On a song: A rasika's journey

On a song: A rasika's journey

Gangubai Hangal

On a song: A rasika's journey

 A young GangubaiIn CS Lakshmi’s ‘The Singer and the Song’, doyenne of the Kirana gharana, Padmavibhushan Dr Gangubai Hangal speaks of how she doesn’t like to “confine her music to definitions and it is with this idea of clearing the boundaries that she doesn’t sing bhajans.” Nor does she believe “any gender categorisations when it comes to rendering music.” She feels that “music enable hers to bring painting, dancing and sculpture to life.” A truly free-spirited musician, Gangubai’s is a story of dedication to music through all her hardships. Her contribution to the propagation of Indian classical music is something that will be remembered in a long time.

Her music

Gangubai was one of the scintillating exponents of the gharana founded by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan and Ustad Abdul Waheed. The other important exponents of this gharana are Suresh Babu Mane, Hirabai Barodekar, Pt Sawai Gandharva, Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Pt Basavaraj Rajguru, Begum Parween Sultana and Pt Firoz Dastur.

Some of the ragas popularised by the Kirana tradition are: Kalyan, Pooriya, Lalat, Darbari, Miyan Ki Todi, Abhogi Kanada, and the like. Kirana gharana bears a huge influence on any vocalist of north Karnataka — Dharwad-Hubli — which has seen greats like Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Pt Mallikarjun Mansur, Pt Kumar Gandharva, Pt Basvaraj Rajguru and Dr Gangubai Hangal.

Gangubai mastered the Kirana gharana style and spread the sweetness of her music all over India, through several prestigious festivals, radio broadcasts and recordings, carving a niche for herself in the music world, otherwise dominated by males. Using notes ‘economically to build a suspense or anticipation’ was an important part of her style of singing and an important build up to the tension-and-release mechanism.

As Rajeev Nair puts it in his book, A Rasika’s Journey through Hindustani Music, “Every swar (note) is approached and dealt with its bhaav; melodic ideas paint a picture of the raga mood as seen by the artiste himself.” Kirana gharana is known for its evocative element and usage of tonal nuances. The impact created is one of tunefulness/emotional sonorousness. The lyrics (bol) of the bandish (composition) are used in alaap. Layakari is given lesser focus as compared to Agra or Jaipur gharanas. The usage of sargam in tans, sets it apart from many other gharanas.

Gangubai in her early years did sing a few patriotic and Kannada bhaktigeete, but later discontinued that as she believed that her classical raga rendition itself was filled with bhakti. Her music was made so soulful by not only discipline and riyaz, but also her aesthetic side; she felt that a musician could appreciate other art forms better with their extended aesthetic sense.

Having been born to a Carnatik vocalist mother, one would not have imagined young Gangubai to be such a bright star in the Hindustani world. The environs of Dharwad beckoned her towards Hindustani music, but it was the sacrifice of her mother (who gave up singing Carnatik music) that paved the way for Gangubai’s blossoming into a Hindustani vocalist of repute. One word of praise from the legendary Ustad Abdul Karim Khan Saheb tilted the scales completely in favour of Hindustani music, as Gangubai narrates in her autobiography The Song of My Life.

Other than her mother, Gangubai trained briefly from Shri Dattopant Desai and Shri Krishnacharya before being trained by the doyen of the Kirana Gharana — Sawai Gandharva aka Pt Rambhau Kundgolkar for nearly 15 years (also guru of Pt Bhimsen Joshi and Firoze Dastur). In The Song of My Life, Gangubai recollects how she repetitively practiced small note-phrases (palta), although it seemed boring and monotonous, but in later life, she realised the worth of such rigorous training by her guru. According to her, the guru-shishya bonding was different in her times: “There was no question of us asking him to teach us something in particular; we had innate belief that he knew what was best,” she reportedly said.

Gangubai in her elementsGangubai — Padma Vibhushan and Tansen awardee, who has to her credit five doctorates in recognition of her proficiency — shared a strong bond with her mother who was her pillar of support. She recalls how when her mother stroked her, she would sing better. After her loss, at every milestone of achievement Gangubai wished that her mother were alive to see it all. Her father hailed from Ranibennur and had more of a soft corner towards Carnatic styled dasarapada that her mother used to sing. She married Shri Gurunath Kaulgi at the tender age of 16, but continued with the name of Hangal. She had three children.

Her daughter Krishna Hangal was gifted with a sweet voice was very able singer too — but passed away at a very young age of cancer. Although her sons did not become musicians, they are active in music propagation arena. She had expressed that merely doing music wasn’t enough anymore in this generation and that a good academic background was necessary, although she was always open to their learning it alongside.


Through her younger days, Gangubai was faced with tremendous hardships, having lost the support of her mother early, and having had to perform even as her husband lay on his deathbed. Gangubai Hangal narrates the various phases of her life, comparing it to the ragas Jogiya, Todi and Basant Bahar. Even through such tragic times, loss of near and dear ones, financial crises, Gangubai mustered courage and set-off to resume her arduous musical journey, one milestone after another. Even the drastic change in her tone did not deter her focus or dedication. Being a truly inspirational woman-achiever of this century, she has been a role model to many a classical vocalist like me. According to her, “The sorrows and joys have mingled a little bitter and little sweet in her life like various instruments in an orchestra” — in many ways, this is the woman of the 21st century who endures and still bounces back with sheer determination to produce a creative marvel.

Music and philosophical thinking were inseparable she felt and with her typical modesty used to say that she owes all her success to her Guru’s benevolence, mother’s blessings and her maternal uncle Ramanna’s support and good wishes. Even with all her popularity, travels across the globe on performances and numerous awards, she would still listen to and appreciate younger musicians and have a kind word of blessing for them.

Her Hubli Arts Circle was a vital contributor to the propagation of Hindustani classical music in the North Karnataka region. The recently built museum is also a step in the direction of doing true seva towards classical music. She was truly an exemplary personality for her soulful robust music, guru-bhakti and sense of dharma with which she gave back to the musical society.

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