“Bhima se mili? Baat kiya? Badhaayi di? Kaisa hai woh?” Too many questions from Gangubai Hangal. Her grandson Manoj had warned me: “She loves asking questions and loves talking. So don’t tire her out.” At 96, after wowing the music world with her characteristic masculine voice (the result of a tonsilectomy) for nearly seven decades, she had the right to ask. I could only answer in the negative. I hadn’t met the ailing Bhimsen Joshi, her gurubhai, just awarded the Bharat Ratna, and her fellow traveller in their journey through Hindustani music. I assured Gangubai I’d meet him and offer my respects when I visited Pune again.
Yours truly, a highly undisciplined student of music, had last year taken the bus from Pune to the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad, that confluence of Hindustani and Carnatic music with such magic in the air that virtually anyone is converted into a musician. The region boasts of legends like Bhimsen Joshi, Basavaraj Rajguru and Mallikarjun Mansur. Then there was Gangubai, a woman who graced the stage with an elegance beyond compare. But her achievement must be seen in the backdrop of twin drawbacks she had to overcome. First, she was a woman; second, she was born to a father who belonged to the boatman caste. It was a reality she had to contend with in a highly caste-conscious society.
Memories of that fortuitous, albeit brief, meeting with Gangubai are etched in my mind. In the Dharwad region, music is as natural as the air one breathes. As the bus raced through the night, an old Bihag rendition rang in my ears. Appropriately enough, a night melody. Just the tone-setter for the next day’s appointment. The autorickshaw driver, the bus driver—everyone in Hubli knows the legend’s address. I rang the bell at ‘Gangalahari’ in Deshpande Nagar and walked into a house where history breathed from every nook and corner. Gangubai’s home bore testimony to her musical journey. Photographs of her contemporaries, the tanpura she used way back in the 1950s, now with a broken string, her awards, including the Padma Vibhushan, were all neatly on display, the work of her grandson Manoj.
Inside the modest white house, built for her by her husband Gururao, which retained more or less its original form, I could hear her wheezing. I spotted a big mirror in the place normally reserved in living rooms for TV sets. “She likes to watch people come in,” Manoj told me. And then she appeared, slowly but unaided, and sat on a bed on which photographs were laid out. “Fetch me the hot water bottle. It gets a little cold here,” she said. That voice, so deep it seemed to rise from her abdomen and almost manly in tenor and authority, was enough to raise goosepimples.
Gangubai’s home is full of memories and memorabilia. The black & white photographs of her mother Ambabai and her daughter Krishna offered ready cues for talk. “They said Krishnas’s voice moved the soul. Mine moved the heart,” she whispered in a faraway voice. Her daughter, who had been her constant companion, had died six years ago. Her husband had left the world long ago. The only companions of this long-distance runner who faced all the problems life threw at her with grace and no rancour were her memories. She spoke of her mother, an accomplished Carnatic singer who gave up Carnatic music so that the daughter’s Hindustani music wasn’t impaired. The living room, where her guru Sawai Gandharva stayed for a few days, is a venerated place. “For months, I didn’t have the courage to step in there after I heard of his death,” she said. And with a touch of wry amusement, she recounted how Badi Motibai, the veteran from Benares, had asked her to adopt at least the vice of chewing paan—so that she became a complete artiste.
Then she suddenly switched to asking questions. Do you sing? How many hours do you practise? Without waiting, she stepped back into the 1940s—or was it the 1930s?—when she had to take a train every morning to nearby Kundagol to study with Sawai Gandharva, who taught her only a few ragas, believing it was more important to practise to perfection rather than to learn one composition a day. It sounded like a mild rebuke to those in a tearing hurry to perform.
She said she wanted to live till she was 100. But perhaps at 96, she got a little lonely and wanted to join loved ones who’d already said goodbye. She leaves behind her music.