The Last Song of Dusk

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The doyen of the Kirana gharana, Gangubai Hangal, has passed on. But her voice will live in our midst forever
Gangubai Hangal (1913-2009)

For those who love Indian classical music, July 2009 will be remembered as a sad month. Both the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions lost great iconic figures, just four days apart. On 16 July, DK Pattamal, the grand lady of Carnatic music, and on 21 July, Gangubai Hangal, the doyen of the Kirana gharana. Two women, both path-breakers, both revered for their adherence to tradition, and yet very individualistic. Both dared to follow their hearts and decided to become career musicians more than seven decades ago when it wasn’t the easiest choice to make for a woman, and both became legends in their own lifetime. While I was not able to meet DKP (as Pattamal was popularly known) in recent years, I was lucky to have met Gangubai just two months ago at her residence in Hubli.

As I entered the house, I wondered if she’d recognise us (my husband Mahesh was with me). At 97, it would hardly be surprising if she didn’t. But not only was she all there, she was eagerly waiting to see us. “Aapli juni maanasa bhetli ki kiti bara waatata,” (It feels so nice when you meet your old loved ones) she exclaimed as she blessed us.

She was frail, most of her teeth missing, but the eyes were bright as ever and the smile just as warm. She looked contented. Next to her pillow on her bed she had an old picture of her mother, Amba Bai, a card made for her by special children and a little parrot gifted to her by her great-granddaughter. For the next few hours, she lulled us into forgetting that we were in the presence of greatness; the doting grandmother had effortlessly borne us to another time and space.

She pulled out a tiny pocket diary from under her pillow and showed us the accounts she had kept in the early 1950s: Rs 8 for a return ticket to Pune from Hubli, Rs 25 performance fee… As I watched her childlike enthusiasm, memories of another day washed over me. So many laid-back evenings at our home in Mumbai, where she would put up whenever she came to perform in the city in the 90s.

When she was around, all we talked about was music: concerts, maestros of a bygone era, the nuances of ragas (how the komal rishabh of Raga Bhairav was different from the komal rishabh of Raga Marwa), how the late Achhan Maharaj could explore a single line of a thumri with his abhinaya for over an hour in front of spellbound audiences, or how her guru, the legendary Sawai Gandharva, would light a candle, teach her a single taan and ask her to keep at it till the candle had burnt down before leaving and locking the door behind him.

But also sometimes the more personal stories: how deeply she loved her mother Amba Bai, who despite being an accomplished Carnatic vocalist herself had stopped singing so that her little Gangua would not get confused between the two genres, that she was performing in Mumbai when her husband died in Hubli and how she was only told that he wasn’t well, so she wouldn’t break down, how hard it was to raise three children all by herself…

Yet, she always chose to be positive and move on with life. She had no regrets, nor any complexes about her not-so-privileged social status. With the changing times, contemporary musicians had begun to charge in lakhs for performances. Not Gangubai. For her it was always: “whatever the organisers can afford comfortably”. She was a profoundly simple person.

Music for her was more than a passion. It was her whole life, her connection with the Divine. She wasn’t ritualistic but believed she had been blessed with uniquely spiritual experiences. Her renditions of Marwa, Bhimpalasi, Abhogi, Adana, and Puriya Dhanashree were unmatched for their fine balance of scholarly authority and emotional spontaneity. She’d say how she often dissolved into the swara while performing and hear herself in what yoga gurus call sakshibhava (where you become the witness rather than the doer), all else disappearing from her consciousness including the large audience. Such was the depth of her sadhana, her spiritual connect.

But when you met her, you only saw a simple old lady, a granny who could not sleep in the afternoons and so would take out her pack of cards and play several games of solitaire all by herself till the rest of the family was up and about after their siesta, who ate very little but loved to have a banana every day, who was not very fond of jewellery but never ever removed her wrist watch, not even at night.

The only time we saw her really sad was when Kittakka (her daughter Krishna Hangal) died in 2002. Kittakka was also her disciple and vocal second on stage. Teary-eyed she’d said: “It was my time to go but she’s left.” But unfailingly, she picked up the thread again. Yet again.

Gangubai performed till the age of 94 and taught till the end. Her family was completely used to unannounced visitors at odd hours, reaching from just about anywhere, just to see her, be blessed by her, much like one visits the temple of one’s revered goddess. This will continue, I’m sure, as her presence is far too powerful to be wiped away by death.

Two years ago, her grandson Manoj created a beautiful museum at home, showcasing several photographs across 75 years of her performing career —press cuttings, awards, records et al. As you walked around the museum, her music played in the background. I once asked Gangubai what she made of it. She smiled and said: “I don’t know when he collected all this and how he managed it all by himself. Frankly, after so many awards and so much love from people, there are no unfulfilled desires. But now, in my own lifetime, I have also seen how I’ll be remembered. How many artists have this pleasure?”