Music, misadventures and Mudgal

Shriya Mohan | Updated on October 19, 2019

Companions: Nargis (left) and Ringo (right) are Mudgal’s front row audience during her unplugged performances at her Paharganj home IMAGE COURTESY: RAGHAV PASRICHA

Through her fictional characters in her debut book Looking for Miss Sargam, Shubha Mudgal tunes right into all that plagues the Indian classical music scene

Manzoor Ahmad ‘Rehmati’ was a harmonium accompanist who belonged to Uttar Pradesh’s Hardoi district. Years ago, when he heard that artistes were paid five times more for concerts in the Capital than they were elsewhere, he took a leap of faith and migrated to Delhi, giving himself the flourish of a tasteful last name. Over the years, he made himself available to every classical vocalist in need of a harmonium player and soon became the accompanist to be booked for any major classical music event. He also acquired a one-room flat, an addiction to alcohol and an intense yearning for the Padma Shri.

All he needed was a solid recommendation.

“Merit did not seem to matter when weighed against the Ustad’s recommendation. You could be a dolt and still get a Padma award if the Ustad wanted you to get it,” writes Shubha Mudgal, Hindustani vocalist in her debut book Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure.

Classic act: Musicians aren’t aware of their rights to a contract, copyrights or legal aid   -  THE HINDU / SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA


For Rehmati though, the recognition would come at a price. Ustad Riyawat Ali Khan, renowned vocalist with a supremo status in Hindustani music, wanted something precious in return for the favour he bestowed upon Rehmati — the rare musical compositions which were a family legacy and handed down to the instrumentalist by his father.

“If giving the bandish to Khan sahib meant a Padma coming his way, it would be an investment worth the barter. In his mind, he quickly asked his dear departed father’s forgiveness, flashed a toothy smile at Khan sahib and said: Tankashree? Of course, Huzoor. What would I do with that bandish? It will find a worthy place in your collection, Ustad ji,” writes Mudgal in perhaps what is the most heartbreaking story in the book, recently published by Speaking Tiger.

Sitting in her cozy apartment in Paharganj, Delhi, surrounded by her affable dogs — Ringo, a dalmatian, and Nargis, a boxer — Mudgal, known for her resonant voice and her Hindustani classical repertoire of Thumri, Dadra and Khayals, says all she wanted with the book was to share the reality of what it means to be a musician today.

With a hindustani musical career spanning over three decades, Mudgal grew up in Allahabad (now Prayagraj) learning music from her mother and then her first guru, Pandit Ramashreya Jha. Her vocal training has also been moulded by stalwarts such as Pandit Vinaya Chandra Maudgalya, Pandit Vasant Thakar, Vidushi Naina Devi and the legendary Pandit Kumar Gandharva.

Looking for Miss Sargam, her collection of seven stories, tears apart the romantic vision of classical music as a sacred turf where ego and desire are sacrificed at the altar of music.

“I haven’t passed any judgement on my fictional characters. I’m just showing them as human beings — enormously gifted, yet having feet of clay,” she says. Mudgal, with her sharp wit and humour, portrays musicians as jaded beings just like anybody else, people in constant need of social validation.

The back stories

There was a time, she says, when khandani musicians were very proud of the legacy of special compositions. “Very often, even a deserving student would never get these compositions because they were passed down to the next of kin or people who were considered the legitimate heir. In some cases, we’ve heard of these being given as dowry when musicians married each other,” Mudgal explains. One can’t decide what’s more tragic — Rehmati’s willingness to exchange his legacy for a national award or watching his dismal end, robbed of his inheritance and cast aside, unrecognised.

Each of Mudgal’s stories holds a mirror to the music industry today, putting the spotlight on issues that most classical musicians are uncomfortable discussing in public.

“Everybody is gaga about the fact that you can nominate yourself for a Padma award. What’s an award where you say please give me an award? I don’t understand this democratisation,” Mudgal, who won the Padma Shri in 2000, says. “What do you give an award for? Should it just be for excellence in the field? Or do you also consider how your work has impacted the community?” she asks.

Also an avid advocate for copyrights and contracts, Mudgal makes a subtle case for them in her fiction.

“A lot of musicians aren’t aware of their rights. I learnt the hard way, on the job, when a work of mine was appropriated by somebody and I was even taken to court. Primarily, in Indian classical music, the idea of having a manager or getting legal help to make contracts and agreements isn’t there. If you ask for these you become ‘difficult’,” she says.

An artiste must understand that they need to acknowledge the contributions of musical influences as well as the role of the accompanists, she points out. Mudgal echoes Mark Twain’s iconic line: There’s no such thing as an original idea.

One of her characters is Asavari Apte, a senior classical singer of repute from Pune, who finally gets a chance to fulfil her dream of performing abroad. Apte’s US tour is organised by a young boy named Upendra who is the former student of a fellow guru. He had parted ways with the guru in a rather ugly manner that involved foul language and a police case. “Now there is no possibility of ever mending bridges with him, Tai. It’s over. Finished. For good,” says Upendra, in the short story Foreign Returned.

