The world of a classical musician is always a difficult one. It calls for an obsessive dedication to the hardest of crafts and then, when that is mastered, a further period of toil to find an individual signature. But such a narrative ignores the artiste’s personal strife in a social setting that is often hostile to his or her ambitions. That is what makes Deepa Ganesh’s A Life in Three Octaves, a biography of Gangubai Hangal, especially moving.

The uninitiated may ask: who was Gangubai Hangal? She was, by general consensus, one of the finest khayal singers from the largely male-dominated kirana gharana to emerge in the mid-1940s. Her life was a relentless struggle for material stability and a striving for self-respect, coming as she did from a devadasi background.

The devadasis were a community of women dedicated to serving the principal deity in a given temple, usually in southern and western India. These women were under the protection of maharajas and zamindars, and in the early 20th century, rich merchants as well. They were usually the concubines of their patrons and occasionally their common-law wives.

Gangubai—like her mother Ambabai, an excellent singer and music scholar—was the common-law wife of Gururaj Kaulgi, a failed lawyer from a “respectable” family and the daughter of Chikurao Nadiger, from a prosperous land-owning family. Neither she nor Ambabai sought any financial assistance from their husbands. Indeed, Gangubai, apart from having three children with Kaulgi, also supported his brood after his abject failure as a lawyer and businessman. Her life was spent assuring the well-being of other people.

The object of this digression is not just to highlight the struggle for dignity and material well-being among women singers from a certain social background at a crucial period in the history of margiya sangeet or classical music in India. The truth is, despite the patronage of the feudal classes and merchants, most musicians had a hard time, possibly because of a large number of dependents and hangers-on.  The traditional or gharanadar musician, even when lucky with generous patrons, always found himself/herself out of pocket. Only a handful managed a life of some dignity.

Gangubai’s problem was different; she did not have to support musicians from her clan. She was the only child of her mother. She had three children by Gururaj: sons Babanna and Narayan, and a daughter Krishna, a fine singer-composer in her own right.

Krishna’s career as a soloist never took off, like that of Ustad Ishtiaq Hussain Khan, gifted son of the great Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan of Rampur. In both cases, they spent their best years as supporting vocalists to aging parents. Krishna literally sacrificed herself musically and physically—if that is not being too dramatic—serving and protecting her mother and the large extended family that lived in the same house, Ganga Lahari.

Every penny Gangubai and Krishna earned was spent on the family. At any time in the last 50 years of her life—she lived to be 94—Gangubai supported 15 to 20 people. She would, of course, have been outraged had it been suggested that she was supporting dependents; she felt it was her duty to support the family as the eldest, a duty she performed with unflinching love and conscientiousness.

Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan had four wives and 24 children. From this assortment, three were genuinely talented musically: Ishtiaq Hussain, Ghulam Hussain and Ghulam Taqi. While Ghulam, despite a sonorous, melodious voice, was too lazy to make a mark, Ishtiaq was recognised as an Ustad by his fellow artistes. His vast erudition and ability to understand and execute the most difficult compositions in all kinds of ragas, ranging from the well-known to the rare, stood him in good stead in his declining years when ill-health and poverty dogged his footsteps. As for Ghulam Taqi, he died tragically at 50, just as he had emerged as a discerning artiste from being an excellent craftsman.

Fareeduddin, Ishtiaq Hussain’s talented son, wore himself out giving tuitions. Except for a few private cassette recordings made by his father’s dedicated pupil, Kailash Pande, no evidence of his deep, well-rounded, musical voice remains. When he finally began to sing in mehfils or private soirees, his voice had all but deserted him.

He died forgotten and penniless, struck down by paralysis.

Mercifully neither Gangubai nor Krishna had to face such indignities, although cancer claimed both: Krishna dying in 2004, five years before her mother. Selflessness put an end to Krishna’s career as a potential solo artiste. There is little doubt that she would have been one of the leading lights of khayal singing in her time.

