Recollections of Gangubai Hangal at her death by Sanjiva Prasad

I was perhaps 4 or 5 years old when I was first introduced to Gangubai Hangal's singing. My parents had taken me to listen to her at a concert at the Shankarlal Music Festival. Those days it was held in the grounds of Modern School Barakhamba Road, under a pandal. It was late at night, way past the bedtime of a child, but then I wasn't in school yet, and so was there rolling on the striped dhurries spread on the ground. I can't recall the ragas she sang -- I suppose they may have included Maru Behag and Chandrakauns -- but I couldn't escape the striking impression of a small lady sitting with one hand to her ear being transformed into a powerful roaring lion, a great big voice that brought you face to face with the heart of Hindustani music.

From then on, till I was out of my teens, we unfailingly heard her sing live whenever she came to Delhi. What was remarkable was that my father, who worked long hours for a most demanding boss, would make time to be there for almost every concert of hers. Over the next few years, thanks to their Kannada connection and some common acquaintances, Smt Vijaya Mulay and her sister Ambike for instance, we got to know Gangubai personally. In the 70s and 80s she stayed with us on more than a few occasions when she visited Delhi. She and her troupe lived a frugal austere life, travel by train "sleeper, not fuss class". And their staying arrangements were simple quite unlike the 5 star splurges lesser artists had begun indulging themselves in. I'd be made to move my things out of my room, and we'd move in a couple of extra beds for her, her daughter Krishna and her family to sleep there. In the daytime, the beds would be put together to make a makeshift stage on which she would practice, and my Miraj-made tanpura would be graced by the most illustrious hands that have handled it.

Once, when I was perhaps 13, I had a friend's guitar in the room, and she and Krishna-ji were immediately curious about its sound. They asked me to play and sing -- about the only song I could manage was Belafonte's "Jamaican Farewell". My modest performance was met with an almost childlike wonder that the notes sounded so much like the raga structure they were familiar with, and Krishna-ji immediately started humming a raga that used the same notes.

Gangubai-ji spoke with my parents in a dialect of Kannada which was not entirely familiar to me, so I'd speak with her in Hindi. But the subtlety and charm of her conversation came out so much more brilliantly in her mother tongue. She had a "nibbling wit", sharp but not biting, and often self-deprecating. After she was invested with the Padma Bhushan in 1971, she narrated how she was advised to wear a "sober-coloured sari" for the investiture ceremony. "Here I was fretting and worrying about what this 'sober' colour was, until someone told me that my sari was `sober' enough. And then when we got to Rashtrapati Bhawan, there was Mrs Saraswathi Giri wearing a yard of Zari, practically to her waist!"

She and Krishna-ji never failed to bring for us the very special Peda from Dharwar that they knew I was particularly fond of. I also had the wonderful experience of visiting them in their Hubli home in 1980, and was treated to her warm hospitality, and a complete tour of her modest house. Apart from introductions to members of the family whom I had only heard of but not met, the experience was special. To me, every nook seemed to carry a unique musical significance, as if a pakad from a raag had lodged itself behind a photo frame, or in the arm of a chair.

Over twenty years later, when she was in Delhi for a SPICMACAY event, she sang through the night, and I was sitting quietly in a corner, bleary-eyed but exhilarated, when Kiran Seth asked me to felicitate her with flowers at the end of the concert. Krishna-ji recognized me (after all the years), and told her mother, who immediately demanded of me whether my parents were there. I told her that my father was not too well, to which she readily countered, "But he is 10 years younger than I am". I promised to bring them over to her guesthouse room the next day. Their conversation was lively. One particular anecdote stood out. She related how in her youth she was at a music festival seated in a row of chairs, and had to pass in front of Kesarbai to go out. As she approached, the grand old lady stretched her leg out, halting the young Gangubai and keeping her in limbo, waiting until she, the reigning doyenne, deigned to lower her leg and let the younger musician pass. And while she stood there, Kesarbai spoke imperiously to her about "that man from your town" (namely Mallikarjun Mansur) "who has the effrontery to say he's of our gharana". The kind of musical tidbit that another exponent of her Kirana gharana, Sheila Dhar, would have brought to life for her readers.

Some years earlier, I'd taken my older son Siddhartha, who was about 6, to listen to her when she was singing at JNU, starting off the SPICMACAY Virasat series that year. After the concert, when I went over to meet her with Siddhartha in tow, she pointed remarked to him, "Kya gin rahe the jab main ga rahi thi? Taal seekh rahe ho kya?" Gangubai always loved to see her audience. She would invariably ask the organizers of a concert to not dim the lights in the hall. Music and the performance was close to worship, an experience to be shared with the audience. And in her small size and self-deprecating humility, there was a fierce pride in her achievements, her place in the constellation. She once famously turned down a plea from a political party to stand for local elections by saying that she had been born on this earth to be praised, not cursed by the commoners.

It's over 5 years since I last heard Gangubai singing in person. After the death of Krishna-ji she was disconsolate, and her own health began to deteriorate. My father's health was also failing, and their telephone conversations became fewer. But the last intimate memory I have is taking my sons to visit her and Krishna-ji at an apartment in the Asian Games village the morning after the Silver Jubilee celebrations of SPICMACAY over which she had presided as the senior-most musician (it was followed by a concert by her). On hearing that Aditya, then 5, too had started learning to sing, she made Siddhartha play the harmonium while Adu had to sing the bhajan that he had learnt. And then showered them with the Dharwar Pedas and a very unusual resin sweet.

(c) Sanjiva Prasad 2009.