On Gangubai Hangal by Sabina Sehgal

Nicknamed "gaanewali", she was ostracized by the orthodox brahmins. But her irrepressible talent brought her the respect, status and the financial security she has always craved. Sabina Sehgal met Padma Bhushan Gangubai Hangal during her 75th birthday celebrations at her hometown, Hubli.

The story of the little girl Gangubai from Hangal, a remote village in Karnataka, almost reads like a fairy tale. Except that today, as Dr Gangubai Hangal turns 75 and continues to live happily ever after, her life and times, infinitely more than her music and fame, assume gigantic proportions. Because hers is not just a simple rags-to-riches story, but
a far more complex one, which cannot be bandied simply as one from degradation to respectability.

Born in Dharwar, in 1913, into a family of Gangamats, or a class of simple boatmen, the social milieu in which Gangubai was brought up was by no means conducive. Being a shudra, and that too of the lowest order, was compounded by the fact that she was born into a family where the female folk assumed the role of what was euphemistically referred to as "Angavasthra", a term which, if literally translated, would correspond
to an additional cloth or ornament draped by sophisticated men as a status symbol; a practice which was not necessarily considered immoral a century back. Gangubai, like her mother Ambabai, and her grandmother Kamlabai, all good musicians in their own right, belonged to this tradition. Both her father, Shri Nadgir and her husband, Shri Kaulgi, were brahmins, but interestingly, neither she nor her mother, assumed their names after marriage, or lived with them and their families; even Gangubai's children and grandchildren continue to call themselves "Hangal".

In fact, right from when she can remember, her life has been a series of contradictions. Of some childhood experiences in a predominant brahmin neighbourhood, Gangubai says: "I remember stealing fruit from our
neighbour's mango trees. More than the act of stealing, I remember the neighbours being horrified that a singer's daughter should step into their compound. I would be thrown out. Incidentally, the same people invite me over to their house today and call me 'Gangubai' with great respect. There are so many incidents that I will never forget--I
remember singing for the Belgaum Congress session which was attended by Gandhiji--my only paranoia throughout the programme was that I would be asked to eat my food separately."

And it is against this backdrop that it becomes essential to study the evolution of one of the greatest female musicians of our times. Gangubai's mother was a Carnatic music vocalist, but once her daughter started learning Hindustani music, she gave up her own style of singing so that her daughter could best hone her talents.

Gangubai's stage debut took place in Bombay, at the Bombay Music Circle, where she was heard by several eminent musicians. After her debut here, Jadden Bai (mother of film actress Nargis) convinced her to participate in a music conference in Calcutta. Gangubai recalls, "In Calcutta, when the organizers saw me, they insisted that I first sing in a private sitting a night before my concert was scheduled. I couldn't understand why they couldn't wait till the next day. Nisar Husain Khan Saheb took me aside and explained that the organizers had doubts about what I, a frail girl at that time, was capable of! I sang and was greatly appreciated. In fact, I was awarded a gold medal by the Maharaja of Tripura. At the same concert, I kept remembering my mother who was no more, and just then felt a hand on my shoulder. When I turned around, I saw K. L. Saigal, who said, 'bahut surila' (very melodious). I was happy but then very upset that a strange man should touch me!"

Other than her mother, Gangubai owes her musical training to Shri Krishnacharya, Shri Dattopant Desai and most significantly, to Pt. Rambhau Kundgolkar, better known as Sawai Gandharva--guru and teacher to many eminent musicians including Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and Firoze Dastur. Another strong influence on Gangubai's music, though indirect, was the singer from Agra, Zohrabai. Says Gangubai, "Even today I love Zohrabai's music."

Reminiscing about her training with her guru Sawai Gandharva, Gangubai recalls, "Guruji lived in Kundgol and I in Hubli--a distance of about 30 kilometres. I formally started learning from him somewhere around 1937, by which time I had a family to look after and anyway, it would have been impossible to live in Kundgol with him like Bhim-'Anna' (Bhimsen Joshi) did. And so I would travel from Hubli to Kundgol by train every evening, accompanied by my uncle Ram-'Anna', who lived with us. I still remember vividly the reception I received whenever I walked down the streets to guruji's house in Kundgol. People would rush out of their houses and jeer, 'Dekho, dekho, gaanewali aiyi hai' (see, see, the singer has come). It was humiliating, but I got used to it."

On the actual technique of training, Gangubai says, "Guruji did not teach me more than four Ragas. He often drew an analogy between swaras and money and said that one must spend only as much as is required of both. My practice would follow this method. I was given a certain 'palta' and would have to keep repeating it for days on end. It seemed
boring and monotonous then, but later I thanked him for this rigorous training. The entire relationship with a guru was different in those days. Our respect for him was so great that there was no question of us asking him to teach us something particular, not because of our blind devotion, but because of our innate belief that he knew what was best
for us. I remember getting caught by him invariably, whenever I tried something new. For instance, on radio, I sang Raga Bhinbhas [sic], working it out on my own, quite confident that guruji would not hear me, as there was no electricity in Kundgol. But as luck would have it, he happened to be in Belgaum that evening. I was subsequently taken to task for using a komal dhaivat in Bhinbhas. This was followed by comprehensive training of the Raga. There are so many Ragas with which I associate a strange incident with guruji--Suha, Marwa ... the list is endless."

