“We are so used to saying: Sarkar kya kar rahi hai? The time has come to stop saying mai-baap to everybody” — Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal is among those rare classical singers who understands the need to constantly adapt and use modern technology

Shubha Mudgal is one of the most popular and versatile Hindustani classical singers of the newer generation and has won recognition for her grasp over medieval, Vaishnava and Sufi poetry. But this charming and multi-faceted performer is a true pathbreaker because of her courage to experiment with various forms of music and her willingness to speak fearlessly about the hypocrisy attached to the patronage of classical arts. She is also very passionate about getting financial independence for musicians through copyright control, legally air-tight contracts, proper royalty payments and insurance. She has set up Underscore Records along with her husband, tabla exponent Aneesh Pradhan, to use modern technology to achieve her ideals. Shubha is among those rare classical singers who understands the need to constantly adapt and use modern technology to nurture traditional arts and knowledge

ML: You were born and brought up at Allahabad. What were your early musical influences?

I spent the first 22 years of my life in Allahabad. I come from an academic family; my parents taught English Literature at Allahabad University, but there was a strong passion for the Arts, particularly Hindustani classical music. There was a healthy respect for all forms of Art. It was just considered enriching to be involved in the Arts.

ML: Did you do different things before you chose to study music?

It is one of my horrible secrets (smiles). As a four year old, I started learning Kathak. I learnt in the ‘Jaipur Gharana’ style. I did it fairly seriously for over a decade and I started performing a little. As part of the study of Kathak, you are supposed to learn aspects of ‘abhinaya’ and actually study singing. I could hold a tune, like many people do; but I had no idea of the grammar, the vocabulary or the music. At best, I could learn a song and sing it sort of tunefully. I realised my inadequacy when I started learning ‘thumri’ as part of my study of Kathak. My mother suggested that it would be a good idea to learn music.

ML: How old were you then?

My formal lessons in vocal music started when I was around 16. I was lucky to come into contact with some really wonderful teachers. For about a year, I was learning from a fine vocalist called Kamala Bose, who also taught at the intermediate college where I was studying. She suggested to my parents that I should be taken to her guru, Pandit Ramashray Jha, who was the Head of the Department of Music at the Allahabad University. He was a very well-known scholar and composer. So we made this pilgrimage to meet him and I think were granted an audience only because my parents were also teaching at the same university. He was very kind, but said that he can’t teach somebody who is just a beginner: “Let her learn for a while and then bring her back to me”. So I went back to learning from Kamala Bose and also sought admission to my undergraduate course. Around then, there was one of these talent contests for freshers. I swaggered on to the stage and stopped short. Pandit Ramashray Jha was one of the judges and I quavered out the bhajan that I had been taught. I don’t remember what the result of that contest was but, a couple of days later, the door bell rang and I, singing the latest Hindi film song, opened the door and found him standing there. He had come to say that he would teach me.

It was an informal way of teaching where you were told to come on a certain day; there was no fixed curriculum or fixed time for the class… where you could end up with a three-hour class or you could be sitting in a corner and listening to music being taught. That went on for several years. At the same time, I was also studying. I did BA and MA in music. So it was a full day of music.

ML: When did music start becoming a career for you?

Shortly after I graduated, my mother said, “What is the need for you to do what everyone else is doing when it is obvious that what you really love best is music? Why don’t you take a year off and decide what you want to do? Otherwise, music will remain, at best, a very serious hobby. But if you really want to do music, you need to concentrate your energies. It has to be a passion”. So the idea was to study it seriously and I think that really helped. I didn’t take a year to decide -- I took a month. It was quite interesting for a mother to make this offer to a daughter 25 years ago, especially since I don’t come from a family of musicians. Let me give you some background.

