Madhup Mudgal: My life changed after I heard Kumar Gandharva’s nirgun bhajans

Listening to Padma Shri Madhup Mudgal's 'Kabir Sandhya' is a riveting experience. Mudgal, known for his khayal and bhajan renditions, is a disciple of Kumar Gandharva. He is also the conductor of the Gandharva Choir, and principal of Delhi's Gandharva Mahavidyalaya.

On 7 September, Mudgal held audiences at the India International Centre spellbound with not only classics like 'Haman Hai Ishq-e-Mastana', 'Ram Gun', 'Chali Meri Sakhi', but also new compositions.

It is not easy to coax the self-effacing maestro to speak about himself, but over the course of this conversation, he shared some heady, deeply intimate vignettes about his music.

Your new compositions have a haunting, unforgettable quality. How long did it take you to compose them?

One of my students gifted me a special book on Kabir containing a large corpus of his poems. While reading it, I embarked on a new, obsessive journey. Slowly over a period of two or three months, I managed to compose music for several verses that resonated at different levels. It was a very beautiful, creative period, one which I often reminisce about nostalgically. I sang one of the compositions, ‘Paani Mein Meen Piyaasi’ at Gandhi Smriti on 2 October, to overwhelming response.

I was looking for an opportunity to present the rest of them. The concert at IIC was a dream come true.

 Madhup Mudgal: My life changed after I heard Kumar Gandharva’s nirgun bhajans

Madhup Mudgal

In the rendering of Kabir Bani, your most abiding influence has been of your mentor and guru Kumar Gandharva, but the notes we heard on 7 September were quintessentially yours.

It is true that the abiding influence has been that of Kumarji. Not a day goes by without remembering him with love and gratitude. But these compositions came almost as divine benediction. I was possessed by Kabir’s inexorable poetic vision. The musical notes flowed out of me effortlessly, organically.

You are known for your classicism and a certain old-school seriousness, but you also like to play a little, experiment, improvise. You have jammed with Paulo Moura, Hermeto Pascoal and other eminent jazz composers and musicians. Your album Samvaad, was the culmination of a short, rigorous musical journey with a Brazilian instrumental ensemble. Has it been difficult to walk the tightrope between classicism and innovation?

I have been exposed to different genres of music since childhood. My father founded the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya 78 years ago. The vidyalaya, that also doubled up as our home, was the hub of classical music. I absorbed the music of different gharanas from iconic musicians who formed part of our extended family. My formal training in classical music began quite late, when I was 17. Before that, I was a die-hard fan of the Beatles, smitten by their singalong love songs in albums like A Hard Day's Night. I still am!  I used to play the guitar, beat drums, like a regular Modernite. Hence, my compositions have rhythmic variations and I like experimenting with different genres.

You were never an archetypal Modernite. I remember you in school. We were part of the school orchestra that played every morning at the assembly. You played the violin with utmost seriousness!

I also played guitar, tabla and the tanpura. I must have imbibed a good sense of rhythm and taal from my home environment. I don’t remember being taught to play these instruments.

You are a celebrated conductor and composer of choral, orchestral and ensemble music. Your group has a rich repertoire and has performed at the Lincoln Centre in New York and the Kennedy Centre in DC, to great international acclaim. Would you like to share any special anecdotes related to these events?

Last year, at the Kennedy Centre, 14 of the best global choirs were requested to perform a western classical choral music piece, especially composed for the occasion. It was an emotive and hauntingly beautiful piece. The collective sound vibration was unique and exhilarating. Ours was the only choir that sang without a score, leaving everyone awestruck. This was possible because of the age-old Indian oral tradition of teaching.

You have also composed Odissi dance-music for your sister Madhavi and daughter Arushi, for Bharatnatyam choreographies of Leela Samson, for Kumudini Lakhia’s Kathak choreographies, straddling across different genres, distinct ragas, talas and styles of rendition. How do you do this?

I can only attribute my ability to compose to the musical environment I grew up in. My father and my teachers encouraged me to observe and imbibe, but not to copy. When I was not even 13, I was encouraged to compose a song for the school, ‘Rupak’, a theatrical expression of mime, music and dance. My source of inspiration is not always Indian classical music. For instance, I used a rhythmic cycle that gripped my consciousness in Algeria, in 1978, for my Samvaad album.

You took over the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya from your father, great vocalist and musicologist Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, after he died in 1995, and turned it into the most credible, visible, institutional face of Hindustani classical music and dance. How difficult was this?

I am committed to keeping alive my father’s great legacy. It was he who had to fight against great odds when he set up this institution in 1939. For several years, it operated from our home near Plaza Cinema, moving to Deen Dayal Upadhayaya Marg in 1972. My father would bicycle to people’s homes to convince them to send their children to learn music. I on the other hand, get hundreds of keen applicants. My real challenge is to keep the fees low in order to increase accessibility.

You have also retained the flavour of the Vishnu Digambar Jayanti festival started by your father – showcasing not only the maestros but promising young talent...

This festival was started by my father more than 75 years ago. I have a deep emotional connection with it. It was during this festival in 1967, at Sapru House, that I first heard Kumarji’s nirgun bhajans. It was soul stirring and haunting. The notes still reverberate in me. My life changed after that.

Sujata Prasad, a former civil servant, is an author and columnist.

Updated Date: Oct 29, 2018 15:01:29 IST