As a little girl, she stole mangoes from her neighbour’s garden. Of course, she was shooed away–not because she was stealing, but because she was ‘the singer’s daughter’. It wasn’t a very conducive period for women artistes of the time to make their mark, but this ‘singer’s daughter’ grew up to be Vidushi Gangubai Hangal, a Hindustani Khayal maestro.
In the early 1900s, women of ‘respectable families’ weren’t allowed to sing publicly. Pursuing music professionally was left to the devadasis (courtesans) alone. The devadasi tradition had come to be equated with courtesan affairs, and female singers were looked down upon. According to historian Dr S P Vagishwari, the taboo those days wasn’t about being a musician, but taking the art to a public platform. “In ancient India, women rarely stepped out of their homes to sing and dance; only women of certain communities were allowed to. The temple devadasis, who were talented musicians and dancers, were ‘married’ to the presiding deity of the temple they were employed at. They did not have real husbands to protect them. So, these women became easy targets of the temple trustees–aristocrats, general, merchants, and lords–and landed up being their paramours,” she says.
The devadasi tradition was a taboo in the 1900s, and it was a challenge for Gangubai who hailed from a family of devadasis. Born in Dharwad, in 1913, to a mother trained in Carnatic music, Gangubai had a natural facility for music. When Ambabai saw that her daughter had a gift, she trained Gangubai in Carnatic music and later moved the family to Hubli, in 1928, so that her girl could be trained in Hindustani music as well. The Hangals belonged to the Gangamata caste. Many Gangamata women were matriarchal because they weren’t officially married. Ambabai was the lover of a Brahmin agriculturalist Chikkurao Nadiger, just as her daughter Gangubai was the Brahmin lawyer Gururao Kaulgi’s beau.
Ambabai carried on her matriarchal surname, as did Gangubai and her children after her. But given the musical maestro she eventually turned out to be, Gangubai made the name ‘Hangal’ legendary, bringing respect and laurels to it. With a deep and powerful voice, and an impressive command over tempo, timbre and vocal range, Gangubai took the Hindustani Khayal genre by storm. She became a champion of the Hindustani Kirana Gharana, and went on to win some of the most prestigious awards in the country–laurels that any artiste would be honoured to receive.
“It helped that Gangubai had a kind of quiet courage. If being a female musician was difficult, then, stepping into the Hindustani Khayal genre was no less than entering a lion’s den.”