MATHIHALLI MADAN MOHAN writes from Hubli: The terminal illness had been stalking her for quite some time. But despite shuffling in and out of hospital frequently, she had not lost her zest for life or her love for music which was really her life.
Or at least she did not show.
The death of her daughter Krishna, who had emerged a singer by her own right (besides providing support to her mother in music concerts) four years ago dealt the big, psychological blow, creating a sort of void in her life, which was difficult to imagine; impossible to fill.
Gangubai Hanagal bore that loss too stoically, slowly picking up the threads.
Constant interaction with her admirers walking down memory line would bring a sparkle in her eyes. Doting members of the family—children, grand children, great grand children—often acted as antidote for all the physical suffering, pain and mental anguish.
But the illness at last had its last laugh on Tuesday morning.
The queen of the Kirana gharana may not be with the connoisseurs in person, but her memory and music will linger to provide solace to tormented souls and act as beacon for those bobbing through the stormy seas of music.
Gangubai’s attachment to her home-town, Hubli, where she discovered her musical metier and blossomed to emerge as a titan in the field, and her home-state, Karnataka, was phenomenal.
Though she was born in Karnataka and spent all her life in the State, she received more patronage and encouragement from outside the State, mainly from Bombay and other North Indian centres like Delhi and Calcutta. She was more popular outside than inside.
Still, she politely declined all suggestions to move out of Hubli or Karnataka in the interest of better professional prospects. So much so that she did not even think of moving over to Bangalore too.
This, in a way, helped Hubli-Dharwad to carve out a niche for itself in the field of music with the twin towns justly earning the epithet as the last outpost of Hindustani music in a State which is more addicted to the Carnatic school of music.
Before the reorganisation of the States, this area was under the Bombay Presidency and was doted on by the small principalities all over, all whom happened to be vassals of the Peshwa Empire of Pune.
All of them invariably turned out to patrons of music with a steady stream of musical performers coming down from Bombay and other parts of North India. This had created a taste for Hindustani music in these parts of Karnataka.
Also, being midway between Poona and Bangalore, the musicians invited for performanace by the Maharaja of Mysore, would invariably touch down in Hubli-Dharwad to provide a rich fare to the music lovers.
Little wonder, Gangubai Hangal, Mallikarjun Mansur and Basavaraj Rajguru, all big guns in the world of music, had made Hubli-Dharwad their home, giving the twin towns a distinct musical personality. (Bhimsen Joshi who is also from this area moved over to settle down in Pune.)
Both Mansur and Rajguru are no more. With the passing away of Gangubai, and Bhimsen Joshi not getting younger by the day, the twin towns are poised to lose their eminent place.
Gangubai as a personality was quite unassuming, simple and unostentatious. Newcomers often mistook her frail frame and rustic appearance for an ordinary grandmother.
It was only when one enticed her to open out her heart, either at concerts which she loved to attend and never missed despite her failing health, or in personal interactions, that the eminence of her personality unfolded, making visitors look like pygmies before a true giant.
Who would have guessed that this was a life full of the cruellest trials and tribulations, of humble, hand-to-mouth beginnings, as she admitted in her autobiography Nanna Badukina Hadu (The song of my life), written with N.K. Kulkarni?
The credit for putting Gangubai on the path of music should go to her mother Ambabai, a recognised practitioner of the Carnatic style. To help her daughter pick up the nuances without being influenced by her own style, Ambabai stopped singing in Carnatic.
Ambabai would be a constant companion and source of help and encouragement as Gangubai made steady progress.
Gangubai’s inclination towards Hindustani music also began thanks to gramophone records and people like Bhaskar Buva, a known musicologist in those times, his disciples like Vakil Pitre and Master Krishna Rao in Dharwad, and after attending the music baithaks in Hubli of personalities like Hirabai Badodekar and Khan Saheb Abdul Karim Khan.
However, it was under Hulguru Krishtacharya that she had her initial training and then under Dattopant Desai.
What however gave a new and distinct turn to her career was the tutelage she had under the celebrated Savai Gandharva who agreed to take her as disciple and teach her as and when he would come to his native town Kundgol near Hubli.
Savai Gandharva was part of the professional drama troupes staging in those musical dramas, where he had a stellar role to perform. When ill-health made Savai Gandharva to move over to Bombay in 1937, Gangubai had two years of rigorous training under him.
It is this which laid solid foundation to whatever she picked up.
Gangubai became one of his front-ranking disciples along with classicists like Bhimsen Joshi and Firoze Dastur. And her speciality lay in the fact that she proved to be a traditionalist in her approach to music and never strayed away from the parampara laid down by her illustrious mentor.
About her guru, Gangubai would say that she would always overawed by his personality. He was a hard task master who never remained content till the students came upto his expectations. “We never had the gumption to talk or ask any questions. We had to learn the ragas sometimes without even knowing their names.”
Gradually, one by one, all the vistas of the Kirana gharana unfolded for Gangubai.
Sawai Gandharva was a man of few words. It was from his mood that one had to decipher whether he was happy with a disciple’s performanance. Gangubai wrote in her autobiography that after returning from one concert, she did not dare ask his opinion about how she had fared.
Only when he said, “Come, Gangu, we will go and have masala milk,” did she understand.
There were three trying moments in Gangubai’s life which proved traumatic.
The first was when he lost her mother. Then when her husband, Guru Rao, was in hospital, she was required to go to Bombay for a concert. Guru Rao, who was a connoisseur of music himself, prevailed upon her to make the journey. On her return she was shocked to find that he was no more.
This was in March 1966.
There was another national programme of All India Radio (AIR) coming up within ten days. She decided that in the circumstances she would not go. But a number of wellwishers, including the late Congressman N.S. Hardikar, pressured her not to give up the opportunity in the interest of the career.
The third incident, after the autobiography had been published when she lost her only daughter and companion four years ago.
Gangubai’s music career had been question of dal-roti for the family and she had to accept the offers of concerts and mehfils which would bring money to keep the pot boiling and help her to educate her two sons.
She stayed in the same house which had been built for her by her husband and she turned down the plans for renovation, since the house was full of memories.
A tonsil operation changed the tonal characteristics of her voice, which became more manly, so to say, making it difficult for newcomers to correlate the personality with the raga which flowed from the radio. But it hardly affected her career and she was happy the change brought her voice something akin to that of Guru.
She narrated an interesting incident when she had gone to Delhi to give a radio programme. Before leaving for the studios, she had told a child in her host’s house to watch out for her programme on the radio. On return when she enquired, the child said, “No aunty. Instead of your voice I heard a male voice.”
Over and above everything, Gangubai Hanagal was essentially a fine human being. She had motherly affection for all those who came to see her and in functions in which she would participate she would make a short and heart touching speech.
She was the recipient of countless number of awards and felicitations. She received the honorary doctorate and both the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. She had travelled extensively all over the country and abroad for her programmes, for which there was no dearth. She had had interactions with all the top names in the field of music.
The only recognition she had received in Karnataka initially was when she was nominated to the Karnataka Legislative Council. Only during the past 4-5 years had the government taken an initiative do something substantial to perpetuate her name.
A gurukula type institution is being built in Hubli to train youngsters and a museum has been started by her grandson Manoj Hangal. It is only hoped that these institutions would keep the memory of doyenne alive for generations to come.
Photograph: A soil model of Gangubai Hanagal created by Manjunath Hiremath in tribute to the departed legend in Dharwad on Wednesday (Karnataka Photo News)