OBITUARIES: Gangubai Hangal & Ali Akbar Khan

One of the few achievements of Independent India  has been the popularization of India’s great musical traditions within India and abroad. The outward journey of Indian cultural artists  started with Pandit Ravi Shankar, which was followed by such stalwarts as  Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Gangubai Hangal ,  Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Jasraj and others.


Two of these greats, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Gangubai Hangal, passed away in June and July 2009, respectively. INSAF Bulletin pays its homage to these  two legendry artists, Khansahib the  Sarod maestro and Gangubai, the doyen of Hindustani classical music.




The Tribute to Gangubai reproduced below was sent by the author Deepa Ganesh to Vijaya Mulay and Sushila Ambike, who sent it to INSAF Bulletin with the following note:  “Here is an excellent article by Deepa Ganesh, a journalist who works with the Hindu. Currently she is writing a book on Gangubai. Both Susheela Ambike and I found her article to be very thoughtful.” Vijaya Mulay


Vijaya Mulay and her younger sister  Sushila Ambike,  are long-time friends of Gangubai. Whenever Gangubai visited Delhi, she stayed at Sushila Ambike’s home and invariably bought ladoos made by herself. Vijaya Mulay has made a documentary on the life of Gangubai, which will be screened by Doordarshan. Ed.



Deepa Ganesh (Hindu, July 22, 2009)


“I want to live to be a hundred,” said 97-year-old Gangubai Hangal a fortnight ago from her hospital bed in Hubli. But that was not to be for the matriarch of the Kirana Gharana, whose full-bodied and robust voice held the musical imagination of the country captive for over eight decades.


A study of the 97-year-old Gangubai Hangal’s life and music can never be two separate things.  Neither of these could escape the forces of the times, even as they determined each other. Gangubai – like all individuals – emerged from a specific context; however, tradition played a major role in her life and music. While it is true she stood to alter the course of history, she was also its product.


Change the emphasis of notes and a different mood is evoked and a different raga emerges. If life could emerge like the difference between allied ragas, Gangubai Hangal’s life is a sure example. Gangubai, an exponent of the Kirana gharana occupies the realm of public space with the many stories, anecdotes and her robust music. However, her poignant silences always told a different story: it was the story of the lives of women in music and the various forces that were at work.


Gangubai was born in Dharwad on March 5, 1913, into a family of professional musicians. Her mother Ambabai was a Carnatic musician of extraordinary abilities. She could instantly write the notation of any song that she heard and was well versed in Sanskrit too. Gangubai often recalled Ambabai’s private concerts at her home in Dharwad with Kirana gharana founder Ustad Abdul Karim Khan often in attendance.


Hirabai Badodekar, Sunderabai, Sawai Gandharva and other musicians of the time would often make a stopover in Dharwad, just to listen to Ambabai. “A huge crowd would gather around our house to listen to my mother,” Gangubai would say with pride.


Gangubai’s moral grit and superlative talent helped her rise above her disadvantaged social circumstances, and the prejudices of caste and class. We are talking of 1920s and 1930s – when not many girls in India could achieve what Gangubai did. “Shukravarapete was then dominated by Brahmins. The minute I stepped out of the house, street urchins would jeer at me and throw dirty water at me,” she often recalled with no trace of bitterness. “These very people who had ridiculed me as a gaanewaali eventually treated me with respect later.”


Under the tutelage of her guru Sawai Gandharva, Gangubai evolved as a supreme talent, entering the world of Marathi films and playback singing, radio and recording studios, and the concert stage. Gangubai braved everything with her unswerving perseverance and shut the doors on the kind of life her mother and grandmother lived. She was never a fighter, but in her own quiet ways changed the notion of respectability and occupied what was an established male bastion.


Though married to Gururaj Kaulgi, a Brahmin lawyer, life was not easy. She never used this alliance to elevate her social status. In fact, she chose not to give his name even to her children. “I was the sole bread winner for a family of nearly 20. My husband was never a practising advocate, and ran huge losses in business. The children were small and I could not refuse concerts… Even then sometimes there would be no food,” she would say with her characteristic stoicism. There were times when her children would be crying backstage, but Gangubai had to go on with her rendition.