My maternal grandmother was born in 1900 and she was also very found of Hindustani classical music but she was not allowed to learn it. Her father thought that it was not the correct thing for a respectable girl to be doing. So he got her a piano teacher but not a Hindustani music teacher. Only when she became independent and started working, she decided to try and learn Hindustani music. She had three daughters, the eldest of whom is my mother. She encouraged all three to learn music, dance and get involved with amateur theatre, but only as a hobby, not as a full-time career. And then comes my mother, who tells me to take a year off and decide whether I want to take up music full time! I think the position of women in Indian music is really illustrated in these responses to whether or not you want your children to become full-time musicians.

ML: But there was MS Subbulakshmi and Gangubai Hangal already. Did their musical background help them?

Because they were respectable meant that you could learn, but the whole idea of a woman taking up music full-time and also making it a profession was difficult. But both my parents gave me their unconditional support to studying music. I am sure my mother also went through her anxieties about me travelling on my own, especially 25 years ago. Even today, North India is not among the safest places for women and I was going from one place to the other for my performances. It was a fantastic suggestion my mother made about my career; at the same time, there was never any pressure to perform. Today, I meet a lot of young kids -- brilliant, superbly talented and poised - they have everything, but I hate the over-enthusiastic parents. They are a problem. They don’t give the kids a chance to study. For them, visibility is everything. They feel that their child must become an ‘Indian Idol’ or a pop star instantly.

ML: Tell us about the process of breaking into the professional arena. Was it tough?

I got my MA degree, but you actually start performing only when your guru gives his ‘ijazzat’ or permission to do so. It started with little things like concerts in Allahabad, which were often arranged by my guru. There would be this gaggle of young men and women learning from him who would all turn up to listen and suddenly he would turn around and tell one of us “tum tanpure pe baith jao”. So I would hop on the stage behind him, or another well-known performer. Sometimes, people we hadn’t heard in Allahabad would perform; you would be playing the tanpura and suddenly he would tell the performer, you can ask her to sing a line a two, if you want. Often, you didn’t know the person’s repertoire. At other times, while the crowd is collecting before a performance you are asked to sing for 10-15 minutes as a way of encouraging a naya kalakar (new artist). I think it was a part of the training -- to listen carefully, assimilate, be alert and see how you can use what you know on the spur of the moment. After this, I slowly started receiving invitations to perform and began to feature in festivals for promising young artists.

ML: Was your guru encouraging about you performing professionally?

Yes, extremely and he is a hard task master. I had my moments of complaining at home and saying I am not going because my singing was trashed. The guru-shishya parampara (teacher-pupil relationship) is very interesting and highly complex. Unfortunately, it is only the unquestioning obedience that is spoken about. But there are always moments that are difficult, when you start taking your own decisions. It is like with parents. There are times when you don’t agree with your parents too. It is something like that.    

ML: What were your aspirations at that time, especially since the Gwalior gharana has an extremely rich lineage and tradition?

I had no idea whether I would really become a professional performer or not. I had no idea how much I would learn; but I knew that music gave me the greatest pleasure and the more I got involved in learning it, the more it became an obsession. I would hear a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan or a Begum Akhtar for hours. The fluency, the ease with which Begum Akthar or Siddheswariji or Bade Ghulam Ali saab sang… if I tried to copy it, I would be a mess. Their daring, their ability to stay within a certain paradigm and also create an original utterance, a very unique utterance… that can’t happen all the time. They are the real originals and happen only once in a lifetime. I have constantly been experimenting in my own way. Rather than hear a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and say I can’t do it, I felt I need to explore the voice to see how a big voice like his could also be so fluid and flexible -- at one level, it is enormously majestic and really powerful and, at the same time, it’s so pliant. So how did he do it? How do you listen to your own voice and study it? How do you try not to imitate, but take inspiration from all of those wonderful people? It is this that fascinated me.

ML: At what stage did you decide that you wanted to experiment with different kinds of singing?

