There must be thousands of music lovers scattered across this country, each of whom thinks only he or she knows what a unique singer Gangubai Hangal was. And now she is gone. Only her music remains: timeless, pure and awesome in its grand architecture.
In the heavily gendered environs of early 20th century, when all professional women singers were considered social outcastes, the poor daughter of a marginal farmer of Nishad (fishermen) caste whose mother was a professional singer, stood little chance of learning classical music at the feet of a renowned guru.
In later interviews, Gangubai would describe how as a young girl she stood at street corners riveted to the sound of a phonograph playing inside a house. Her own mother, her first guru, was a singer of Carnatic music. As she took Gangubai’s training in hand, the taunts of the local boys became more pronounced. They would throw cow dung at her when she went out and beat tin cans near her hut to distract her as she practised her scales. And, perhaps, this is why she never gave in to populist singing. Even in her younger days, no note of hers was allowed to stray into the sweet frivolity that a sex role subtly demanded of women singers. The dignity and respect that she had earned was not to be bartered away for cheap popularity among audiences.
“A famous male singer,” Gangubai once said, “if he is a Hindu, will become a Pandit after he has arrived. If he is a Muslim, he will begin to be addressed respectfully as Ustad. But no matter how gifted a female singer, in our society, even a Kesar Bai and Moghu Bai will always be addressed as a baiji (courtesan)”.
Gangubai’s mother finally approached Sawai Gandharva—the austere Brahmin disciple of the legendary Kirana singer Abdul Karim Khan—who accepted this phenomenally gifted young girl despite reservations.
Sawai Gandharva’s training was painfully slow and demanding. Gangubai was made to practise one set of notes over and over again for days on end. You have to do it, said the guru, and the disciple wiped her tears and picked up her tanpura unquestioningly. A real guru, it is accepted wisdom, will always be ahead of the disciple, as a true disciple will always be ahead of academics and critics.
It was her Brahmin guru who gave Gangubai the self-confidence that finally freed her of her misgivings about being a low-caste girl, the daughter of a singer bai.
It is true, and important, that for Gangubai’s fans, her background never mattered. She will be known only as a rare singer with a strong, almost masculine, voice whose peaceful and unhurried delineation of ragas with no frills will remain the purest form of classical singing. Do not be in a hurry, Sawai Gandharva had told her, treat the notes with the love and reverence that a miser has for his gold. Leave the audiences panting to hear the next note and then complete the cycle with poise and dignity.
Hadn’t Alladiya Khan Sahib, the doyen of Jaipur gharana once said of a Kirana gharana singer that his was a music that meandered slowly, like a man going to call upon a loved one? When the singer completed the cycle of beats, it was not like a casual nod, but a firm and confident arrival of a friend.
Gangubai did not agree with those who said that while singing, music will wipe out all worries from the singer’s mind. When I pick up my tanpura and sit down to practise, she said in an interview, I wonder what fresh struggles tomorrow will bring me. Struggles in life will not disappear. They follow me, surround me and, finally, they enrich my music like an orchestra.
In the age of iPhone and Twitter and minute noodles, we will need music such as Gangubai’s.
It alone will remind listeners of the intense human struggle of a true artist to achieve perfection, to have a mind of her own, her physical and emotional vulnerabilities, her emotional debt to her teachers, the destructiveness of love, sensual longings, grief and, of course, the rapture of ultimately arriving at that perfect note.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org