As we approach International Women’s Day, Siddhant Pillai remembers Gangubai Hangal, the doyen of the Kirana gharana, who dared to scale the heights of music.

Born on this day into a “low-caste” fishing community in 1913, Gangubai Hangal fought caste and gender barriers to chisel a singing career that spanned more than seven decades.

She belonged to the Kirana Gharana, a stream of Hindustani Classical music that lays tremendous emphasis on melodiousness and sweetness of voice. Ironically, Gangubai’s singing couldn’t have been more different from her Gharana’s hallmarks, for it was characterized by power, laced with a marvelously masculine quality.

The story behind Gangubai’s unique voice is, itself, a testimony to her determination towards becoming a musician. The androgynous timbre was not a natural gift, but a by-product of a surgery that had almost put an end to her career. While loss of voice would have compelled most singers to throw in the towel, Gangubai, like a true master, wielded her voice to serve her music again. After the throat operation, all she had to say about her voice was, “Now it is closer to my guru’s voice.”

Gangubai’s guru was the great Sawai Gandharva, one of the foremost disciples of the Kirana Gharana founder, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. Sawai Gandharva was a sought-after musician and was constantly on the move due to which Gangubai’s music lessons took place sporadically. It was only after he settled in Kundgol, about 20 odd kilometers from Gangubai’s hometown of Hubli, that her music study become more regular. This also meant that she had to travel every morning to Kundgol by train & return late at night. Gangubai recalls her guru as being a tough taskmaster, who would often light a candle, teach her a taan (a rapid melodic passage) and ask her to practice it till the candle burnt down.

Though her guru’s lessons were exacting, they were the least of Gangubai’s worries during her learning years. Unlike her fellow students Bhimsen Joshi and Basavaraj Rajguru, she was chided and ridiculed by upper-caste local boys for pursuing music, which was considered unbecoming of “good girls” in that era. Often they would throw water mixed with cow dung at her, and kick up a row whenever she practiced her singing. When asked of her days of struggle in an interview, she said “There are many artistes who claim that once they hold the tanpura all happiness and sorrow is forgotten. This has not been my experience. When I sit for riyaaz emotions well up. I can vividly remember the hardships I’ve been through … the worry of what the next day will bring in its wake.”

Her troubles only strengthened her resolve to pursue music in its purest form. Perhaps to ensure that no aspersions were cast on her character, she steadfastly refused to sing Thumris or Natya Sangeet (the musical domain traditionally reserved for courtesans), even going to the extent of saying that light classical music was not one of her strengths, and that her voice was more suited to singing only pure classical. She recalled, “”I remember a concert where the audience went on sending chits asking me to sing Marathi songs. I did namaskar and entreated them to listen to what I sing. My feeling moulds my music. If you kill that, my music ends.”

Gangubai’s music reflects the lofty standards she set for herself. In an era when musicians hankered after publicity, some even at the cost of their music, she maintained the integrity of her art. Her singing itself lacked the sweetness that one admired in Hirabai Barodekar’s music or the bewildering flawlessness of Kesarbai Kerkar’s artistry, but she made up for it by plumbing the depths of each raga and laying bare its mool bhava or core mood, which is the ultimate goal of a Hindustani musician.

With the passage of time, Gangubai’s unswerving devotion to her craft won her numerous laurels including the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award in the Republic of India. Though she was by no means a crowed puller, she amassed a small but fanatic fan base that knew they were in the presence of a greater force when Gangubai took to the stage – one hand covering an ear, her eyes tightly closed, her voice becoming a gateway to many enchanting worlds.