But right through her days of training and more so after that, Gangubai's major concern was grappling with the more immediate financial problems that she increasingly found herself in. As Gangubai puts it, "Peace of mind is very essential in anything that you do--particularly in music. But in my case, it was just the opposite. What new things
could I learn when I was constantly disturbed and unhappy? And I tell you, this whole concept of getting lost in music and forgetting the world around you, is a myth. In my case, I can openly say that my troubles and problems were not forgotten by just holding the tanpura in my hand. When I would sit down for riyaz, I would, on the contrary, break down and cry over the daily scene. Over the question of just surviving through the next day. And it wasn't for me that I was worried, but for the entire family that I supported. I personally never thought of becoming rich, of having a new car or house. Those ambitions never entered my mind. All I knew then was the money was not enough. There were many humiliations I had to face because of this. A certain lady musician in Pune invited me over to her house one day. Her mother asked how much I charged for a concert. I told her Rs 125. She suggested that I move over to Pune and accept all her daughter's rejected programmes. They knew I was very badly off. I was insulted by this suggestion and left their house immediately. But later I thought that maybe they were trying to be helpful."

Gangubai's relationship with her husband Shri Gururao Kaulgi has played a very significant role in her life. He proposed a civil marriage to her, but she turned it down because "he belonged to a respectable family and I wanted him to continue to belong there." Gangubai insisted that he marry his cousin and in fact grew very fond of his wife and their children.

Her selfless devotion to him was never considered a sacrifice by her and even though he was a brahmin, a lawyer, it was ironically she who supported him throughout. "He did not practise law and so whatever money I earned, I just placed before him. He invested in business--trucks, cars--but lost everything. I could not bear to see him unhappy. Often he would disappear from home for months on end. The bank people would come and harass me, ask for my property as I was unable to repay the loans. This happened several times. I had to sell everything I had. I will never forget or forgive myself for not being by his bedside before he died. I had a programme in Bombay, but I did not want to go. He insisted because we needed the money. While I was performing, he died."

On her life as a performer, Gangubai recalls the grand old days of the All India Music Conference, when the best in the music world--Omkarnath, Kesarbai, Bismillah Khan, Allauddin Khan, Siddeshwari Devi and many others would come for nine days, from December 25 to January 1 every year and hear each other sing. Each artiste was assigned two sittings. "It was a great experience. Unfortunately those days are over. Nowadays, you seldom see an artiste listening to another artiste. Also, the sangeet jalsas, would go on for hours. I remember the tickets were priced at 50 paise for sitting on the ground and a rupee for a chair! All this may sound quaint today.

"But there was a strong bond between us artistes in the old days. I remember when Siddheshwari Devi was laid in bed with paralysis, we went to meet her and asked her if she needed help. She asked me to sing Bhairavi for her. She listened with tears in her eyes."

Gangubai has many more reflections--on the dance she once learnt--kathak, on her mother whom she loved dearly, on the musical scenario, on concerts, on gharanas, on life, on students of today, on her voice, which many brand as "more manly than the best male voice."

Hubli, the town which has seen Gangubai at every stage of her life, paid a touching tribute to the grand old lady recently on the occasion of her seventy-fifth birthday. The three-day celebration was attended by all those close to her, including her family, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Mrs Vijaya Mulley (who has known Gangubai for many years, done research on her and recently made an extremely sensitive film on her), Dr. S. S. Gore, Bhairappa, H. Y. Shardaprasad and several others. Said Shardaprasad, "The greatness of this lady lies in her simplicity--it is this that draws her to both old and young alike." Pt. Bhimsen Joshi recounted his association with her and was moved by the occasion. The special photo and book exhibition on the Kirana gharana, mounted by Sateesh Paknikar of Pune, was outstanding. A book and a series of records released on the occasion throw special light on the life of Gangubai and contain well-researched, valuable material--a treasure for posterity.

Even today, at 75, and yet actively performing, recipient of every comprehensible award, including the Padma Bhushan, the Tansen Award, The Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, among others, Gangubai's experience with life does not allow her to be affected by any of it. She often laughs that Karnataka University has conferred a doctorate on her. "I have not studied beyond class V you know."

Reflecting on the time she was awarded the Padma Bhushan, she says, "Ramanna and I stayed up the whole night 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!"

A lot of people ask Gangubai what it feels like being 75. She smiles, but has no words. The look on her face tells you all. It is almost as if she is laughing at the words, scoffing those who shower her with honour and respectability now, when she no longer needs it; perhaps when she was 25 or 30 she would have had more use for it!