Shubha Mudgal on her debut work of fiction, Looking for Miss Sargam, and the real-life inspirations behind it
Shubha Mudgal's debut work of fiction — Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure, a collection of short stories, steers clear of stereotypes and happy endings, and are instead, realistic accounts of classical musicians of our times.
The seven stories in Miss Sargam steer clear of stereotypes and happy endings, and are instead, realistic accounts of classical musicians of our times.
Laced with humour, Mudgal plunges into her repertoire of stories of hope, despair, longing and loss.
A singer lobbying for a Padma award, classical musicians shortchanged by Bollywood due to loopholes in the law, a Hindustani classical vocalist's long cherished dream of touring the US comes crashing down — myriad tales from the world of Indian classical music come through in Shubha Mudgal's debut work of fiction — Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure, a collection of short stories.
The seven stories in Miss Sargam steer clear of stereotypes and happy endings, and are instead, realistic accounts of classical musicians of our times. Laced with humour, Mudgal plunges into her repertoire of stories of hope, despair, longing and loss. In a conversation with Firstpost, the virtuoso talks about Hindustani classical music, its innate ability to adapt, and her muse for the book — Miss Sargam.
At the onset, I want to clear the air around the obvious question — what was the impetus for you to write Looking for Miss Sargam?
I have been writing about Indian music for a fair while now. For over a decade, I wrote a column on music for the 'Lounge' section of Mint, and earlier I had a column in Hindi in another publication. I have also written occasional articles for various journals and publications, almost always on music. But this is the first time that I have attempted fiction.
Honestly, I did not plan to write a collection of stories, but found myself, one fine day, hammering away at my laptop keyboard and churning out a story, which happens to be the first in the Miss Sargam collection. Perhaps, I just wanted to tell these stories about the wonderfully complex world of music-making from different perspectives.
I’m sure you’ll be asked this question a lot — how much inspiration for the characters/situations came from real life? As an insider of the music world, how many of these stories did you personally encounter?
The stories do not replicate real life encounters witnessed by me personally, but build on incidents and situations I have had the opportunity to witness on stage, off-stage, as a listener, performer, teacher, and student of music. The stories are fictitious, but the research for the stories comes from having spent a life in the company of music.
Many stories in the book strike a chord – from the difficulties of Indian musicians touring the world, to copyright infringements, shortchanging classical musicians, and the state of reality shows — how did these stories come to you?
It is a well-known fact that the life of a musician is no bed of roses. The applause and acclaim on-stage for some who are more fortunate than others camouflage the struggles, disappointments and heartbreak that invariably mark the lives of most artistes. Biographies and anecdotes all present more or less the same picture – of lives of people chasing a dream with all the highs and lows that make for a very bumpy rollercoaster ride. My stories too emerge from the same backdrop.
Any particular story that is your favourite, and why?
That’s a difficult choice for me to have to make, but perhaps 'A Farewell to Music' is my current favourite, because I know there are so many Mrigo-like characters in India — all undeniably talented, crazy-about-music young people, whose ambition is to be full time musicians, but who ultimately opt for a more financially secure life and abandon music, usually due to parental and societal pressures.
What is the place of Indian classical music in today’s world?
Classical music is actually very adaptable, and shortening the duration of presentations has never really been an issue. After all, in the early 20th century, when recording technology arrived in India, the greatest artistes successfully compressed their performances into three to five minute formats, to suit the 78 RPM format. So that is really not a problem.
I think one of the major problems is the general lack of awareness about not just classical music, but about so many other traditional art forms. And this stems from our not having a vibrant arts education program as part of mainstream education provided to every child in the country. As a result, classical music faces an immense struggle in the new India that we are all so proud of, where we scream our heads off about patriotism and nationalism on every TV debate, but couldn’t bother two hoots about traditional art forms and crafts that form such an integral part of the country’s artistic legacy.
The book captures the dilemma of modern day classical musicians — should they stick to their roots or do they diversify into popular genres? As someone who has straddled both the worlds, what’s your opinion on the same?
Personally, I have a keen interest in different forms of music and it was my curiosity and voluntary desire to engage with different forms of music that made me sing popular music. But I think it is tragic if someone who does not want to engage with popular music is forced to do so, only because they do not find enough opportunities otherwise.
Are both singing and writing extensions of one another? — As both the art forms involve a deep understanding of a subject at hand, and need to come from within one’s soul.
That would probably be a pre-requisite for any work or activity that one wants to do with sincerity and integrity. But having trained to be a musician, writing about music has been challenging, and I have had to put in even more riyaaz for it.
Miss Sargam, the mysterious, titular character, fleets in and out of narration, and one doesn’t really know her. Why was that and will she return in another book? What was the inspiration for creating a successful singer who shuns the public eye?
Miss Sargam is meant to be symbolic of any artiste anywhere in the world, reinventing themselves with the times, finding asylum from the maddening world by immersing themselves in traditional arts and the rigorous discipline required to master an art. While here she is a Miss Sargam, she could as well have been a Master Sargam, but maybe I will work on her story some other time. (Smiles)
Humour is an integral part of the book and somehow, I feel that you have lent your own personality to the book. Is that a correct assumption?
Hey! Are you calling me funny? (laughs) Jokes apart, having music in my life has made it possible for me to smile through both the good and bad times. If that is reflected in the writing style, I’m happy to hear that.
A lot of your stories don’t have a conventional ending — some are bittersweet, while the others are poignant. Was it a conscious decision to depict life as it is with these stories?
Predictable endings don’t make for good storytelling, do they? So yes, as I worked on the stories, I tried to weave in characters, events, goings-on that would take unpredictable directions.
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