Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hindustani classical vocalist Gangubai Hangal -- Died

A rebel who broke caste and gender barriers, a perfectionist and a singer par excellence - this is how Hindustani classical vocalist Gangubai Hangal will always be known to her numerous fans and fellow musicians.

The doyenne of the Kirana Gharana, who died in Karnataka's Hubli town Tuesday morning at the age of 97, had often said that she made music because she felt it was her duty to hand down her music to future generations for posterity.

In her musical career, Hangal was almost reborn when she lost her voice after a brief illness but returned with a new masculine one that was considered more gifted than many of her contemporaries.

'Initially, Hangal had a sweet and a high-pitched voice. But mid-career, she lost her voice after a brief illness. When she recovered, the tenor of her voice changed and it acquired a masculine timbre. She overcame the problem and continued to sing in her new androgynous voice, which was powerful than many male singers,' said veteran music writer and Hindustani classical music aficionado Kuldeep Kumar.

Born on March 5, 1913, in a small town called Hangal in Dharwad district (now Haveri district) in Karnataka, Hangal was often looked down upon by her peers since her boatman-agriculturist father Chikkurao Nadiger was from the fishermen's caste.

Hangal was also ridiculed as a 'gaanewali' for being one of the few women trying to breach the male-dominated world of Hindustani classical singing.

However, Hangal, whose mother Ambabai was a Carnatic musician, went on to become one of the illustrious members of the Kirana Gharana founded by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. Other exponents like Bhimsen Joshi, Roshanara Begum (Pakistan) and Mallikarjun Mansur also belonged to the gharana.

'After an early spell of training under exponents Dattopant Desai and Krishnacharya, she learnt music for over 15 years from Sawai Gandharv,' said Sanjeev Bharghava, a Delhi-based culture activist and promoter of Hindustani classical music.

As a child, she ran around the house trying to snatch bits of gramophone music being played around street corners.

'Gangubai had several odds stacked against her. But she smashed her way through them. She broke gender and caste barriers in music and should rather be described as the 'father of khayals'. The emancipation of women in Hindustani classical music began with her,' added Bhargava.

Gangubai was part of a group that sang to welcome Mahatma Gandhi and other Congress leaders at the 1924 Belguam session of the Indian National Congress. She used to sing at Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations and her big break came at a concert in 1933 in Bombay.

'For my first recording, when HMV invited me to Bombay, I went because they were taking care of the journey and sightseeing. Later, they gave me Rs.400 for my third recording but my family was annoyed as my name read Gandhari Hubali on the record,' she wrote in her memoir 'Nanna Badukina Haadu' (The Song Of My Life).

Gangubai had a great sense of humour.

In her memoir, she sums up the male domination in the field of classical singing thus: 'If a male musician is a Muslim, he becomes an Ustad. If he is a Hindu, he becomes a Pandit. But women like Kesarbai and Mogubai just remain 'Bai's.'

At the age of 16, Hangal married Gururao Kaulgi, a Brahmin lawyer. Her two sons were by her side when she died. Her only daughter died earlier in 2003.

Hangal succumbed to cardiac and respiratory problems, but had been suffering from bone cancer since 2001.

'I invited Gangubai Hangal to perform in Delhi in 2002 but she could not come because of the bone cancer,' Bhargava said.

Hangal's last concert was held three years ago in Dharward, when she was 94. She held the audience in thrall.

'I remember sending a team of young musicians for festival to Dharwad three years ago. We requested Gangubai Hangal to bless the musicians. We also sent a team to Gangubai's home and recorded her voice,' Jayant Kastuar, secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), told IANS.

According to Kastuar, Gangubai was also made a fellow of the SNA - an honour given to only 30 musicians.

The most abiding influence in her life was her guru Sawai Gandharv. 'He would teach us one note and would not go further till we mastered it. We were taught to make most of sur and made to practise for hours,' Hangal had once said.

As a result, she had the ability to innovate on one raag for two-three hours at a stretch, recalls Talwalkar.

The musician was honoured with prestigious awards like the Karnataka Sangeet Nritya Academy Award in 1962, the Padma Bhushan in 1971, Padma Vibhushan in 2002 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1973.

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