Home     About     Contact     

Remembering Gangubai Hangal, 1913-2009

Four years ago, on Tuesday July 21, 2009, Dr. (Smt.) Gangubai Hangal passed away at the ripe age of 96 years. Her fans and music lovers were shocked, since they thought that she would complete the century of her life.


She was quite energetic in her advancing age and had recently visited Mahalaxmi Temple at Kolhapur. After the Darshan of the Mahalaxmi Devi, she had rendered her musical service to the deity by singing in the Sabhamandap for a short while. She was the ‘Grand Mother’, not only to her family but to the entire state of Karnataka. A State mourning was declared, educational institutes were closed for two days and last rites were performed with state honor. In recent times, she was probably the only artist to receive such honor posthumously.

Dr. Gangubai Hangal was the most senior living vocalist of the Ustad Abdul Karim Khan branch of ‘Kairana (Kirana)’ Gharana. She was singing for over eighty years and taught music to several disciples, including her daughter Krishna Hangal. Gangubai was a great performer and a very witty person. On her eightieth birthday, as she talked to a group of her fans, family friends and journalists, one young journalist asked her about the secret of her enthusiasm and love for such a forceful music at such an advanced age. She laughed and asked him what he would do when he is very hungry. He replied that he would eat lot of delicious food to satisfy his hunger. She then said, ‘I am also hungry at this age, not for food but for my music. Then I sing a lot, since that is my real food’. True, ‘Music was her life’.

Another young man asked a question about her famous ‘singing pose’ in which she puts her palm of the left hand on ear and stretches her right hand out. She said, ‘This is the pose of the policeman who controls the traffic on the road. I listen to and check the notes (Swaras) in the Raga that I am rendering. I permit the appropriate ones and ward off the inappropriate notes to maintain the purity and discipline of my music. My voice became broad after a minor throat surgery. Due to such a man like voice, I am often called ‘Ganguboa’ so this pose suits to me very well’.

Yet another gentleman asked why she sings only pure classical Ragas and no other form of light music. To this, she remarked, ‘My mother taught me all forms of light classical music including lessons in Kathak style dance. I have recorded Gazal, Thumri, Marathi Bhavgeete and devotional songs on gramophone discs in early thirties. Nowadays, I don’t find sufficient time even for classical Ragas and hence do not sing light classical music’. Gangubai has left behind a large number of recordings, photographs and a small book of her memoirs. Originally in Kannada, this book now has been translated and is available in English. Gangubai’s father Mr. Chikkurao Nadgir was a lawyer and belonged to a high caste ‘Brahmin’ community. Her mother’s name was Ambabai alias ‘Ambakka’. Her grandmother’s name was ‘Gangavaa’. Ambakka adopted this name for her daughter and thus she became ‘Gangu’.

Hangal was their native place and they used it as their surname. Ambabai was an expert vocalist in Carnatic style music and the first Guru of young Gangu. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan used to visit their house to listen to her ‘Sargam’, to learn notations and to hear the renderings of ‘Javali’ and ‘Pallavi’ styles. Sometimes, he would listen to young Gangu and bless her with the words, ‘Beta, Gala Achha Hai Tera. Khoob Gana Aur Khoob Khana’ (Dear Child, your voice is very sweet. Sing a lot and eat a lot). Gangubai followed former part of his advice and sang a lot throughout her life.

Ustad Abdul Karim Khan had established ‘Arya Sangeet Vidyalaya’ (music schools) in Miraj, Pune, Dharwad, Belgaum and several other towns. As a result, Hindustani classical music became very much popular in that area. Due to such an atmosphere, young Gangu was attracted to Hindustani music even though her mother was singing Carnatic music. Her mother made every effort to teach her music within the available means. She gave up her own singing to avoid any influence that young Gangu may have of Carnatic music on her singing. She was not very keen on her formal school education. Hence, Gangu left school after the fifth class and continued her music tuitions and ‘taalim’ for rest of her life. Initially, she had some basic training in vocal music from local teachers. Prof. V. N. Bhatkhande’s series of books on music contributed towards her singing practice.

Bhupali Ninadiya Jage, c. 1940

Until about 1930/32, Gangubai had not moved out of Dharwad and Hubli. Later on she often visited Mumbai for concerts, radio programs and for cutting gramophone discs. She travelled a lot for participating in all India music conferences. She also toured Europe, Canada and America in the later part of her career. She mesmerized her audiences through her soul-touching music. Gangubai witnessed and adopted herself to various phases of sound recording technology. Beginning with three-minute 78-rpm shellac discs to longer duration CD’s and DVD’s she has recorded prolifically and made her music permanent.

Gangubai was a great exponent of her Gharana but she was a great human being too. She was always supporting young artists and was used to mix with young children learning music. Several years ago, Smt. Vijaya Mulay interviewed her on Doordarshan. They were discussing about the status and dignity of the female artists. Gangubai expressed, “Whenever any male artist becomes famous and popular, he is rewarded with titles like ‘Ustad’, ‘Khansaheb’, ‘Bua’,‘Acharya’, ‘Pandit’ etc. However, a female artist of that status is always addressed as Bai, Begum, and Jan and so on. Why this partial honorific? This sharp question remained unanswered. However, her point was noted. Later on, print and electronic media began to address female artists with titles ‘Pandita’ or ‘Vidushi’ while announcing their programs. Credit for such a welcome change goes to Gangubai only.

In her long interview recorded on her 75th birthday, she advised youth, “I do not find depth and improvisation of musical ideas among the younger lot. This may be due to the fact that this generation does not want to stick to one Guru and to get complete training for longer period. You spend over twenty years to get one degree in any discipline, but want to get mastery in music by just attending a few classes and changing teachers. How would it be possible?” How true! Commercialization of music around us is a real proof of what she meant and suggested.

It is rare that we get to honor an artist who devoted eighty years of her life to a single discipline. May her soul rest in peace and her music give peace to listeners’ souls.


  1. Pattabhi Raman says:

    An extremely well wrtitten article paying tribute to the genius of Gangubai Hangal with a number of interesting anecdotes revealing sevaral musical facets of hers. This is is a great addition to the body of biographical literature available on the internet on this maestro.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.