Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Last Meeting with the Legend

It was a moment of truth.
Our Ajji is no more. The legend of Hindustani Classical Music, Padmavibhushan Dr. Gangubai Hangal, passed away on the morning of July 21. It took me sometime to realise the magnitude of this loss, not only for me, but for the entire Hindustani classical music world. And as the truth dawned upon me, memories came flooding back.
It was only a year ago that as Programme Director of Radio Gandharv-24 hour Hindustani Classical Music Station on Worldspace Satellite Radio, I was trying to take the interview of the stalwart, who had come out of the shackles of baiji culture, and carved her own respectability in the vast ocean of classical music. Since childhood, I had seen how people – musicians and common men bow their head in reverence to the very mention of the name— Gangubai Hangal. For me her life struggle was as intriguing and mesmerising as her music with those spectacular taans, serene alaaps, easy transitions from one saptak to another and above all her deep, resounding ‘masculine voice.’
I wanted to meet the woman behind the music, the real Gangubai Hangal. Just before her 96th birthday, last year, I received a telephone call from Hubli, informing that Dr. Gangubai Hangal would like to talk to me. It was a priceless moment. She invited me to visit her, “Beta, come down to Hubli...I do not know how long will I live...I listen to your station, Radio Gandharv, whole is very good...come to Hubli...I want to talk to you...” I was speechless.
The very next day, I along with my team, reached her home— Ganga Lahari in Deshpande Nagar, Hubli. Draped in a purple saree, Gangubai Hangal did not look that old or ill. Rather she was bubbling with energy, like a child who has too much in her heart to share with her friends. “I am very fond of playing cards,” she confided, revealing a set of cards under her pillow, “Kumar Gandharva and I used to play whenever he used to come here or if we were together in a concert...” And who used to win? “I...most of the time.” She replied quickly, laughing heartily.

Remembering her days with guru-bhai Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, her eyes turned moist. “He used to accompany me to the railway station with a lantern, he used to do all the household chores at our guru, Pt. Sawai Gandharva’s place, he used to fetch the water himself! But now I hear he is not well.” And as I was trying to revive her memories of her younger days, her struggling days, she often digressed and came back to the present, “Where is my magazine... when is doctor coming... when do we have to go for pooja...?” It was as if she did not want to visit the bylanes of her pain and struggle.
“I think she is tired now. Moreover, after a while she has to go as a chief guest to inaugurate a pooja,” her grandson Manoj Hangal told us apologetically.

We returned the next day, more determined to uncover memories about the days when she feared being ostracized by the rigid social system. We reached her place early next morning to find her surrounded by little guests—school children who had come to seek her blessings. “Do you sing?” She asked, gladly joining them as they clapped and sang. With them she became a child. Full of enthusiasm and excitement. The children were not ready to leave her and she regaled them with her childhood stories. It was only after repeated requests by the family members that she agreed to return to her room. And hardly had she entered her room when she was joined by another guest, a VIP. And instead of being tired or breathless, she enthusiastically entertained him. Both of them started talking about music. “Ajji is busy the whole day. People love her and she loves talking, particularly about music,” said Manoj Hangal. I decided to steal a few moments and asked her, ‘Ajji, how was it singing in the 1923 Congress session?’ Prompt came the reply, “Oh, that...I was in school then...We were taught an invocatory song at school and taken to the session. Mahatma Gandhi was sitting in front of us. Everybody liked our singing. But I was frightened that after the session I would be sent outside and not allowed to eat with the others...there were a lot of prejudices regarding caste at that time.”
Time erased those differences. As she gained popularity in music, the differences of caste and the social stigma of being the daughter of a baiji faded away. Though her mother was a Carnatic musician, Gangubai Hangal learnt Hindustani. “On my way back from school I used to stop at a small shop where they used to play gramophone records. I would stand there and listen to Hindustani music—a bandish that I still remember from those days is 'Radha bolo mukh se'. I was enchanted by Hindustani music. All the time I was singing lines from those compositions. Seeing this, my mother decided that I should learn Hindustani music and to find the right guru for me she sold off our house in Dharwad and we shifted to Hubli...She sacrificed her life for me. She stopped singing...She was so young when she died, only 35. She had an operation and her stitches came out. She was there through our tough times but she didn't live to see all that I achieved.” Choked with emotion, she was lost in her world of memories when another guest knocked and she was off to attend a public function.
It was hot and sunny outside. The heat was debilitating. But nothing could unsettle Gangubai Hangal. The wheel chair, the weather, her health—nothing at all could kill her spirits. Even at the age of 96 she was ready to perform and missed her daughter, Krishna, who used to accompany her in concerts. “She used to sing very well and she learnt it on her own as a child...she is no more....I don’t feel like singing without her...”
Ajji’s life revolved around music. Despite organisers’ time bound restrictions on her, she sang and won many a heart. “Gangubai gayegi...they used to announce, and I would sing. Once, in the early days, they told me I had only 15 minutes to sing. I was so upset, but Bismillah Khan who was also at that concert, encouraged me. Often organisers used to doubt my singing, seeing my small size.” Saying this she burst into laughter. And I reminded her that all good things come in small sizes!!! “But it has its problems too...see now I don’t even get my footwear so easily...” Her laughter continued to echo in the room, joined by all of us.

Ajji sang everywhere. There was a time when she was invited to each and every concert. She often had to travel, leaving her children and ailing huband behind because she had to perform to keep the family afloat. She stayed in the same house in Hubli throughout her life. “How can I sell or renovate this house where my guruji (Pt. Sawai Gandharv) stayed?” Throughout her life she hung on to the memories of her guruji, mother, maternal uncle and daughter. “They were there with me through the hard time but none of them lived to see the recognition I got. That's the way life is...” Her mother’s photograph is kept on the side table, along with a few music magazines. While talking to us her eyes often travelled to that side table and on not finding an issue of the magazine, she immediately called her grand daughter, “...Where’s that issue...Kesarbai’s photograph was in that...”She could only rest after that magazine was deposited safely back in her hands. “See, this is Kesarbai...she was the queen...”
It was getting late and Ajji was chatting happily. She wanted to share many more experiences with us. But for the family members and doctor’s strict orders we had to leave. Little did we know that this was our last meeting with the legend.

Today, she is no more. But we will always remember her warm smile, her indomitable spirit, her enthusiasm and caring nature, her self-deprecating humility, modesty and her fierce pride in preserving her self-respect. Such people are rare to find. We have to meet them to understand the truth about life, music, devotion, passion and simplicity. The last meeting will last forever...▄


  1. Indeed a gem of Classical music has been lost...have always been mesmerised by her 'buland' must have been a precious experience to meet the legend herself...thanks for sharing this gives a moving account of her struggles and humility...i've only heard her music and read about her...did everyone call her touching

  2. Hi Shreyasee,
    thanks for sharing your views! yes, she was 'Ajji' for everyone who met her and she always invited people into her world with great was a moment of a lifetime to spend time with her

  3. Dear Geeta,

    Wonderful piece on a wonderful artiste and person. Thank you so much!


  4. Dear Maha,

    Thanks a lot! this piece was straight from the heart...she was as pure as her music...
    it's been a tragic year for music lovers with the loss of four legends of hindustani and carnatic music...

  5. Thanks a lot for a really touching and sensitive piece on Gangubai ji...
    The insights into a life of hardships, at being a woman and from a socially deprived caste. But then she did follow her heart, and with what passion.. I had met her during my college and SPIC MACAY days. That voice did not touch only hearts but stayed somewhere in the soul of those who loved music...