“While we’re a society that reveres the guru shishya parampara, the hallowed, sacred relationships are in reality very tenuous,” Mudgal says.

Apte’s overseas saga is one of several sacrifices, primarily to keep down expenses. She sleeps on a mattress in the house of an Indian family, who politely ask her if she could be a judge for an Indian DJ contest. Her accompanist is a US-based tanpura player whose long painted talons make for some screeching background music, and her harmonium player arrives for the concert wearing a shirt that says ‘Eat that shit’, and insists the singer change her scale to either A sharp or G sharp, as those are the only ones he is familiar with. Worse still, at the end of the performance, the listeners put their contributions in a bowl as they walk out. Most just drop loose change. “Asavari felt her face flush in embarrassment as she realized what Upendra had meant when he said payments from house concerts would not be calculated in advance... shouldn’t he have mentioned that it would be like singing and begging in the streets?” writes Mudgal.

Apte is forced to cut short her US tour, never having felt more humiliated in her life.

Each story is independent, and Mudgal’s characters never meet. Yet, the irony is not missed when a stunningly off-key band called the Badass Bandariyas (Badass she monkeys) is flooded with prospects while Apte loses the ground beneath her feet.

Mudgal, who has also recorded Indian fusion music, admits that her inbox is flooded with requests from young singers trying their hand at “contemporary classical”. Are well-trained classical talents losing out in this current obsession for fusion to well-marketed mediocre talent?

The real tragedy, she says, is the lack of engagement between people who control the music industry and musicians. In her stints as a consultant for prominent recording labels, Mudgal says she had found it difficult to make them invest in talent. “Marketing wale say it won’t work,” was the refrain, she recalls, explaining how horrified she was when she found that the marketing department got its information from people in rundown music stores selling cassettes and CDs at a local market.

“How would they know about a young musician who has all the makings of a star?” she asks. Her disillusionment with an industry unwilling to put its ear to the ground made her quit as a consultant.

But, on the other hand, isn’t this a great time for music that comes with a cultural context? Several folk genres, or music in regional dialects have found the spotlight, thanks to social media and other platforms. The Manganiars of Rajashtan, for instance, are global celebrities.

Mudgal calls this surface-level engagement. The Manganiars, she agrees, are extraordinarily talented and adaptable performers. “But it is only the minuscule repertoire of the Langa Manganiars that can be danced to, (music) which is peppy, and is entering the mainstream. Even Langa Manganiars are worried that their repertoires are shrinking to just the foot-tapping numbers. Nobody wants to explore the wealth of music they are known for,” she says.

“My biggest concern is that we’ll call it beautiful only if music is performed with electronic guitars and drums and we will reject the same if it’s performed with the dholak and ravanahatha. Although the tabla and dholak are contemporary instruments, you’re giving them an archaic quality just because they are acoustic handcrafted Indian instruments. That’s a tragedy,” she says.

Other concerns, too, plague classical musicians. A mismanagement of dates would mean the musicians are vying for the attention of listeners who are torn between a cricket match and a concert, she says. Event organisers also tend to pack in as many performances as they can into a 6:30-10pm slot. After setting up the stage, sound checks and tuning the accompanying acoustic instruments, a singer is left with just 30 or 40 minutes for a performance.

“The senior-most artiste who performs last is given 20 minutes. You just hop on stage and start performing. Sadly, many people are abandoning the use of acoustic tanpuras and instead opting for electronic tanpuras for this reason,” she observes.

Also being restricted to recurring evening performances for the most part leaves out the dawn, afternoon and post midnight raags. “All this has led to a shrinking of concert repertoire,” she rues.

Who is Miss Sargam?

The question must be asked. Miss Sargam features in Mudgal’s book as someone who is a guide to the industry, someone who left classical for pop and went back to classical, someone who could sing in a male and female voice. Could that be the author? “I haven’t worn a three-piece suit as yet, although I keep threatening my friends that I’m going to show up in a lime-green fluorescent suit,” she says, laughing heartily. That’s how Miss Sargam — who makes cameo appearances — is described in the book.

“My story is very ordinary. If I were to write it nobody would read . I had no divine intervention of goddess Saraswati appearing in my dream. I did what everybody is doing,” says Mudgal, setting the record straight, that whether she was termed a success or a betrayer, she never abandoned either classical music or pop. Even in the days of her reigning pop career, after the popular hits Ali More Angana in 1996 and the Ab Ke Saawan album in 1999, she had kept her classical performances steady. “Didn’t the film industry always have the greatest classical artistes contributing to it?” she asks.

So has she made enemies with this book? Could anyone see through the fiction?

“Not as yet, but I should be prepared,” she says, laughing.

She is working on her second book, a non-fiction account of her experiences in the world of indie-pop. “It’s been wonderful to be accepted in popular music. It’s taught me some lessons, many bitter ones too. I can happily put down instances that I’ve encountered and make some more enemies while I’m at it,” Mudgal says.

Shriya Mohan

Published on October 18, 2019

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