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Gangubai Hangal - Charisma and Modesty

Obituaries by Yogendra
(December 2009)

The news has reached us only recently: Khyal singer Gangubai Hangal has passed away in her home town Hubli in the South Indian state of Karnataka at age 96 after brief illness on June 21st. She belonged to the Kirana Gharana and had been a student of Sawai Gandharva. Being a woman and from a low caste, Gangubai Hangal had to overcome deeply rooted prejudices and social conventions to become a successful professional singer in the India of the British colonial era.

In an early recording from 1935, Gangubai Hangal still has a youthful, bright female voice - the peculiar deep voice with its nearly male sound, which has been a hallmark throughout most of her career, was a result of a throat surgery a few years later. After having started with Bhajans and Thumris she specialized on khyal and made her national breakthrough in India during the 1940s with performances at major festivals and for All India Radio. Although Gangubai Hangal made very few recordings and was only known to a few connoisseurs internationally, she was one of the most highly respected artists of the raga tradition in India for decades. In 2002 she received the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian order of India, for her lifetime achievements.

In 1992 I had the great pleasure of attending a live performance of Gangubai Hangal during the Festival of India in Germany. I was deeply impressed by her stage presence, which was at the same time powerful and majestic as well as centered and internalised. It seemed very natural how she sat alone in the centre of her ensemble and concentrated the attention of hundreds of spectators into her raga performance. After that experience I was perplexed when I saw her standing off stage in a group of people after the programme: The charismatic appearance had changed into a tiny old lady, who made everybody around her look like giants, and who seemed about to vanish completely in her simple modesty.