Our 7th Anniversary


Souvenir 1988


The 9th of August, 1988 is the seventh anniversary of Saheli. The occasion marks the release 0f this souvenir which encapsulates our activities of the last few years besides providing financial support to Saheli. On this occasion we have the pleasure of organizing a vocal recital by the renowned veteran Gangubai Hangal. She is a rare artiste whose life of struggle and subsequent success is shown in this profile by Sabina Sehgal.

The story of the little girl Gandhari from Hangal, a remote village in Karanataka, reads like a fairy tale. Hers is not just another rags to riches story but a far more complex one. which cannot be bandied simply as one from degradation to respectability.

Born in Dharwar in 1913 into a family of gangamatas or boatmen, the social milieu in which Gangubai was brought up was by no means conducive to become an artiste. Being the lowest of the shudras was compounded by the fact that she was born into a family where the female folk assumed the role of what was euphemistically referred to as angavasthra, a term which if literally translated would correspond to an additional cloth or ornament draped by a sophisticated man as a status symbol: a practice which was not necessarily considered immoral a century back. Gangubai, like her mother Ambabai and her grandmother Kamlabai, all good musicians in their own right, belonged to this tradition. Both her father, Shri Nadgir and her husband, Gururao Kaulgi, were brahmins but interestingly neither she nor her mother assumed their names after marriage or lived with them and their families; even Gangubai’s children and grandchildren continue to call themselves Hangal.

And it is against this backdrop that it becomes essential to the evolution of one of the greatest female musicians of our times. Gangubais mother was a Carnatic singer but once her daughter started learning Hindustani music, she gave up her own style of singing. Gangubai sang in I-Iubli and around it on occasions like the birth of a child or a house warming ceremony. Her performance debut took place in Bombay at the Bombay Music Circle where she was heard by several eminent musicians. After Bombay, Jaddan Bai (mother of film actress Nargis) convinced her to participate in a music conference in Calcutta. Gangubai recalls. "In Calcutta. when the organisers saw me they insisted that I first sing in a private sitting a night before my concert was scheduled. I couldn`t understand why. Nisar Hussain Khan Saheb took me aside and explained that the organisers had doubts about what I, a frail girl at that time. was capable of! lt turned out to be a special performance. In fact, I was awarded a gold medal by the Maharaja of Tripura the next day.

"At the same concert I kept remembering my mother who was no more. and just then I felt a hand on my shoulder. When I turned around I saw K.L. Saigal who said. bahut surila. I was happy but then upset that a strange man should touch me."

Other than her mother, Gangubai owes her musical training to Krishnacharya Hulgur, Dattopant Desai and most significantly to Pandit Rambhau Kundgolkar, better known as Sawai Gandharva—guru and teacher to many eminent musicians including Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Firoze Dastur. Another strong influence on Gangubai’s music, though indirect, was the singer from Agra, Zohrabai. Says Gangu-bai, "Even today I love Zohrabai's music."

Reminiscencing on her training with her guru Sawai Gandharva, Gangubai recalls "Guruji lived in Kundgol and I in I-Iubli - a distance of about 30 kilometres. I formally started learning from him around 1937 by which time I had a family to look after and anyway, it would have been impossible to live in Kundgol with him like Bhim anna (Bhimsen Joshi) did. And so I would travel from Hubli to Kundgol by train every evening, accompanied by my uncle Ram anna, who lived with us. l still remember vividly the reception l received whenever I walked down the streets to guruji`s house in Kundgol. People would rush out of their houses and jeer, dekho, dekho, gaanewali aiyi.It was humiliating but I got used to."

Right through her days of training more so after that, Gangubai’s major concern was grappling with the more immediate financial crisis that she is increasingly found herself in. As she self puts it. "Peace of mind is very essential in anything that you do particularly in music. What could I learn when l was constantly disturbed? And I tell you this whole concept of getting lost in music and forgetting the world around you is a myth. In my case, I can openly say that my problems were not forgotten by simply holding a tanpura in my hand. I would, on the contrary, break down during riyaz and cry`over the daily scene, to survive through the next day. It wasnt for me that I was worried but for entire family that I supported. I personally never thought of becoming rich, of having a new car or a new house. These ambitions just never entered my mind. All I knew was that the money was not enough. There were many humiliations that I had to face because of this. A certain lady musician in Pune invited me over to her house one day. Her mother asked me how much I charged for a concert. I told her Rs. 125. She suggested that I move over to Pune, accept all her daughter`s rejected programs. I was insulted by this suggestion and left their house immediately. But later I thought maybe they were trying to be helpful".

This innate goodness and innocence is characteristic of Gangubai even today after a life-time of similar experiences. And it is not contrived - her simplicity is genuine. And so it must be for a women who is frank enough to admit, "I am quite clear why I sing. Primarily because it feeds my stomach because it makes me happy."

Gangubai’s relationship with her husband has played a significant role in her life. He proposed a civil marriage to her but she turned it down because, “he belonged to a respectable family and I wanted him to continue to belong there". Gangubai insisted that he marry his cousin and in fact, grew very fond of his wife and their children. She never considered this a sacrifice on her part and even though he was a brahmin, a lawyer, it was ironically she who supported him throughout.

Even today, at 75 and yet going strong, a recipient of every comprehendable award including the Padma Bhushan, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the Tansen Award among others, Gangubai’s experience with life does not allow her to be affected by any of it. She often laughs that the Karanataka University has conferred a doctorate on her, "l have not studied beyond Class V you know." Reflecting on the time she was awarded the Padma Bhushan she says, ‘“Ram anna and I stayed up the whole night and remembered all the things one would like to forget—the mental traumas, the pain, the suffering. What at happy moment and what unhappy thoughts".

A lot of people ask Gangubai what it feels like being 75. She smiles but has no words, The look on her face tells you all. It is almost as if she is laughing at the world, scoffing at those who shower her with honour and respectability now when site no longer needs it.