As a schoolgirl, she sang the welcome song at the only Congress session Mahatma Gandhi presided over. In her teens, her music was recorded by HMV. In 1936, she sang on All India Radio for the first time as a stand-in for Hirabai Barodekar. Thus began Gangubai Hangal’s journey on the road to musical greatness.
Gangubai has sat at the high table of Indian classical music for the last 50 years. Though much admired for the intensity and profundity of her music, she has never been an icon. A disciplined professional, her simplicity and generosity have endeared her to fellow musicians who call her ‘akka’ (elder sister). A sheaf of honours, including a Padma Vibhushan, haven’t gone to her head. She makes no bones about the fact that she has to earn in order to feed a large family.
Now she tells us the story of her life. Three persons stand out in this simple tale: her mother Ambabai, a Carnatic musician who stopped singing to enable her daughter to take up Hindustani music; her guru, Sawai Gandharva, who also taught Feroze Dastur and Bhimsen Joshi (for 13 years she took a train from Hubli to his home in Kundgol a few hours away); and her husband, lawyer Gururao Kaulgi, whom she married at 16.
Gangubai has no pretensions to being a writer. This is an "as told to" book. The ghost writer in the original Kannada was N.K. Kulkarni, a broadcaster known for his light writing. The English translation is by another AIR man, G.N. Hangal. Gangubai is a lively, even chirpy, conversationalist, full of anecdotes and sharp but unmalicious comments on fellow musicians. Kulkarni has not drawn her out well. She has enough sense of humour to make fun of her own masculine voice. Bendre the poet had once said that the unexorcised ghost of a gawai must have made its permanent home in her voice. The grand little lady of music deserved a better book, but given how rare books on our musicians are, it’s welcome.