Gangubai’s style was attentive to structure; it was a triumph of will over circumstance. Her sweet feminine voice, heard in the early recordings from the mid-1930s, suddenly changed due to a failed operation for tonsilitis. It became heavy and manly. Instead of breaking down, she took destiny by the horns. Through dedicated practice and the knowledge she had acquired from her two gurus—mother Ambabai and then Sawai Gandharwa, star pupil of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan of Kirana, the most lyrical of all khayal singers—Gangubai forged a style that was quiet, reposeful and encouraged introspection.

Krishna, though frail, had a high, floating, malleable, very melodious voice. She was respectful of tradition but within it, showed an independent streak, composing 400 or more bandish (Hindustani compositions). Gangubai was not a composer but a peerless interpreter of what her teachers taught her. She was, paradoxically, an original, in that she transformed the lyrical, soaring gayaki or the exposition of her gharana and adapted it to suit her technical skills to create an approach that was uniquely her own.

There were hardly any takers in the 1960s for Mushtaq Hussain Khan’s gentle, incisive yet poetic approach to a given raga. He was, till his last breath, at the service of the raga set in a particular rhythmic cycle and tempo. The raga was never used to display vocal pyrotechnics that had then come into vogue. His son Ishtiaq Hussain, an independent man, added grandeur to the gayaki of the Rampur-Sehswan khayal singers, investing each composition with gravity; his little brother Ghulam Taqi, endowed with a supple, expressive voice, however, went back towards the end of his all too short life to the musical aesthetics of his illustrious father.

The only male khayal singer to make a mark in the 1960s was Ustad Amir Khan. His style was quiet, inward-looking and authoritative; in a sense, it was the opposite of the lyrical. There was, at that time, a place for a male singer like Amir Khan, as there was for Gangubai in Hindustani music.

The music of Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan and his two sons belonged to a more leisurely age. New patrons of music conferences in urban India were a restless, busy lot and steadily outnumbering the old, more patient patrons who were dying out. Ironically, Gangubai and Krishna managed to survive the changing tastes of listeners who wanted more excitement.

The only male khayal singer to make a mark in the 1960s was Ustad Amir Khan. His style was quiet, inward-looking and authoritative; in a sense, it was the opposite of the lyrical. There was, at that time, a place for a male singer like Amir Khan, as there was for Gangubai in Hindustani music. They commanded the respect of discerning listeners because of their exceptional musical integrity.

These two singers became legends because they never bothered to play to the gallery, as for instance, a fabulous performer like Bhimsen Joshi (also a much loved pupil of Sawai Gandharwa) did in his best years, mesmerising audiences often just with his electrifying voice and a plethora of taan patterns at medium and fast tempi.

It was always a tough call for the serious musician in Hindustani music after the advent of the public address system and a large, democratic and, in the long run, aesthetically problematic affair called the music conference, which was the diametrical opposite of the intimate soiree or mehfil. The nature of patronage began to change after World War I (1914-18). The three to three-and-a-half minute 78 RPM gramophone record increased the popularity of singers and instrumentalists from the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions while challenging their creativity to produce precise miniature interpretations of various ragas.

Gangubai, as a child, heard gramophone recordings of Zohrabai Agrewali in a shop near her house in Hubli, in Karnataka’s Dharwar district. Zohrabai, along with the beautiful, sensual Gauhar Jaan, ruled among light classical female singers, and specialised in this genre of music because they were tawaif or courtesans with exclusively rich male patrons who usually preferred amorous thumris with their perennial Radha-Krishna theme to “serious” forms like dhrupadkhayal and tarana. The sahitya or text in dhamar, as in thumri, was based on the eternal mythological romance between Radha and Krishna but being clubbed with dhrupad, it was considered a “difficult” genre of vocal music.