All musicians experiment with their instruments, their voice, their music or their repertoire. I have done nothing very special. But I grew up in this atmosphere, which allowed me access to various kinds of music. I wasn’t ever told that this is good music or that is bad. I think that made a difference. My father bought me my first Beatles LP. He would also compile his favourite Kishore Kumar songs for us. So the idea of high art and low art was never subscribed to.

Then the people I learnt from -- virtually all of them, barring Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, who was a disciple of Pandit Vinayak Rao Patwardhan -- all the others have learnt from more than one person. In fact, I remember my guru, Pandit Ramashray Jha, used to say,  “Hamne bahattar guru se seekha hai”. He did not mean that he literally learnt from 72 gurus. What he meant was that he had learnt from diverse sources and he was trying to acknowledge that. So there was my family background, plus my gurus and their own inclination to learn from various people -- it was only natural I would end up experimenting. Also, I listened to everything, including all the film hits. In fact, in college, the challenge was if I could learn all the songs in one go, my friends would pay for my ticket. So I had a good aural memory. Personally, it was not a conscious decision that I am going to experiment; it just seemed natural.

ML: What challenges did you face in breaking into the professional singing arena? Was it difficult as a woman?

The challenges are different for men and women. There are so many women today in Hindustani classical music, especially from the first or second generation of musicians. One reason could be that women are still not considered the main bread-winners. I am sure this is a controversial statement, but look at the number of male musicians who have had to take up other careers until they could take voluntary retirement or had tucked away a little packet for themselves before turning to full-time music careers. You often hear women artists say, “It is okay that it is not very paying, because I don’t run my home with the money I earn from music”. Some do film work; others have set up studios which are their main source of income. Then it becomes okay to turn magnanimous and talk about ‘art for art’s sake’. For those who depend on their earnings as musicians, it is not possible to become so magnanimous. So, they are branded commercial.

ML: You also have strong views about the art vs. commerce debate.

The whole idea of glory in poverty for the artist is a strange thing that I have come across in this country. When you take the local train to come to your concert and come running in, tired and carrying your tanpuras - then you are great. But the moment you roll up in your car, you are not so good. The moment you ask for something, you are commercial. Your expertise and time is not valued. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations lists organisations that impart training in music and the arts. All of them say they are not for profit. Yet, the buildings are huge; they are built on public land and managed through a public trust. They are little personal fiefdoms of those who set them up and the original purpose and vision is lost. I am not generalising -- there is lovely work going on in a lot of places -- but buildings that were set up with the purpose of teaching music are now being rented to multinational companies. The excuse is that we can’t make ends meet, we need the rent. At the same time, look at the salaries offered to teachers in institutions dedicated to teaching music. Until 10 years ago, I used to be offered such positions - Rs1500 for teaching all six days of the week and accommodation from where one could be thrown out in the middle of the night. In some situations, teachers are made to sign for money they are not getting. There are no medical benefits. The idea of a gurukul is that it is my home - big, small, hut, palace or whatever -- it is the gurukul. You come and be a part of my family. We are all teaching our students in our two-room flats. Sometimes, you need to make the students stay with you and it is not comfortable; but that is the concept of the gurukul. We share what we have. What is the need for building designer gurukuls, which are not open to anybody? I think these are really big problems. I will have to look for cultural asylum in another country for having said so (laughs).

ML: We are glad you are speaking out about it.

It is a major problem; public money cannot be used for old age pension schemes, but that is what these are becoming. Everyone wants an institution and is looking for government land and subsidies in one way or the other. But the lot of the musicians is not changing. The teacher in your institution is not benefiting. We cannot be hypocritical all the time; we need to find ways and means of ensuring that music is not a philanthropic effort. You have to accept that art and artists cannot exist on love and fresh air alone.

ML: So you moved away from Allahabad to Delhi to pursue your career in music?

