Gangubai Hangal, who represented the voice of tradition by capturing the essence of Hindustan classical music and upholding the legacy of the Kirana Gharana, defied gender and caste barriers to become the voice that swept the musical landscape in a career spanning over half a century.
The life of 97-year-old Gangubai, born in a family of boatmen, was an incredible saga of struggle to reach the pinnacle of a musical career, dotted with poignant incidents of battling financial woes, ridicule by casteist neighbours and a constant battle between staving off hunger and delivering sublime music.
Often a butt of casteist remarks and dubbed 'ganewali' by those who did not perceive singing as a noble profession way back when young Gangubai, a native of a remote village Hanagal in Karnataka took up to singing, she rose up in stature, to bag the country's most coveted awards, including Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibushan, Tansen Award, Karnataka Sangeet Nritya Akademi Award and Sangeet Natak Akademi.
A representative of the older generation, Gangubai with her purist and classic approach, has been a staunch upholder of the guru-shishya tradition.
Her musical genes were apparent early in life when she ran to the road to hear the gramophone play and tried to copy it.
Spotting the musical talent in her daughter, Gangubai's musician mother set aside her own interest in Carnatic music to ensure her daughter received the best training in Hindustani classical music from exponents of the field including, H Krishnacharya and renowned Kirana maestro Sawai Gandharva.
Recounting the teachings of her guru, Sawai-Gandharva, Gangubai once said, "My guruji taught us to use surs like a miser parting with his money - a graceful subtle movement so that the listener understood the importance of the placement of each note of the raga".
Her passion for music had young Gangubai travelling 30 km by train to the nearest railway station and then covering the further distance by foot to reach her guru's house in Kundgol where she along with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Bharat Ratna recipient, learnt music.
The guru who identified the musical genius in young Gangubai, made her sing a 'palta' or a phrase for days on end till it became frustratingly monotonous for the young girl, but a practice, she herself admitted, helped her master music.
A staunch upholder of the Kirana Gharna, Gangubai came to symbolise the uncompromising standard and aesthetics of the Gharana and the purity of style associated with it. The masculine tonal quality and timber of voice coming from a rather-frail-looking Gangubai took many by surprise.
Gangubai once herself narrated how when she went to music conference in then Calcutta, she was asked to perform at a private sitting the night before the conference, to dispel doubts in the minds of the organisers of her musical ability.
A musical genius who never bartered quality for fame, Gangubai is known best for her rendition of raagas like Bhairav, Asvari, Todi, Bhimpalas, Poorya, Dhanashri, Marwa, Kedar and Chandrakauns.
Her deep resonant voice combined with strong grace and delivery laced with vibrant emotional content was highly appreciated when she delivered the 'vilambits' in low register with haunting emotional effect.
Gangubai, known for a sensitive portrayal, once said, 'I believe in the gradual development and unfolding of the raga, an exposition so delicate that the listener should wait eagerly for the next phase.'
Considered to be among the last of the titans who upheld the kirana tradition, Gangubai has been known for her tenacious classicism and dedication for music.
In her death, the music industry has seen the passing away of an era of Hindustani classical music, an era wedded to purity of form and a belief that music is an intercommunion with God, transcending every barrier.