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Gangubai Hangal was a Hindustani classical signer of the Kirana Gharana. She was born in Dharwar, Karnataka, to Ambabai, a devdasi and classical singer in the Carnatic tradition, and given the name Gandhari which was later shortened to Gangubai, possibly because she came from the Gangamat caste, originally boatmen. Her father Chikkar Nadgir was a Brahmin patron of her mother’s. Her grandmother Kamlabai was also a renowned singer. As a low caste child she was shunned by the respectable people of her home town and stigmatized as a ‘gaanewali’ a singer, regarded as equivalent to a prostitute. After she became famous these people welcomed her into their homes. In later years she spoke candidly about these incidents.

In 1928 she shifted to Hubli, having acquired the patronage of Gururao Kaulgi, a Brahmin lawyer many years her senior. He wished to marry her but she would not let him lose caste for her, insisting that he marry his cousin. She later became good friends with his wife and children. In fact she supported him and his legal family financially. With him she had two sons, Narayan Rao and Babu Rao, and a daughter, Krishna, who also became a classical singer, but died of cancer. She never lived with her ‘husband’, retaining her own name and rights just as her mother had done. Her mother Ambabai supervised her initial musical training, and musician friends of her mother’s also helped to train her. Gangubai then decided to change styles and learn North Indian classical music, and in 1937 apprenticed herself to Rambhau Kundagolkar, better known as Sawai Gandharva, a student of the famous maestro Abdul Karim Khan. Every day she would travel 30 kilometres by train to study with him, and when they saw her walking down the street, people would jeer at her. Her musical debut was at the Bombay Music Circle. Jaddan Bai (q.v.) convinced her to go to Calcutta and sing at a function there. The organizers were initially skeptical that this young girl could sing, but when they heard the extraordinarily powerful voice that emanated from the tiny body they were convinced. Her exposition of khayal quickly brought her fame and she became an overnight celebrity. Having transited from a Southern style to a Northern none, and with a deep powerful voice that could out-sing any man, her style transcended boundaries of caste, gender and geography.

She received many awards, including the Karnataka Sangeet Nritya Academy Award, 1962, the Padma Bhushan in 1972, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1973, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1996, the Padma Vibhushan in 2002. She was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2003 but recovered after treatment. However, she began to have cardiac problems, which finally killed her. Her autobiography is titled Nanna Badukina Haadu (The Song of My Life), as told to N.K. Kulkarni, translated into English by G.N. Hangal and published by Sahitya Prakashan, Hubli. The Hangal Music Foundation of Hubli carries on her legacy.
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