Gangubai Hangal: Singer who rose above her low caste status to become a grand dame of the Kirana school

It has been a sad time for the world of Indian music recently, with the deaths of several major figures. Indisputably one of the greatest losses is Gangubai Hangal. Personally and professionally her achievements were legion, her life piled high with paradox and contradiction, awards and distinctions.

As the noted Indian critic Mohan Nadkarni observed in The Great Masters – Profiles in Hindustani Classical Music (1999), "Gangubai's is possibly the only female voice which is very unfeminine in tonal quality." Despite that, like Hirabai Badodekar and Roshanara Begum she became a grand dame of the Kirana gharana (school and style of music) owing to her remarkable vocal range and timbre and command of laya (tempo) – the third Indian essential after melody and rhythm for delivering song. Her singing style and distinctive deep register was as characteristic of her as of Kirana's vocal maestro Bhimsen Joshi.

Born into a caste-divided community, she triumphed over her social status as a hereditary member of the shudra Gangamat, or boatman caste. Under Hinduism there are four varnas – caste groupings – of which shudra is the lowest, though beneath the four varnas come the casteless Dalits or Untouchables. For generations high-caste men took shudra women in a pernicious practice little better than legalised free sex known as angavasthra (body-cloth). It compared the woman's social status to a few yards of fabric. Like her mother Ambabai and her grandmother Kamlabai before her, she was married, aged 16, to a brahmin – the highest varna. Following the family custom, she retained her matriarchal name and did not live with him.

She was raised in a household with a rich background of music though it was not the done thing for women to sing publicly; it smacked of courtesan entertainment. On the maternal side of the family there was a deep immersion in South Indian or Karnatic art music. Although her mother taught her this from the age of seven, she fell under the sway of the related but separate northern musical tradition and Marathi theatre songs. Her mother allowed her to pursue her preference. Aged 11 she made her first public appearance, singing the invocatory song at the 1924 Indian National Congress in Belgaum before Gandhi.

She became a formal disciple of Sawai Gandharva at the age of 16, travelling by train with a chaperone to take lessons in Kundgol in the evening, running, as a shudra, a gauntlet of catcalls when approaching her guru's home (she loved the irony of her acceptance once she had succeeded.) Her debut proper occurred at the Suburban Music Circle in Bombay's Santa Cruz district in 1933. As the result, she began recording for His Master's Voice. She was renamed initially as Gangubai Hublikar, since this gave the impression that she was a townie from Hubli rather than a village girl from Hangal, but later records changed her name to Gandhari. She appeared on screen singing in the 1936 film Vijayachi Lagne ("Vijaya's Marriages").

From 1947 onwards she received many awards, leading up to the Indian Government's Padma Bhushan (1971) and Padma Vibhushan (2002) – respectively the third and second highest civilian decorations. She also sat as a member of the Karnataka Legislative Council during the 1990s. From 1979 onwards she built on her domestic reputation with foreign tours, performing in France, West Germany, Canada and the United States as well as recording for the German Wergo and Indian Music Today labels.

Gangubai is survived by her sons Narayan Rao and Babu Rao, her daughter, the singer Krishna Hangal, having predeceased her.

Ken Hunt

Gandhari Hangal (Gangubai Hangal), vocalist: born Dharwad, Karnataka, India 5 March 1913; married 1929 Gururao Kaulgi (two sons, and one daughter deceased); died Hubli, Karnataka 21 July 2009.