Gangubai, a devi after allJul 24th, 2009 | By editor | Category: City Culture, Featured Articles, Music & Dance
I must have been about 12 when my ears would perk up every time I heard the music of Roshanara Begum, Gangubai Hangal, Hirabai Barodekar or Narayan Rao Vyas.
It was listening to them that I made up my mind to become a singer. Gangubai’s voice then was high-pitched, very different from the deep voice she came to be known by later, but even then, it was a full and vigorous voice, full of intensity, with a ‘no-nonsense’ attitude that fascinated me. My own earlier style of singing was deeply affected by these veterans of the Kirana and Gwalior gharanas and it was only later that I consciously developed and nuanced it into the Rampur style under Ustad Mushtaq Husain Khan.
I heard Gangubai-ji on several occasions. A short-statured, straightforward and simple woman with a towering voice and style had an aroma that will live for generations to come.
Her renditions of Bahar, Adana, Bhairav, Abhogi still ring in my ears. Hers was a most unusual voice. Its volume, depth and visceral power gave inspiration to so many women singers in our times when shrill crooners had become the norm. All these singers had their own individual stamp on their style even if they did belong to the same gharana: Abdul Karim Khan, Sawai Gandharva (Gangubai’s guru), Bhimsen Joshi (her guru-bhai), Hirabai Barodekar; they stood out like solid pillars upholding the castle of music.
To have the strength to carry on singing when her voice completely altered would be the sort of trauma that could kill any singer through and through — but ultimately Gangubai came out literally the stronger from that. Metamorphosed, empowered with a new voice that no one can forget.
The entire music community respected her, but Hubli and Dharwad revered her. Yet, this respect came after unimaginable hardships. Few can appreciate the sort of personal losses, segregation, caste-discrimination and gender-oppression she faced. The only bread-winner for her family, the loss of her husband and daughter, and yet Gangubai braved on. But ultimately which musician does not surrender herself to divine will? That is the only source for the sort of strength needed to still sing despite the vicissitudes of her personal life.
Witnessing the lives of women artistes such as her made me acutely aware of the fine balance I myself was treading all through my own career. Only one generation (if that!) older than me, my favourite female classical singers: Roshanara Begum, Gangubai Hangal, Padmavati Shaligram had led arduous lives in and out of luck with fame, fortune and family support. It was their stories that made it imperative for me to start drawing public and intellectual attention to the state of women artistes through a series of music festivals in India and later outside.
Gandhari to Gangubai
It was in that context once, after seeing Vijaya Mulay’s sensitive documentary on Gangubai that a conversation with her started that even in our post-independence culture, we still did not have any way to refer to women artists. Male musicians grew into Pandits and Ustads, but what could a woman musician be called?
When she was born, Gangubai was actually given such a beautiful name: Gandhari, but her recording company realised that our audiences were such that they would only buy a gaane-wali’s records if she was a bai. Some of the bai-s retaliated, and insisted on being called devi-s instead. Theirs were poignant stories. Isn’t it satisfying then to know, that by the end of 97 years, Gandhari Hangal collected some 25-odd titles, a Padma Vibhushan, she was a Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi — fame, respect, honours, all absolutely deserved. She was someone who laughed about the fact that although she had only received ‘formal’ school training till class five,
she had received honorary doctorates for the breadth and depth of her knowledge and sat on the governing boards of Universities. She had given hundreds of performances in schools and colleges to enrich the youth with her brave voice, wisdom and spirit.
The last time I spoke to Gangubai-ji was on the telephone, on behalf of an organisation requesting her to come to Delhi to accept an award, but she declined.
She was not strong enough to come all the way to receive a shawl and a memento. It left me all the more aware about how important it is to celebrate artists when they are still able to contribute, when the appreciation can still inspire.
(The author is a renowned classical singer.)