atmosphere when she was learning her art. She talks about the lack of support outside her family, how even roadside urchins would throw cow dung at her or abuse her as ‘gaane wali’, and how neighbours would bang metal pots and create a din to disturb her riyaaz.
Gangubai is known best for her rendition of ragas like Bhairavi, Asavari Todi, Bhimpalas, Poorya Dhanashri, Marwa, Kedar and Chandrakauns. Later female classicists like Kishori Amonkar, Prabha Atre or even Lata Mangeshkar were to revere her contributions, which in fact converted the act of listening itself into an art.