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. “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.”
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.
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.