Shubha Mudgal’s a classical vocalist sans attitude. She’s as likely to draw autograph-seeking teenagers as she is to send concert hall crowds into a swoon. She’s mastered the fine points of the classical vocal forms of khayal and thumri and she’s a hot wire on internet chats.
Growing up in an artistically-inclined family — music and literature especially — she started her classical training in college, an avenue that would not have been open to her 50 years earlier.
“‘Till about 50 or 60 years ago, it was not possible for a woman who didn’t belong to a family of hereditary musicians to take up music as her life’s work,” Shubha explains. Fortunately, things have changed. “I think that women have come to realize that they can choose these unconventional parts, these unconventional lifestyles, and that for years they were not allowed to do this, but yes, they can do it.”
One of the aspects she likes best is what she calls the non-representational nature of the music, the fact that the improvised pieces can mean something very different to each listener.
“The words don’t actually spell out a reference to context for you; there are a set of notes with hidden strengths and a lot of wonderful potency about them. But they can give different listeners different sets of meanings, so I would begin to perform a melody and to one listener it may seem wonderfully peaceful or meditative; to another, it may have a poignancy about it, so each listener too has to make his or her own interpretations.”
In her work, she draws on her eclectic training, multiple gurus and wide-ranging studies; as a composer, for instance, she’s been inspired by mystic poetry.
“I found that the wonderful thing about medieval temple literature and poetry which was set to music, is the fact that it is so closely linked to life, to the sacredness of days and nights, diurnal and nocturnal cycles, to the cycles of season, to festivals that we celebrate, and the poetry contains within itself wonderful indications of Indian culture and life in general. So, it will tell you what you should eat on a hot summer afternoon, or it will tell you what you should eat when it’s really cold.”
It’s been her willingness to take the self-described “blasphemous” step of venturing into other genres that has won her a wide audience that spans generations.
“My music primarily is, of course, nonrepresentational, improvisation, classical music which has these important elements called rag and tal which are by now internationally well known,” she says. “But I also feel that I’m very much a person of today’s contemporary, sort of Indian woman, and so I’m also very, very willing to adapt to other musical urges and needs, and collaborate with people from all over the world.”
She came to make her first pop album, Ab Ke Sawan, when a musician friend who worked in pop told her he needed a classically-trained voice for his latest undertaking. She was reluctant at first, but he won her over. In the end, she loved the experience, and it’s had the added, unexpected perk of opening her work to younger audiences.
“Very often when I perform classical music, you have these young kids coming and sitting and they perhaps have heard classical music for the first time and they are willing to listen to it, somehow because they feel that the music and musician is more accessible, having once sung something like popular music, they feel it’s accessible and they are willing to give it a try.”
From the Interview
On classical music:
“I regret the fact that classical music is turning into a museum art, to be pulled out when you want to boast about the glory of an antique old tradition. And the rest of time, it’s left to struggle, to sink or, you know…just fade into oblivion.”
“On the one hand, since it’s improvisational, you can let your imagination run riot, I mean, just fly in whichever direction it takes you. At the same time there are a strict set of rules to be followed, and so you can’t use this note after this note, or you must focus on this particular note.”
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