Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book Review: Biography of Smt. Gangubai Hangal by Deepa Ganesh

Title: A life in three octaves
Subtitle: The musical journey of Gangubai Hangal
Author: Deepa Ganesh
Publisher: Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 
First edition: 2014
Pages: 220. 
Price: Hard Cover: Rs. 600

This biographical work on the towering Hindustani vocalist, Gangubai Hangal (1913-2009), is based on a series of visits the author made to the diva’s home, and extensive interviews with people close to her subject. The author’s discovery of this extraordinary personality spans a period of 4 years (2005-2009).

The book traces the emergence of Northern Karnataka as a powerhouse of Hindustani classical music during the colonial period. Substantial credit for it goes to the Wodeyar princes of Mysore, who were patrons to the finest musicians of the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions alike. Hubli, Dharwad and Belgaum were natural stop-overs for Hindustani musicians travelling between their homes and the Mysore Court. This led to an exchange of musical ideas between Hindustani and Carnatic musicians of the region.  

From the late 19th century, the bi-lingual region, (Kannada + Marathi) enthusiastically patronized Marathi theater, which featured some of the finest Hindustani musicians of the era. From the dawn of the 20th century, the gramophone record made the finest Hindustani musicians – from within and outside regional theater – household names in Northern Karnataka. Simultaneously, the missionary work of Bhatkhande and Vishnu Digambar – both from Maharashtra -- had begun to democratize the musical culture.  The prestige of Hindustani music shot up immensely in the region, as religious leaders attached to the Lingayat monasteries became proficient in Hindustani music, and started imparting training to young aspirants.  This configuration of forces enabled the emergence of Gangubai as a significant musical persona.

The Kirana gharana founder, Abdul Kareem Khan, visited Hubli often, became an admirer of Gangubai’s mother, Ambabai, a Carnatic musician, and allowed his own music to be influenced by her musicianship. Young Gangubai was taught Carnatic music at home, but succumbed to the attraction of Hindustani music, which played from the gramophones of every neighborhood tea stall.  After an aborted apprenticeship with Krishnamacharya, a local Hindustani vocalist, Gangubai ended up as a disciple of Rambhau Kundgolkar (Sawai Gandharva) from nearby Kundgol, the foremost disciple of the Kirana gharana founder, Abdul Kareem Khan.

The book deals adequately with Gangubai’s family and social circumstance. Her mother, Ambabai, was a Carnatic vocalist nurtured in the Devadasi tradition. She was greatly respected for her musicianship, but ostracized socially for her lower-caste birth and her profession. According to the Devadasi tradition, Ambabai became the subordinate (non co-habiting) wife of an upper-caste landlord, and headed a matriarchal family, dependent on her earnings as a musician. For Gangubai, her father, Chikurao Nadiger, represented an occasional and irrelevant presence during her mother’s lifetime. Ambabai died while Gangubai was still in her teens. 

 Gangubai became the breadwinner of the family, which included her two maternal uncles, and their growing families. Her uncles’ contribution to the household expenses was unstable. At its peak, her family of dependents numbered 20. Gangubai herself accepted the role of a subordinate wife to Gururaj Kaulgi, a Brahmin widower, who gave Gangubai three children and a host of financial problems arising from his incompetence as a breadwinner. For Gangubai, starvation was the only alternative to success as a musician. The greatness came because the survival anxiety never left her.

Deepa Ganesh’ work details painstakingly the role of her maternal uncle, Ramanna, in preparing Gangubai for her career in music with a fatherly presence, substantially replacing her mother, Ambabai as the anchor of her life. Ramanna used the good offices of a family friend, Dattopant Desai, to place Gangubai under the apprenticeship of Rambhau Kundgolkar, and acted as her protector and companion on her daily trips from Hubli to Kundgol for her tuitions. Rambhau was the principal disciple of Abdul Kareem Khan, who had enriched his musical vision by studying with several other maestros from other lineages.

As a result, he had carved out an illustrious career as a singer-actor in regional theater. After his withdrawal from the nomadic life of the theater, he became available as a Guru. Because of Gangubai’s devotion to him, and fastidious compliance with his teaching, she soon became his favorite disciple. He kept a hawk’s eye on her commercial recordings, and radio broadcasts for compliance with his training. Her musicianship flowered under his demanding care. The bond of devotion between the Guru and disciple was such that Gangubai brought Rambhau to her own home along with his wife and cared for him for three years after his paralytic stroke. In return, even during his last days, even as he was sinking, Rambhau insisted on teaching Gangubai newer Raga-s and compositions.

Gangubai’s professional career was virtually launched in the electronic media. By the 1930s, the radio and the gramophone record were fast growing in reach and popularity, and were hungry for talent. On these platforms, starting in 1936, Gangubai was able to build a national reputation as a formidable musician. Soon after her professional debut, she had a serious problem with her throat. The surgery deprived her voice of its feminity and agility. She was left with a masculine voice of limited maneuverability and range. (The title of the book, in this context, is ironic) What ensued was an intense struggle to re-invent her repertoire and her approach to music. She transformed this setback into a unique musical asset, and continued to acquire a following.

She enjoyed immense stature on the concert circuit between 1950 and 1970, but continued to perform ,as her vitality levels would permit, until a few years before the end came. The shower of recognition and awards had begun as early as 1948, and grew into a torrent. This included honorary Doctorates from several Universities, the fellowships of performing arts academies, nominations to houses of state and central legislatures, and the Padma awards. As her performing career waned, Gangubai, a well-informed and well-read lady, allowed herself to evolve into a public personality, heard with respect on social issues for her wisdom and simplicity of demeanor.

