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Indian singer Shubha Mudgal on a classical note

The Indian singer performed at a concert series in Dubai on Friday

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TOS_130408_SHUBHA18APR2013TABLOIDIndian classical singer Shubha Mudgal during an interview with Gulf News.PHOTO: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

She sat in a corner of the room wearing a teal blue sari and minimal make-up — a stroke of kajal (eyeliner), a bindi (adornment on the forehead) and lipstick. When she smiled, she smiled with her eyes. And when she laughed, it was as melodious as a song.

“Are you afraid of heights?” asked the photographer.

“Yes,” came Shubha Mudgal’s reply, followed by a hearty laugh. “I think I [can] manage this,” Mudgal added, peering slightly nervously out of the window into the balcony.

But for the rest of the interview, Mudgal, one of the most famous names in Hindi classical music, was concise and down-to-earth in a conversation dotted with laughter.

She was in Dubai to perform at the Classics II concert series at the Centrepoint Theatre, Ductac, on Friday. The series will feature top notch names in Indian classical music such as Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pandit Jasraj and Dr Laxminarayan Subramaniam.

“I’m very fortunate that I will be the first to perform in a line-up of some really eminent artists,” Mudgal said before her performance. “I have been the student of two vocal forms — khayal and thumri dadra — and the wonderful thing about Hindustani classical music is that even though you’re a part of a tradition that is very old, you can be very contemporary. So I consider myself really lucky to be a part of this.

“What I could say from personal experience — and I’m sure other people have other ways of dealing with it — is that sense of enjoyment, that sense of sincerity and integrity in presenting, knowing that you are not in control, that it could very well be a day which is not a great one, but on the other hand, it could be one that will bring many, many beautiful surprises is what gives this music form its newness.

“What I say or think about each time I practise, or each time I go on stage, is: How fantastic is the gift of music to be a part of my life and how fantastic that I’m performing with wonderful people and I hope we will be good. I’m performing with two very well-known artists — Anish Pradhan, my husband, on the tabla and Sudhir Nayak on the harmonium. I’ve known them musically for many, many years. So, there’s a sense of being at ease and a sense of being a team and at the same time, whatever applause we may get, once we are off the stage, we point out: ‘You messed up there’.

Here’re excerpts from the interview:

“Making music is so different now”

This is a tough question because one sees so many trends now. One thing is that the huge ensembles that once recorded for film music have whittled down to a point that you can be in a tiny room one-third the size of this room and yet, you can have many instruments playing from gadgets. This is both empowering and in some ways tragic, because all these people who played those instruments are no longer part of the film industry or are sitting on the sidelines while somebody punches a machine and manages to recreate the sound of their instruments. Yet, there’s a lot of skill in doing that. If you enjoy technology and can use it to your advantage, there’s a whole world out there. It’s not like skill is not required or you don’t need to know how to make music. But I think a mix of acoustics and digital would be wonderful. In fact, some musicians and composers do subscribe to that. In terms of lyrics, we seem to be using more of the language we use for texting or mixing a lot of English words or Punjabi words. I think that the kind of poetry that, let’s say, Madan Mohanji set to tune might be a failure today. More sort of danceable music is what seems to be acceptable. And I think films, unfortunately — I love the success of Hindi films — thrive on cliches. So, you will see the same set of people more or less dancing in a similar fashion, whether it be Punjab or Bengal or wherever. But nevertheless, it’s wonderful — the acceptance it has.

“I don’t think my specialisation is in playback singing”

I think the heroine will have to put on a lot more weight to have my voice as playback (laughs). Composers invite a classically trained khayal singer to sing a tragic ‘alaap’ (intro) in the background while somebody is being cut into tiny pieces and thrown into the river. Or you have someone sobbing away and you have this ‘alaap’ in the background. Or if you have a voice that is not a tinkling, clear, high-pitched soprano bell-like kind of voice, then it’s got to be for a ‘banjaran’ or gypsy woman. Or, for a slightly sleazy number. I don’t think my specialisation is in playback singing. I haven’t understood that well enough and I think there are wonderful singers who are doing it so beautifully that my trying to prove a point by singing or out-singing them would be really silly.

“Singing in different genres is satisfying”

I grew up learning classical music but my ears have always been open amid people who listened to different kinds of music. Pandit Ramashree Jha from whom I learnt for many decades was considered one of the most significant composers of Hindustani classical music and yet, he could reel off folk song after folk song. He ran away from home to be part of a kind of Ram Leela party and he remembered so many different kinds of songs and compositions that he would always encourage me to learn all kinds of music. He never told me that folk music is low art or this is high art. Perhaps if he would have told me, I might have been a disobedient student as well because at home I was listening to all kinds of music. I think that exposure has really enriched me. So, I guess for some people, this kind of an eclectic approach may not be what they prescribe for a classical musician but for me, it’s been a wonderful exploration and it’s part of the excitement to find more music to listen to every day.

“Age doesn’t matter in music”

One, I never call anybody a ‘kid’ or ‘old’ in singing because age doesn’t really matter. Why, because the oldest singer may leave your jaw dropping so low as your ankles by singing a ‘taan’ and a child can do that too. But among the newer vocalists that I’ve been listening to, there is one young man called Chintan Upadhyaya who is learning from a wonderful dhrupad singer, Uday Bhawalkar. Now, here’s a very austere, really tough classical form and here’s this young man in his 20s who’s singing it beautifully. Similarly, there is another young singer, Omkar Dadarkar who is learning from Ulhas Kashalkar and shows signs of perhaps reaching a style that one day he can call his own.

“I compose too”

I compose but I’m not sure which of my compositions you might have heard because if you are fond of popular music, then I’ve not done much work there. I’ve composed a lot of classical music which I sing and other people also sometimes sing. For Bollywood compositions, you would need a film that would have a space for this kind of music and I don’t see that happening.

“I’m fascinated by technology”

Anish [husband] and I started a small distribution channel for records called in 2003 because we were concerned that the conventional mainstream music industry in India was looking only at film music and that too a particular kind of film music. So, for example, if it wasn’t an item number, even a film track wouldn’t find any space in mainstream media and we were concerned by the fact that everywhere we travelled, we would hear wonderful musicians performing all genres of music and yet, there were no recordings. We thought that owing to the internet, it would be fascinating to be anywhere in the world and listen to all kinds of music. So, we decided that we would independently establish a little record label that would encourage our colleagues and people we met to own their music and distribute it on their own terms. We started out with two albums and now have several hundred albums, books and merchandise related to Indian music. It has thrown up many challenges, yet given us a lot of satisfaction. And because of our work with the Underscore records, I felt I needed to know the medium better and be able to see how we can make communities across the world who want to know more about the Indian music world, who want to know more about the kinds of Indian music. So, for many years now, we’ve been working with social networks, not just to establish a fan base for ourselves but also to have discussions and workshops with our colleagues.