Accompanying her during these times was her uncle Ramanna. The young Gangu travelled to Kundagol every day to learn from Sawai Gandharv, with each rigorous session lasting a minimum of eight to nine hours. “He did not teach me too many ragas; but he was such a taskmaster that whatever he taught it was to perfection. Every moment of my living self is a tribute to him and my mother,” she would say, her eyes misting over.


Gangubai, unlike her gurubandhus Bhimsen Joshi and Firoz Dastur, stuck strictly to khyal music. Her presentation was compact and sublime. In her strong base she infused every rendition with fervour and without any trace of flashy ornamentation. Like herself, her music was true and unpretentious. As H.Y. Sharada Prasad put it: “Gangubai’s singing has the force of the Ganga; it cleanses.”


“Every musical offering from me is a prayer,” she once said. From carrying firewood for household needs to feeding and watering a huge family to gruelling music sessions to earning a living – Gangubai’s entire life is a lesson in immaculate faith and devotion.


Gangubai Hangal belongs up there with a galaxy of outstanding women performers comprising Hirabai Badodekar, Kesarbai Kerkar, Rasoolan Bai, Jaddan Bai, Begum Akhtar, Bangalore Nagaratnamma, Shanmughavadivu and Veena Dhanam who, though from the margins socially, moved determinedly to centre-stage. In them, one finds a complex melange of rebellion and acceptance; hard to draw a line where tradition ends and modernity begins.


Gangubai Hangal made difficult choices; but to see them in isolated contexts of gender or art is to diminish her as an object of study. She lived in a world that was quick to fix her in particular ways; her expression contained not just her answer, but answers of the many voices who shared her time.




(From the Telegraph,  21 June, 2009)


Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the Indian classical musician, who died on June 18 aged 87, was the world’s leading exponent of the 25-stringed instrument called the sarod.


Khan established music schools in Calcutta, California (where he was based from 1965 onwards) and Switzerland. He toured throughout the world, and composed and recorded prolifically, generally releasing between one and six albums a year. In 1955 he became the first Hindustani (north Indian)  classical musician to record a microgroove LP as a soloist; and among several film scores, he wrote the music for The Householder (1963), the first Merchant/Ivory film.


In 1971 he appeared with his former brother-in-law Ravi Shankar at the Concert For Bangladesh, alongside its organizer George Harrison, Ringo Star, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, and later in his career he was nominated

for five Grammies.


Khan was “discovered” by the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who first met him on a visit to India in 1952, declaring him to be “an absolute genius, the greatest musician in the world”. Within three years, Menuhin had facilitated Khan’s breakthrough as an international artist, organizing his American debut at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


On this initial visit, Khan also recorded Music Of India: Morning and Evening Ragas (Angel, 1955) and appeared on Alistair Cooke’s television show, Omnibus. In the same year he made the first of many visits to Britain, performing in London at the Royal Festival Hall. Until then, Indian classical music was almost unknown in the Western world, and his work anticipated its worldwide popularity in the 1960s, notably when The Beatles fell under its spell.


The music journalist Ken Hunt, who befriended Khan and wrote the sleeve notes for the Grammy-nominated album Legacy (1996), a collaboration with Asha Bhosle, has described Khan as a warm, generous man who also had a didactic, disciplinarian side, an inevitable consequence of his many years of rigorous training.


Ali Akbar Khan was born on April 14 1922 at the village of Shivpur, near Comilla, in what was then East Bengal (now Bangladesh). His father, Ustad Allauddin Khan, was a revered teacher/guru (hence the Muslim title “Ustad”) steeped in a musical tradition dating from the 16th century – he is said to have played up to 200 instruments, and his son began studying music from the age of three.