Besides her uncle and her Guru, the two anchors of her life after her mother’s demise, the book deals appropriately with some other special relationships Gangubai developed during her life.  During her apprenticeship with Rambhau, she developed a warm fraternal relationship with Bhimsen Joshi, a few years her junior. Two of her seniors in the profession, Kesarbai Kerkar, and Hirabai Barodekar, developed great affection for Gangubai, and furthered he career. Mallikarjun Mansoor, a childhood friend, remained a close friend of her family throughout. 

As her career blossomed, she developed a personal friendship with Mrs. Sushila Ambike, and Professor of Sanskrit in Delhi University, and earned the admiration of Mr. HY Sharda Prasad, the media advisor to Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The famous Kannada poet, DR Bendre, who was once her teacher in school, became her close friend and admirer, giving her access to a presence in the social and political life of Northern Karnataka.

The author presents an elaborate picture of Gangubai’s rootedness to her native Dharwad, to her responsibilities as the head of her household, to her family and to the kitchen as the object of her lifelong struggle for economic security and the vehicle for her hospitality. (Appropriately, the book even ends with two of her favourite recipes). Gangubai accepted all the financial strains of her domestic  responsibilities, and denied herself comforts and luxuries of all kinds in order to fulfil them. Her only relationship that the author rightly places under a microscope is the one with her daughter Krishna.

Krishna was Gangubai’s first child, born to her when she was only 16. She was never formally trained in music. But, she had a melodious and agile voice, an exceptional musical mind, and a natural flair. In addition, she was an extremely well-organised person. Krishna speedily became Gangubai’s concert planner, and manager. Her musical role began as an accompanist, but grew into that of a partner, and as Gangubai’s vitality levels diminished, ended finally as lead singer. Gangubai evidently found it convenient to deny Krishna her own life, and found arguments to justify her convenience. Krishna’s marriage was never considered on the grounds that her constitution was too weak for child-bearing. 

Independent concert engagements for Krishna were blocked because her solo concerts would bring in a much lower fee than a joint concert.  The author believes that Gangubai feared the loneliness that would ensue Krishna’s independence. But, as luck would have it, Krishna succumbed to cancer in her 74th year, leaving Gangubai, then 90, to face a lonely end.

The author recognizes that Gangubai’s  extra-musical persona is more firmly etched in the public mind than her musicianship. There is some merit in the author’s suggestion that Gangubai herself may have shaped this phenomenon by allowing her humble beginnings and her struggles to dominate public attention. The purpose of so doing  -- though perhaps unconscious – would have been to highlight the magnitude of her accomplishments.  

The result was that while her formidable musicianship is acknowledged, its distinctiveness has remained largely undocumented. All that is remembered of her music is her androgynous voice, austere musical vision, soulful delivery, deploying a deliberate, unhurried approach to performance.  The author attempts to partly enlarge the assessment of her musicality by comparing it to that of her leading contemporaries, especially those of the Kirana tradition. This reviewer believes that this task remains yet to be done satisfactorily, and deserves a survey of several senior musicians who had heard Gangubai in her prime.

The details this work provides on Gangubai’s social and economic circumstance,  and her grooming under Rambhau Kundgolkar, have been familiar for long to serious music lovers, especially of the 60+ generation. The author has done well to present these in broad brush strokes rather than the excruciating detail that has appeared earlier elsewhere. What makes this work a comprehensive word picture of a towering personality is the author’s exploration of her life beyond the known. The essential tenor of this biographocal work – and perhaps also its inspiration -- is adulatory, though the author’s scrutiny of Gangubai’s relationship with Krishna is objective enough to avert the charge of gaga journalism. 

The work does occasionally drift towards journalistic “editorializing”, with a stance akin to that of a social scientist. This may irk experienced readers of biographical literature. The book also reveals a feminist streak, which appears contextually unwarranted, except for the incidental reality that this is a woman writer’s work on a lady musician.

The book exposes some lapses at the Editorial Desk. For instance, Gangubai’s son is mentioned variously as “Babu” and “Babanna”. Her daughter-in-law is referred to variously as “Lalitha” and “Lalithakka”. Likewise, Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan is referred to as “Abdul Kareem Khan”, “Kareem Khan”, and “Abdul Kareem Khan Saab”. The standardization of nomenclatures would have greatly helped readers unfamiliar with culture-specific variations. While Kannada words mostly carry translations in parentheses, there are several cases of usage unaccompanied by translations. 

The occasional recourse to musicologically sensitive words may make the serious reader wince. He will, for instance, wonder what the terms “purity of a note” or the “purity of music” are intended to connote.  The larger issue is whether the lay reader will understand any better. The connotation of such phrases is seldom made transparent by the context in which they are used.

The author’s purpose was to “rediscover a woman who occupied a niche in musical folklore”.  The author admits to the limitations of her enquiry arising from the advanced age of her subject and fragility of her recall. Nevertheless, the author’s purpose stands largely fulfilled. The book is a welcome addition to the reservoir of biographical literature on towering 20th century musicians. Its timing ensures that it will attract a readership of young music lovers who may know Gangubai through her recordings, but remember her either as everybody’s idea of a Grandmother, or as the Grand Old Lady of Northern Karnataka.

Reviewer: Deepak Raja 
Review published in THE BOOK REVIEW