Shubha Mudgal on her musical journey, being a first-generation artist and her success in Indi-pop
In an interview to Firstpost, Shubha Mudgal said that finding one's voice as a musician is about coming to terms with your strength and limitations | #FirstCulture
In the vast expanse of Hindustani classical musicians and artists in India, only some have been able to bridge the ever-existing gap between the highbrow gentry and the popular mass. We may attribute this to the complicated nature of the art form, or the inherent exclusivity associated with the pursuit of classical art, in general.
This bridging of the gap between high culture and popular culture becomes even more significant when a woman is at the centre of it. Shubha Mudgal, with her distinct voice and magnetic personality, has been active in the Indian music space for over three decades now. Whether it is her rendition of different genres such as the khayal, thumri and dadra, or lighter forms of music, bhajans or even Indian pop, listeners, both old and young, have always enjoyed her music.
She recently performed at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), as part of the closing of the India and the World exhibition, a joint venture by the CSMVS, National Museum, New Delhi, and the British Museum, on 18 February. In the event, titled 'Baramasa — A Year in Song', Mudgal presented a special collection of compositions based on the theme of the seasons of the mind, body and spirit, as extracted from baramasa poems in Hindi literature. She was accompanied by Aneesh Pradhan (tabla), Dnyaneshwar Sonawane (harmonium), Dhaivat Mehta and Shweta Deshpande (tanpura).
Speaking to Firstpost, Mudgal revisited her childhood, growing up as a musician, and her opinions on the pursuit of music.
How were you introduced into the world of music? Was the environment at home inclined towards art?
My parents were teachers of English Literature at the University of Allahabad, but both shared a deep and abiding passion for music and the arts. They had studied music but never took it up professionally. However, due to their interest in the art form, they ensured that my sister Ragini and I were given abundant exposure to music and the arts, and were also provided with ample opportunities to learn from an early age.
You also underwent rigourous Kathak training during your childhood. What made you switch from dance to music?
I started learning Kathak when I was 4 years old and continued my lessons for over a decade. But later, my mother suggested that I train in thumri-singing as well, due to the association of thumri with dance. However, once I started training formally in vocal music, I felt I needed to concentrate on studying it as I had made a late start, and there was much to be learnt and imbibed. I gave up dancing thereafter and decided to concentrate on music with the support and encouragement of my parents.
Growing up, when you were pursuing music, who were your major influences?
I think for all students of music, their gurus exercise the greatest influence on them, and I am no different. When I sing, hopefully, listeners who knew my gurus and their music will be able to decipher stylistic resemblances, as well as recognise the musical inheritance passed on to me. I learnt from several great musicians like Pandit Ramashreya Jha 'Ramrang', Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, Pandit Vasant Thakar, Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki, Pandit Kumar Gandharva and Smt Naina Devi.
How moving from Allahabad to Delhi change the course of your musical career?
When I shifted from the sleepy university town of Allahabad to India’s capital, I was able to witness many more performances of music and performing arts, because artists and troupes of national and international acclaim were regular visitors to Delhi. My exposure to the arts increased dramatically.
In Allahabad, I was the daughter of two very well-loved teachers in the University, and most music lovers treated me with more indulgence and kindness than I probably deserved then. In Delhi, I was just another young student of music among many talented people who wanted to make a full-time commitment to the art form, and I had to prove my mettle.
On the other hand, the sense of itminaan or unhurried leisure that is a part of the classical music system is absent when you become part of the life of a megalopolis like Delhi. For a small town girl like me, life in Delhi was a massive contrast.
Over the years, you have attained fame, popularity as well as a large degree of reverence from listeners. Do you still get the time for riyaaz, in the midst of your schedule? How important is it?
I have indeed been fortunate to have received love and I cherish it so deeply that I can never take it for granted. To this day, my life obsessively revolves around music, and my days are full of riyaaz, teaching, studying, writing, performing and of course, copious amounts of listening to different kinds of music.
Do you think that with the advent of technology and the availability of various means at their disposal, the current generation tends to take things too easy?
I don’t think it is fair to generalise. Yes, there are young people who seek shortcuts and want instant success, but I am also certain that there were such people in the previous generations, too. In equal numbers, there are very committed, serious students of music who dedicate themselves to a lifetime of studying, come what may.
Do you think that the acceptance and pursuit of Indian classical music by the new generation has increased over the years? In the musical ecosystem, which is largely reliant on familial lineages, how much scope do first-generation musicians have?
I am a first generation musician, with no professional musicians in the family before me. Similarly, my husband tabla player Aneesh Pradhan is also a first generation professional musician. My gurubhai and colleague, acclaimed harmonium artiste Sudhir Nayak, too, is also a first generation professional musician. There! I have given you three examples of people with no musical lineage to rely on.
Having said that, I must clarify that a life in the arts is an uncertain and unpredictable one with no guarantee of success. Despite that, people fall in love with the arts and choose to dedicate their lives to their fields of specialisation, despite the inevitable struggle and challenges. The struggle is bearable when family and friends provide support and encouragement. But it is greatly intensified when there is no emotional support at home. This is why I often feel that a commitment to music and the arts is best described in the words of the great poet Jigar Moradabadi: "Ik aag ka dariya hai aur doob ke jana hai."
You are known for your distinct vocal texture and style. How important is it to find one's own voice?
Finding one’s voice in the context of music is not associated only with its physical attributes. It is also about finding and being comfortable with who you are, your aesthetics, your strengths as a musician and more importantly, your limitations.
Only my critics can tell you whether or not I have found my own voice. I know that the journey is ongoing, and has been delightful so far despite many challenges.
You are one of the very few Indian classical musicians who has tasted immense success in the Indi-pop genre as well. How did 'Ab Ke Sawan' happen?
I was first invited by composer-producer Jawahar Wattal to record a non-classical Indi-pop album titled Ali More Angana in 1996. Later in 1999, Shantanu Moitra invited me to work with him on another album which was finally titled Ab Ke Sawan. That's how my involvement with Indi-pop materialised. I continue to have an interest in popular music and am fortunate to have many young musicians and composers invite me for collaborations.
Why do you think films like Morning Raga, Raincoat, Saaz — with pure raga-based songs — have become so rare? Do you think that Bollywood has offered fewer chances to pure classical music in films, over the years?
I think film music in India has always been a hybrid form which has embraced a variety of musical forms and genres, including classical music. In the past, composers, arrangers and even sessions musicians in the music industry were highly skilled in classical music. Today, they are better versed with electronic music, pop, rock and other genres, and the demand for raga-based music is also rarely seen in the scripts for films. When a script demands raga-based music, it still surfaces. Otherwise, it's the usual fare that is churned out.
Tell us something about your concert Baramasa. How did you blend together the changing seasons into the composition?
The baramasa form exists in Indian literature, music and painting. Musically, there are special songs in the thumri style called baramasas that describe in detail the longing and yearning of a protagonist, often female, through a year of changing seasons. I have made a selection of baramasa songs which I have been studying for several years, some of which I have presented. These include excerpts from Malik Muhammad Jaysi’s baramasa describing Nagmati yearning through the year for Ratnasen, as well as baramasa songs said to have been written by the saint-poet Mirabai and others.
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