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.

News
people
Sport
Newcastle players celebrate, Mario Balotelli scores, Alan Pardew and Brendan Rodgers
footballNewcastle vs Liverpool , Arsenal vs Burnley, Chelsea vs QPR and Everton vs Swansea
News
i100Amazing Amazon review bomb
Arts and Entertainment
The Spice Girls' feminism consisted of shouting 'girl power' and doing peace signs in latex catsuits
musicWhat is it? You know what you want it to be...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkFrom Mediterranean Tomato Tart to Raw Caramel Peanut Pie
News
Moss and Grimshaw arrive at the party
peopleKate Moss, Claudia Schiffer and Nick Grimshaw at Jonathan Ross's Halloween party
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
News
i100
Extras
Boys to men: there’s nothing wrong with traditional ‘manly’ things, until masculinity is used to exclude people
indybest13 best grooming essentials
Travel
travelPurrrfect jet comes to Europe
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch attends the London premiere of his new film The Imitation Game
people He's not as smart as his characters
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities