Making time for music

Songs for the soul

Shubha Mudgal. As adept at holding her own in a literary discussion as she is at holding a raag: poised and controlled, and never losing her cool.

Equally at ease with Hindustani classical — thumri, khayal, dadra — as well as ghazals, Sufi music, qawwali, popular Hindi, and experimental fusion. She jets across the country and the globe to sing at various venues and festivals: a palace one day, an air-conditioned hi-tech auditorium on another, a plain music hall in some city days later, or a simple stage and marquee at The Bangalore Literary Festival. And her wide repertoire of music means her audience is varied — classical music aficionados to jeans-clad youngsters wielding their smart phones and professional cameras to take a photograph for posterity. 

She has been actively singing since the late 1980s. I wondered if concerts had changed over the years. “Yes, there are some changes. For example, in the last several years, I may have hardly sung in a morning or afternoon concert… anybody who wants to promote a concert will do so in the evening and hope that people will be able to attend it. Certain raags, therefore, are not heard any longer. And I think the general idea of making capsules that are smaller — that kind of change has been noticed in classical music. When cassette technology became popular, we started noticing that the raag delineation, instead of being one hour or one-and-a-half hours, became half-an-hour to 40 minutes because that was the length of a cassette side. Even on radio, the length of a concert would be 15 minutes or half-an-hour… so we did see this sub-conscious editing down. Now, of course, with television, people’s focus has become even (less)… that commercial break must come in after every 10 minutes!” 

We talk about all-night concerts in the years gone by when singers would enthral audiences. Now, everybody seems to be in a tearing hurry. She describes it beautifully. “That leisure has been lost. We call it itminaan. There is a certain quality of restfulness and leisure in the presentation, where you are not in a hurry. Issues like at 10 o’clock you have to hand over the hall (or catch a flight) — yes, those issues are affecting concerts.”

Mudgal has been vocal about changing the approach and method of music and arts education in schools. “You are now making every effort to dissociate with the arts because you feel it is not a career option… The kind of education system we must plan for our music and art education is where we look at what children are learning in other subjects. How can mathematics not be integrated with music? How can language not be integrated with music? How can history not be integrated with ­music?” It is a subject close to her heart, and she describes in detail how she and husband Aneesh have been working on music education projects with children for the past 10 years, setting apart more than a month every year for this purpose. 

In a country that has great pride in the guru-shishya parampara, what she described was an indication of one of the deficiencies of the present music education system. “For one activity programme (in Delhi), for which we designed the syllabus, we decided to test the course on a group of children… this country has this wonderful respect for the teacher — so what was going wrong?” They asked the group of children the name of their music teacher. The answers they got were shocking. “Believe it or not, not a single child knew the name of their music teacher. ‘There is one Sir’ or ‘There is a Madam…’ That was it.

 They did not know the name of their music teacher — and they had spent two to seven years with that individual. Even some parents who came to pick up their children said, ‘Sorry, he is not a well known person, a nice gentleman…but we don’t know his name.’ What does that say?” she asks. One of the solutions Mudgal and her husband suggested was to have pictures of their music teacher and his guru, along with the traditional pictures of parents that children generally drew or had, so that “…you feel a part of a constant tradition. It is as simple as that.”

Mudgal has scored the background music for two films — a documentary (Amrit Beej) and a feature film (The Dance of the Wind). She has never hesitated to experiment. “Frankly, every musician experiments. The experiment is for ourselves. But their experiment or my experiment may not be as widely impacting as say Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saab’s or Amir Khan Saab’s or Pt Kumar Gandharvaji’s... to be able to experiment means deviating from the set path. That articulation is important... that is the path, and this is where I have discovered what I want to do.”

Mudgal talks about her experiments with using lyrics from classic literature in music (bandish). “In the Hindustani tradition, a lot of people, including my guru, when they made the melodic and the taal compositions, also wrote the lyrics for it… Those have been brilliantly done. Either I see Krishna, Ram, Shiva, my guru and all those themes and get a different vision or perspective of it — then it makes sense to write a new poem — otherwise, take it from classical literature and weave it into music. Which I’ve been doing. Yesterday, my first vilambit khayal was from a 19th century poet called Bhartendu Harischandra. He writes about the evening so beautifully.” 

She goes on to explain the meaning of the lyrics, and we are captured by the magic of the moment, even as dusk falls outside. Although there are people trying to catch her attention to say that she is needed elsewhere, she does not break the moment — the itminaan she was talking about evident. She winds down the conversation gracefully, like the music at one of her soulful concerts. And even as she bids goodbye with her twinkly-eyed smile, her ideas remain floating in the evening light, like the notes of her numerous songs.

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