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A Musical Persona Par Excellence

Deepak Raja

By Deepa Ganesh
Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2014, pp. 220, Rs. 600.00


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 four 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 stopovers 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 best 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 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. ...

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