Im two minutes into the telephone call requesting an appointment with Shubha Mudgal, and one thing is absolutely clear. This is going to be no fluff interview. Please, no asking me which is my favourite restaurant and stuff like that, Shubha Mudgal warns, rather amicably, once weve decided the time and place of meeting. Lets just keep it to the music, okay? I promise I will. Great! the singer replies, before hanging up.
A few hours later, we meet at a coffee shop in one of Delhis upscale addresses (presumably one of her favourites, but I darent ask), where digging into a generous serving of cheese chilli toast (shes a chronic binger, she admits later) Mudgal, 50, proceeds to tell me about her role as a judge in Mummy ke Superstars, a new TV show that spots singing talent among Indian tweens.
The last time she ever judged a reality show was about a decade ago she willingly stayed out of the genre ever since. This SMS voting thing put me off it completely. I mean, that way, you simply make props out of judges, dont you?
But this time round, shes quite happy to be back. Its a kids show, and whats interesting is that they seem to come from all backgrounds, not just the big cities, says Mudgal. Besides, its also a matter of concern, how childrens music is slowly being given a quiet burial in todays society. So its nice to at least make an effort to revive the spirit of music among children. And theyve said they wont use SMS voting, so I guess its fine, she chuckles, flashing a warm, infectious grin the first of many to come that sets the course for a jovial, memorable conversation.
Known to friends and acquaintances as a spirited musical crusader with tonnes of energy and an impish sense of humour, fostering juvenile talent isnt the only thing Mudgal has been advocating of late. Her personal musical goals apart, Mudgal along with husband and tabla artiste Aneesh Pradhan has also found a new professional calling that saw them set up Underscore Records, their independent music label, in 2003-2004.
In February this year, as the label turned five, Mudgal and Pradhan organised a musical symposium in Pune called Baaja Gaaja, with the objective of addressing musicians rights and spreading awareness of independent or indie, as musical jargon puts it music production, a trend she feels could significantly inoculate emerging musicians from coercive and lop-sided business strategies often employed by record labels.
Interestingly, there are indications that the independent music movement may be on the rise in India, says Mudgal. From two CDs in 2003, Underscore now has a catalogue of over 100 records. So we hope the trend continues and that one day we can have a summit of indie labels, when a parallel industry, hitherto unacknowledged, will finally have its place in the sun.
Mudgal finds it gross that even in the age of open access and democratisation, caused by an information technology revolution, music companies rule the lives of musicians. They want you to hand over all the rights to them, so that they can toy around with your work as they please. Theyve reduced the whole music trade to the level of selling detergents. And even detergent selling takes more attention, you know?
Clearly, the classical vocalist-turned-popular music diva has a point to drive home. And given her determination and an uncanny ability to pull off daring feats, it may not be a tough task. Take one look at her three-decade-long music career, and it becomes all too apparent.
Born to academic parents in Allahabad, Mudgals initiation into the world of performing arts happened early. She trained in Kathak through her childhood, but switched to vocals during her mid-teens. It was meant to be an inter-disciplinary move, but I soon realised that singing was what I really wanted to do, she muses.
A masters degree in music, combined with training under several notable classical musicians, soon gave Mudgal the kind of edge that few of her contemporaries could boast of. Her first guru was Ramashreya Jha, who remained a teacher until his recent demise. Others too moulded her musical talent early on, including the celebrated Vinaya Chandra Mudgalya, her ex-father-in-law, vocalist Jitendra Abhisheki, thumri exponent Naina Devi and the legendary Kumar Gandharva the singer to whom Mudgals raw and punchy vocal power is sometimes likened to.
You see, despite being experts in their own fields, all my teachers were open to new ideas. They were very liberal in their outlook, recalls Mudgal. In a way, I guess that rubbed off. They taught me not to get cloistered and instead open myself to the whole gamut of music.
While the inclusive approach did aid Mudgal significantly in her later years, there were a few forgettable incidents she had to quietly digest in the early stages of her career. Shackled in conservatism, a few within the classical music fraternity were quick to label her a person without a gharana, thus setting her apart from thoroughbreds. In the late Eighties, a newspaper, while describing my musical style in comparison to other classical musicians, termed me eclectic. It was unwanted criticism, I remember I sulked like hell. I mean, it was like saying that I didnt have any musical parents. Hello?
Two decades later, Mudgal can only look back upon such incidents with a tinge of humour. Not only did such criticism not have any effect on her musical career, it also made way for her to seamlessly straddle different genres in the future. The idea, for me, was to believe in myself and feel comfortable with what I was doing, says Mudgal.
And thats exactly what she did. Her fame as a classical vocalist grew through the Eighties. Around 1995, she was made an offer by music producer Jawahar Wattal responsible for producing a generation of pop stars such as Baba Sehgal and Daler Mehndi to cut a pop album. I thought it was ridiculous. I mean, would I even be able to sing popular stuff? I wasnt sure, says Mudgal. But Wattal persisted, and her debut music album Ali More Angana was born in 1996, out of the blue, as Mudgal puts it.
In two years, Mudgal had been signed on by Virgin Records, and her next mainstream offering Ab Ke Saawan was soon released, only to be lapped up by a swooning audience who didnt know what had hit it. It was new music, and it worked. Mudgal had earned the status of a star.
However, this unprecedented success which has only compounded with time hasnt narrowed Mudgals broadmindedness in any way. Her hands and mind ever-full with classical tracks and compositions, Mudgal confesses to being obsessed with music. Im not a social creature at all. All day long, Im either practising, or researching, or reading, or listening to new kinds of music. Its actually irritating to the point that I often forget birthdays or send flowers when I should be physically present at a party. But then, its a wonderful obsession, she grins.
True, there are certain things Mudgal wont consider doing. Playback, for example I just dont have the voice to pull it off. Its too specialised a thing for me, she says. But her obsession is perhaps the main reason Mudgal still leads from the front when it comes to musical multi-tasking. She boasts credits as a composer in films such as Kama Sutra and Song of the Wind. Shes collaborated with everyone from the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern Orchestra and Malian musician Kandia Kouyate to British jazz pianist Nikki Yeoh.
Id love to work with the blues sometime in future, but then, it might be difficult to find a bluesman whod want to work with a classical singer, she chuckles. On her iPod, Peara Sahib, a noted singer of the late 19th to early 20th century, is followed by Pearl Jam, a popular American rock band. Tucked away somewhere in between is an e-book version of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Eclectic, to say the least.
Actually, in retrospect, it doesnt quite sound like a bad word to use, you know, grins Mudgal sheepishly. Maybe they were right. I guess it does make sense.
And the gharana debate can go to hell.