As I said, I was already doing full-time music in Allahabad. I had started singing in concerts such as Kal ke Kalakar, I had performed at the Sur Shringar concert, the Lucknow mahotsav, Taj mahotsav, Gwalior Tansen Samaroh, etc. Again, my parents felt that being somebody who was born and brought up in Allahabad and living in the university area didn’t allow me to know my own standing with my contemporaries and that it was necessary for me to test myself outside. The idea was to learn, but I also got married to a person in Delhi. That marriage did not work out. I was married for eight years and I have a son who is 23. In the 1990s, I started living on my own. I really started from scratch as I had never earned a living myself. Also, I had been taught to be independent by my parents, so from the age of 15 or 16, I was doing small jobs.  My mother insisted that my first tanpura should be bought with my own money. I earned a little money as a casual announcer on Vividh Bharati at the Allahabad station. From that money, I bought my first Miraj tanpura, selected by my guru for me. That is how it all started, but I never really supported myself until then.

ML: At what stage does a musician feel that he or she has arrived? Did you feel it at all?

I am worried about this sounding like very correct copy… but I have to say it. All of what I do gives me a kind of high. But if you just put on the recording of one of the old greats, you really know where you stand. I am very clear about my imperfections.

ML: Another thing that you seem to be very passionate about is musicians’ rights, the anti-piracy battle and now the insurance for musicians. Can you tell us about that part of your persona?

For years, I have been fascinated by technology. I am a gadget freak. I love using technology. I also felt the need for an artist to stop looking for support from conventional sources. We are so used to saying: “Sarkar kya kar rahi hai”? (What is the government doing for us?). The time has come to stop saying mai-baap to everybody - whether it is a raja, jagirdar, sarkar or corporate. I appreciate whatever support is given, but I cannot be in this position forever. It is high time we decide how, with limited resources, we can do something on our own. We don’t need fancy offices at Nariman Point any more. We can have offices that exist entirely on our laptop. Why not take advantage of technology and find a way to work around these things. That is how Aneesh (she is now married to Aneesh Pradhan, a highly regarded tabla player) and I started Underscore Records in 2003.

I keep saying to myself that I am a musician; it is what makes my world go around -- and I don’t want to be bogged down with administrative work or worry about filing returns and all that. So I felt that the only way I could manage that is through the Internet. I am not being over ambitious about distribution. My expectations weren’t big and we have managed to support ourselves for the last three to four years with a very small team that is working professionally - not because someone who is a music lover decides to be magnanimous and makes a website for us. These are all very highly qualified professionals who work with us, but yes we told them that we don’t have unlimited resources.

ML: Tell us how Underscore Records works.     

Underscore tries to work for artists’ rights and for standardising agreements; we also do some advocacy on anti-piracy, etc. Artists are hesitant to approach a lawyer for drafting or vetting agreements; so we, at Underscore, work with a lawyer who has been wonderful and very supportive even though we are unable to pay her full professional fees. We spend time with her, email back and forth with a lot of questions and work out standard contracts on a variety of issues.

More importantly, we felt musicians needed to be able to create and record their work on their own terms and conditions and not on those imposed on them by somebody else. Why should an artist who wants to record the ‘nom tom aalap’ be told, “okay, we have great respect for you, so give us the recording and we will publicise it and give you 5% of the sales and that too not at the MRP (maximum retail price) but with the dealer commission removed”? So you get something like Rs2 per Compact Disk (CD) and are then told that they sold 300 CDs in a year! This happens very often. You are told, ‘why don’t you play a classical song from Hindi movies? It sells’. That is told to a person who has spent 30 years learning music. Artists are forever saying they have no option but to compromise. That really upsets me. Of course, this kind of short-sightedness exists even in the world of popular music. There is wonderful work going on all over India. In Delhi, I know of so many bands writing interesting original songs. They don’t speak fluent Hindi; they speak a kind of Punjabi-Hindi but when they go to a record label, they are told that there are very few people listening to English songs, so record it in Hindi. That is crazy. If Indian writing in English can be such a success, why can’t Indian song writing in English be a success? Why don’t we at least give it a shot?

ML: How will Underscore be different?

