With the passing of the ‘grand dame’ of Hindustani music, singer Gangubai Hangal (97) on Tuesday morning at her hometown, Hubli, in Karnataka, the new millennium yielded yet another resonant 20th century presence to the march of time. Hangal’s death follows, the passing, in the last two months, of theatre revolutionary Habib Tanvir, sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, painter Tyeb Mehta and last week, of Carnatic singer DK Pattammal, cherished as a building block of Indian classical music.
Hangal who had successfully battled bone cancer between 2002 and 2005, was admitted to hospital with cardiac and respiratory trouble this month. She was put on a life-support system when her condition turned critical on Monday night. She reportedly succumbed at 7.10 am on Tuesday morning, with her two sons and their families near her. The death, some years ago, of her daughter Krishna Hangal who accompanied her as a trained singer, affected Hangal deeply. But such was Hangal’s spirit of duty and delight in music that she continued to teach pupils, who traveled considerable distances from other towns to Hubli for the privilege of being taught by her. Hangal was noted for her deep, resonant voice, straight bearing and remarkable stamina in singing well into the early hours of the morning.
Hangal’s ‘gurubhai’ (‘brother in music’) is Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the nationally revered Hindustani classical singer, also a native of Karnataka. Joshi ran away from home to learn classical music as an 11-year-old after hearing a recording of a song by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan of the Kirana Gharana. Hangal, as a little girl in Hubli, was similarly enchanted by recordings and broadcasts of classical music overheard at the street corners of her pleasant town. Both found their guru in the charismatic Rambhai Kundgolkar (1886-1952), the star pupil of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, celebrated himself as ‘Sawai Gandharva’. A strict taskmaster, he taught his pupils that there were no shortcuts to excellence in the classical arts, particularly in the singing of the magnificent Hindustani genre of the grand ‘khayal’, which truth Hangal abided by in her long, luminous musical career of seven decades. Her peers acknowledged it with a subtly profound tribute: just as ‘Maharaj’ in the world of Indian classical dance is a term that belongs to Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj alone, ‘Baiji’ in Hindustani music circles meant Gangubai Hangal and none other.
Hangal received several honours, like the Karnataka Sangeet Nritya Academy Award (1962), the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1973), the Padma Bhushan (1971) and the Padma Vibhushan in 2002. A number of dignitaries, including Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yedduryappa and his cabinet are expected to visit Hubli on Wednesday, when Hangal will be cremated.