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.”
Success didn’t come easy to Gangubai, given the caste barriers of the time. As journalist Pradeep Thakur writes in his book Indian Music Masters of Our Time, Gangubai is known to have shared the hurdles she had to face. “I remember singing for the Belgaum Congress session which was attended by Gandhiji. My only paranoia throughout the programme was that I would be asked to eat my food separately,” she had said. After the Belgaum Congress debut in 1924, she was invited to participate in a music conference in Kolkata. The organisers had doubts about her abilities and insisted that she sing in a private sitting before the conference. But when Gangubai sang, she stole the show and was awarded with a gold medal by the Maharaja of Tripura.
Gangubai was a single mother of three and a professional singer, during a time when female musicians were scorned at. Yet, she found the courage to travel across the country in order to strengthen her career. She reached great heights when she was noticed by the record company HMV, and it released her first disc in 1932, in Mumbai. In 1933, she gave her first live programme on All India Radio (AIR). After she sang the Raga Durga on AIR in 1935, Guru Sawai Gandharva took her under his wing and trained her for a career in playback singing. Under his tutelage, Gangubai evolved into an ultimate talent. She was much sought-after by film-makers, radio, recording studios and concert organisers. Says Indian classical vocalist Sujata Iyer, “In the field of music, it is imperative that an aspiring musician be in the right place, at the right time, in order to be noticed by the right people. It is remarkable that Gangubai Hangal managed this at a time when female musicians faced contempt from the society.”
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. The genre was already satiated with male singers; there were many stellar names among them like Bhimsen Joshi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Basavraj Rajguru and Kumar Gandharva. Yet, Gangubai managed to not only create her own space amongst them, but also become their peer.
Today, Gangubai Hangal is known as a musical legend who was a lioness amidst lions, a vidushi amidst the pandits. Gangubai wasn’t a fighter, but in her own quiet way, she managed to challenge society’s idea of respectability, and etched her name as one of the musical giants in the pages of Hindustani classical music. All her life, she’d faced contempt on account of her caste, surname, and gender. But with the fame, came irreversible respect. The neighbours who had once chased her away because she was ‘the singer’s daughter’, welcomed her into their homes. She had been shooed away as a Hangal, but respectfully invited back as Vidushi Gangubai Hangal.