Underscore is really about a lot of little things coming together. The first is to encourage artists to produce and publish independently. Since record companies are asking musicians to invest in the recording themselves and paying a royalty that is only part of the MRP, isn’t it better to at least own the distribution rights? Once you have given the album to them, they have the distribution rights and copyright in perpetuity -- not just in India, but worldwide. Your album may not even be available at Bandra but you give away worldwide rights. Or, your CDs won’t be available in London when you go to perform there and you are asked to carry them with you. Sometimes, they will magnanimously give you 300 CDs at a discount and ask you to sell them there. So you actually carry your 300 CDs illegally in your baggage when you should be exporting them. We want to help professionalise things. We are saying: if you produce the music, we would be happy to distribute it for you on a non-exclusive basis. Underscore helps artists to record their work without taking a service charge and, once the album is professionally produced, we put it on Underscore Records and we ask the artist to decide the price in Indian rupees and US dollars. The musician gets 80% of every sale. We get 20% of the sales and it is sustaining us. We don’t keep large stocks; we don’t have warehousing facilities. Today, it is feasible for me to order 2,000 CDs at one time. If I want to produce two to three albums in a year, which is not very unreasonable, I have 4,000 CDs sitting at my home and all of us are living in small places. So we have worked out alliances with manufacturers for producing small runs. It is very encouraging for an artist to do 200 CDs and be sold out in a month. We can see the enthusiasm on their faces when they come back and want to do more.

ML: The distribution is entirely through the website?

We do it through the site, but if the artists own the rights, if they want to give it to, say, Times Music, it is their property and they are free to do it.  Some labels have also allowed us to distribute their music. For example, we distribute Music Today albums as well. We would like it to make Underscore a hub for anything related to music. We have 75 albums on the site; we started with two. We have over 30 to 40 artists. And every other week something or the other is added on. For instance, we have a good section on books that are connected with Indian music. We speak with the publishers and ask them for distribution, if they are not easily available. A lot of very good books on music are also produced independently. For instance, the compositions of Jagannathbua Purohit were published by his students in Satara and they are not available in any bookstore. But we managed to get that and made it available on our site. We would like to make research papers downloadable. I would like to create on the Net, a huge amount of research work -- a bit like the wikipedia for Indian music. Part of it would have a subscription fee, but the idea is to have large collections available. We are still trying to work out ways of making it happen. We also try to keep musicians in touch with other avenues, like say Satellite Radio which looks at diversity and has a dedicated 24-hour frequency for Hindustani classical music, Karnatak music, Fusion, Rock music or even old film songs.

Isn’t it interesting today that you can hear music in any space; so the means of dissemination of music no longer remain in a cassette or a CD. You can download it even on your mobile phone but the kind of music you can hear is of only one kind or just one or two kinds. The means of dissemination are becoming diverse but music itself is getting homogenised.

ML: So what next? You have had the courage to do different things and break traditions, bringing with it your share of flak as well of accolades. Will you keep exploring different paths?

: (Laughs). Yes, I do experiment and I really enjoy that very much. A lot of people thought that I am getting too much attention on television, etc, and some were even irritated that I was completely unabashed about it. But it is a fact that I enjoy it, you know. I am happy I have had a chance to work with different kinds of artists -- film-makers, theatre people and dancers from all over the world. That apart, I dream of the day when musicians will have a huge collective voice.

Unfortunately, we are all into our individual careers. It will be possible to address many issues when we work as a collective. We have seen wonderful things that happen when artists work together. Among classical musicians, there was the Kalakar Mandal in the 1950s, which made a big protest against All India Radio, which was a monopoly. I think it is not impossible if ways can be worked out to maintain transparency and discipline. There are bound to be some conflicts, but conflicts happen everywhere and have to be handled and resolved.

Abhijit Gosavi
9 years ago
Wow, what a comprehensive interview, and I'm guessing a very eloquent interviewee! Indian classical music needs wonderful singers like these!
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