Initially, his father taught him vocal music while an uncle tutored him in percussion before he was directed towards the sarod. By the age of 13 he had given his first public appearance, but many years of grueling training – sometimes lasting 18 hours a day – were still before him. As he once said: “If you practice for 10 years, you may begin to please yourself. After 20 years you may become a performer and please the audience. After 30 years you may please even your guru. But you must practice for many more years before you finally become a true artist -then you may please even God.” His father was 100 years old before he felt ready to bestow on his son the title of Swara Samrat (“Emperor of Melody”).


Khan wrote first composition, Mali Gaura, in 1935, for the Maihar band, a group of local orphans established by his father to play for his patron, the Maharaja of Maihar. By his early twenties, Khan had made his first appearances on All India Radio (AIR) and began recording 78s for the HMV label. In 1943 he became the court musician for the Maharaja of Jodhpur, a position that earned the title Ustad. The next year he became AIR’s youngest-ever musical director.


In 1948 he moved to Bombay, where he began composing film scores. His most notable early successes were for Chetan Anand’s Aandhiyan (1952), Tapan Sinha’s award-winning Khudita Pashan and Satyajit Ray’s Devi (both 1960). In 1993 he would score Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha.


The year after his debuts in America and Britain, Khan established the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta. In the 1960s he founded two schools in California, and in 1985 he launched a branch at Basle, Switzerland, leaving his disciple Ken Zuckerman in charge, but visiting as a teacher when on his regular world tours.


Although without question an innovator, Khan is perhaps most revered for his unwillingness to compromise his music, which was based on traditional Hindustani ragas, a system of melodic templates in ascending and descending scales. Unusually, he was known to play whole concerts of the alaap (the introductory section of most ragas played in free rhythm with only a drone accompaniment), known to be most testing for a musician.


From the mid-1960s, his work occasionally became more experimental. Among his best-known collaborations were those with Yvette Mimieux on the album Flowers of Evil: Six Poems of Baudelaire (1968) and a brace of Indo-jazz fusion albums with the saxophonist John Handy, Karuna Supreme (1975) and Rainbow (1981), later reissued on CD.


Predating Live Aid by 14 years, and paving the way for this type of charity event, the Concert for Bangladesh took place at Madison Square Gardens on August 1 1971, to benefit refugees of Cyclone Bhola and the Bangladesh Liberation War. Khan famously opened the concert in a jugalbandi (instrumental duet) with Ravi Shankar, an echo of their first such artistic pairing back in 1939. He was later less than complimentary about the concert, describing it as “a war of music” and admitting to having used lavatory paper as ear plugs.


In 1997 Khan received the National Heritage Fellowship Award of the US National Endowment for the Arts, an occasion for which he composed Narayani Gauri, which featured on his album Swara Samrat (2003). In the same year he performed at the UN in New York and at the Kennedy Centre in Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of India’s independence.


In recent years Ustad Ali Akbar Khan had suffered ill health, which restricted his public appearances. He is survived by his third wife, Mary,  and by 11 children.




[Excerpts from the article by Kamla Bhatt in Outlook Magazine, June 22, 2009;  the full article was reproduced in India Abroad of June 26, 2009. The front page carried Ustad’s photograph with Sarod titled “A legend’s legacy”)


“On the walls of the narrow entrance (to Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California) and the room beyond hang portraits of Saraswati, Durga, Ganesh and Krishna, interspersed with photos of Khansaheb – or Baba, as he is reverentially called.”


“As you scan the overtly Hindu images on the walls, Khansaheb sees your inquisitive eyes and explains, “Music comes from Brahma and Saraswati. I always offer my prayers to the gods in the morning.””


“Ask him about his success in the US an the time in Calcutta, and he can only mutter.: “In Calcutta I didn’t get any help with the college. But here I have had 10,000 students come to this college alone. “This Calcutta episode is an ironic side in the story of Hindustani music; his father, the great Baba Allaudin, was the one figure who took teaching music beyond the fold of familial transmission-to great heights.”


“Ali Akbar had a reason for having a go at film music. He wanted the “riskshawala and tangawala to listen to this pukka (classical) music  – that was the only way they could listen to it.” He wanted to take  classical music to the street.”

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