Both Gauhar Jaan and Zohrabai had learnt dhrupad and khayal, and sang them in select mehfils, but to the listeners of 78 RPM discs, they were highly accomplished light classical singers. Tawaif—called bai or jaan, depending on religion, the first Hindu and the other Muslim—were trained by bona fide Ustads or kalawant who were, invariably, financially far less successful, and who patronisingly accepted the money and attendant comforts offered  by their female pupils. Sometimes they fathered children by them, but rarely gave them their name or the stamp of their well-regarded gharana.

Bhaiyya Saheb Ganpat Rao was an exception. He was the son of the Maharaja of Gwalior and Chandrabhaga Bai, one of the finest singers of her time and a courtesan at court. Ganpat Rao was perhaps the most knowledgeable thumri exponent of his era and guru of the brilliant Maujuddin Khan, a Pathan from Benares and exponent of khayal and mainly thumri, gracious enough to acknowledge the influence of the forgotten master Pradip, also from Benares.

It was very difficult indeed for a professional female singer of devadasi or tawaif stock to make it big in the world of Hindustani or Carnatic music. Anjalibai Malpekar, Kesarbai Kerkar, Hirabai Barodekar and Gangubai Hangal were exceptions, and never sang thumridadraghazal or other light classical forms in mehfils or large public concerts. It was said Gangubai never sang light classical songs because her voice was too heavy, hence unsuitable; it was not the entire truth. She was determined to establish her credentials as a serious khayal singer, which she did in her mid-thirties.

Abdul Karim Khan, the doyen of Kirana gharana, apart from being an intensely lyrical exponent of khayal, was an undisputed master of thumri; his son Sureshbabu Mane, was a fine exponent of thumri and  raga-based Marathi natya sangeet, but his daughter Hirabai (Barodekar) although a successful producer of Marathi musicals, stuck to khayal singing.

Ustad Abdul Karim Khan was, to put it euphemistically, a colourful character. Among other things, he fathered five children by Tarabai, the sister of a minor official at the Baroda Maharaja’s court. The grapevine has it that Tarabai, a woman of fierce pride, left her husband and went to Pune with her children on learning of his  infatuation with a talented female pupil.

In Hirabai Barodekar’s house in Pune there were no photographs of Abdul Karim Khan, but there was a large portrait of Tarabai. The old Ustad was an eccentric, if ever there was one. On a train journey towards the end of his life, in 1937 or thereabouts, he met his
youngest son, grown to manhood. He did not recognise Abdur Rehman, nicknamed Papa Ustad, his most talented offspring, because he had last seen him as a small boy. Khan Sahib treated the stranger to an omelette and a cup of tea and had a pleasant conversation on things musical. Abdur Rehman got off at his destination without revealing his identity. He narrated the incident in the presence of his wife to one Mr. Poddar, a journalist whose article on old masters of Hindustani music appeared in the Bengali magazine, Desh, over 20 years ago.

Gangubai did not experience any such drama in her life but, to be sure, she experienced the pain of exclusion as acutely as her mother Ambabai did. A sense of dignity and an awareness of self-worth prevented Ambabai from accepting monetary help from her landowner common-law husband Chikurao Nadiger even when she and her daughter were scraping the bottom of the barrel. Gangubai went a step further; she had kind words to say about her father in
her biography.

“Whenever my father came to our house from Ranebennur, I would invariably be sitting with the tanpura. ‘What is this, Gangu, you are forever singing. Won’t you take a break and talk to me?’ he would chide me affectionately. He was a soft-spoken, loving person...” (pg 57)

At the bottom of the preceding page her biographer observes: “Her father Chikurao Nadiger didn’t seem to play a major role in their [mother and daughter’s] lives. He visited them often, took stock of their lives and returned to his Ranebennur home. As far as responsibility was concerned, he never took any. Gangubai never complained about it and neither did her mother.”

When Ambabai passed away after a failed operation for ulcers in 1932, Gangubai was pregnant with her second child. With perhaps unintended irony, Deepa Ganesh writes: “Chikurao Nadiger came rushing from Ranebennur for the last rites. He was heartbroken. Overcome by the grief of Ambabai’s death, the man lost interest in everything. He did not live for long after that, and was gone in a year.”

Gangubai observed as a nonagenarian without a trace of irony—one wonders if she was capable of it—“A few months ahead of my mother’s death, an astrologer came to our doorstep. He predicted that my father would lose his wife. On hearing this, my mother was grief-stricken. She worried endlessly about how my father would manage with his wife gone. She often expressed her anxiety to me. But it was my mother who died.”

Gururaj Kaulgi, apart from fathering three children with Gangubai, often left her in considerable debt. Unable to make a go of the petrol pump she had got him in her years of celebrity and relative prosperity, Gururaj left her to clean up the mess; her property was attached because of an unpaid bank loan incurred by her husband. Her home was auctioned off but bought by Upendra Naik of Udipi, a devoted admirer. This worthy gentleman returned the house along with the relevant documents. She paid him back over a period of time and blessed him from the bottom of her heart.

Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, Begum Akhtar after her marriage to the widower Ishtiaq Ahmad Abbasi, barrister-at-Law and Nawab of Kakori in Uttar Pradesh, did not find much monetary comfort in her life either. An upright man, Abbasi Sahab could not succeed as a lawyer in independent India where mendacity was required to make a name in any sphere of public life. Moreover, the abolition of the zamindari system after 1947 also squeezed him financially.

Begum Akhtar’s eccentric daughter Shabbo had many children by several husbands, all of whom were dependent on her. Right until her death in 1974, she left an invaluable emerald with a rich well-wisher in the off-season and took a loan from him to keep the home fires burning. She would return the money when the season was on. The emerald was with the gentleman when she died.  So decent was he that, without accepting the money she had borrowed, he returned the emerald saying the memory of her exquisite singing could not be measured in just material terms.

Hindustani music went through a sea change in the 60-year career of Gangubai Hangal, especially in the way it was organised. Political upheavals through the 1930s into the late 1990s affected the nature of patronage. The aristocracy, comprising the landed class, had disappeared and the rich merchants who had been generous patrons in the era before independence in 1947, had either died or fallen silent. Their children usually were more interested in money than music.

There were of course exceptions like the Shrirams, a family of industrialists, trained in music by no less than Baba Allauddin Khan of Maihar. The family hosted a major Hindustani music festival in Delhi every year featuring leading singers and instrumentalists as well as aspiring ones. Sumitra Charatram, from the Shriram family, ran the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in the city, an institution offering courses in vocal and instrumental music and various classical dance forms. It continues to flourish in the city.

There were/are institutions like Gandharwa Mahavidyalaya and Prayag Sangeet Samiti meant to produce mainly good listeners, and occasionally good musicians. The quality of listeners began to change a while before the advent of the (constantly ringing) cell phone and the Internet: people became restless; they wanted aural excitement. The singer or instrumentalist who indulged in pyrotechnics became the most sought after and the best paid. Government and private sponsors created a star-system out of these performers. Where was the place for an artiste being true to a musical form that by its very nature called for introspection?

B. R. Deodhar, guru of the maverick genius Kumar Gandharwa, wrote in his book, Pillars of Hindustani Music, about the forgotten master Baba Shinde Khan, who died in 1951, old and penniless in Bombay: “Khansaheb never sang in mehfils in Bombay. He used to give public recitals when he lived in Sind. Those who heard him in mehfils say that even when Khansaheb took the stage following a particularly impressive fast pace singer he would sing a few cheej (compositions) and by his beautiful alapi completely efface the impression created by the
preceding performer. He was invariably acknowledged as the star of the mehfil.”

This passage not only speaks of the profoundly moving quality of Baba Shinde Khan’s introspective music—an alaap can only touch you if it is slow and soul-searching—but also about the sensitivity of listeners receptive to it. Gangubai was fortunate that her struggles in the material world found such eloquence in her grand, austere singing and a sizeable audience to appreciate it over many decades in an ever-changing world.