Dressed in an olive-and-mustard south cotton sari, Hindustani classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal is busy having a conversation with Nargis and Ringo, her two dogs, at her Paharganj residence in Delhi when we walk in. Behind her hangs an 80-year-old Pichhwai painting featuring Lord Shrinath in the centre and two gopis fanning him.
Once upon a time, the piece was hung, perhaps at a home in Rajasthan’s Nathdwara, where the artform comes from. On the other wall is the citation for her Padma Shri (2000). Amid this world of art and music, Mudgal has now turned author with her debut book, Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure (Speaking Tiger).
More often than not, musicians who take up writing choose to go with non-fiction, especially autobiographies. What prompted you to write a book of short stories?
I feel that there has to be a large body of work to talk about oneself. I have been a performer and have had moderate success, but an autobiography is not something I wanted to do. In 2008-09, Aneesh (Pradhan, tabla exponent and her husband) and I had thought of doing a theatrical production, Stories in Song, based on material — factual, historical, anecdotal about music — we had been reading. We did this with (playwright) Sunil Shanbag in 2012. It was immensely successful, so we decided to do a part two. I wrote one piece which didn’t work as a theatre piece. It was lying with me and Aneesh suggested I show it to someone. With great trepidation I did, and it has now turned into this book.
The seven stories in the book are set in different worlds of music. Tell us about weaving all that you have seen, observed and dealt with into fiction.
These are things that you see all around you, not just in the world of music. For example, I see rock kirtans all around me. I think it was an observation, not from the stage but off it, from the vantage point of a listener and having worked in various roles in the music industry. A young corporate person trying to tie a ‘guzzle evening’ with a Scotch brand — in one of the stories — is so today. These are incongruities that make me smile, and, sometimes, they make me sad, but they are realities.
You’ve dealt with issues such as copyright infringement, innovations in the field of classical music, changing rules of the corporate music game, among others, in your previous writings. Does the use of fiction give you more elbow room to say what you want to?
I think I have been fairly blunt in my columns. But there are other ways to look at these situations and stories — not just from the point of view of classical musicians — perhaps, from the point of view of organisers as well. Which is why, I mention in the story ‘Foreign Returned’, how Indian artistes can be quite painful to look after because they don’t want to do anything on their own — they want to be chaperoned and treated a certain way.
In ‘Foreign Returned’, the story of a classical vocalist who longs to bag a ‘foreign’ tour, you talk of an organisation that sends artistes overseas and the challenges to get empanelled with it. It seems to be a take on Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).
Well, it’s fictitious (laughs). I have not performed for ICCR in a long time but that does not mean that I didn’t earlier. I don’t know if I am empanelled any longer. But I do get requests from a lot of people to make recommendations for their empanelment. I also hear people telling me that they never get an answer. Younger musicians have this problem with a lot of organisations, not just the ICCR. In today’s world, why do you want people to come to your office and stand at your doorstep? If somebody providing concert opportunities or ‘patronage’ doesn’t respond on email or phone, it’s not on. It’s not just government organisations, it’s also the private ones.
How long did it take for you to write Miss Sargam?
It’s taken over three years. I usually write and leave it all for a few months and then go back and see if the narrative is making sense. Mujhe riyaaz karna pada iska (I had to practise for this).
Does Shubha Mudgal, a first-time author, feel nervous around the release of her debut book?
Of course, I am nervous. But it’s mostly because it’s something I haven’t done before. There are so many people writing such beautiful work in the midst of my little stories on music. If somebody didn’t like them, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Did you write yourself into the book? What were the challenges of writing it?
No, I didn’t. There is a lot of sadness and harsh realism in the stories. For me, what was most difficult was to not make those an issue and to be able to laugh at them. Not in an unkind way, of course.
What do you think of the way the arts are practised in India currently?
The problem is that whenever we have thought of including music in our education system, we have only thought of classical music. Why not include other forms? You have this completely conflicting situation when the entire nation is listening to popular music but when you want to learn, you can only learn classical. What a pity that we don’t have a system where children are exposed to all kinds of music, at least the ones that are still existing in India. As students of Hindustani music, we know very little about Carnatic music. I understand specialisation and focus but when we start learning math or geography or history, we learn (a bit of) everything. Why not movement and then dance? Why not appreciation of the visual arts and then painting? We haven’t encouraged children to be appreciative of the arts. Perhaps, that is the reason why classical music can’t find as many listeners now.
What’s your opinion of the government policies for the arts?
I take a keen interest in government policies because I feel that it’s my government, too, and I should be able to say what I want to about it. I don’t want to trash everything that it is doing, simply because any government in India is dealing with a lot of issues. Can I deny that there are starvation deaths in India even today? In that situation, is it fair for me to say that you aren’t doing anything for the arts? At the same time, I feel upset about the fact that in the last 70 years, no one has reviewed the policies. Even today, most government policies, grants and support are provided to what they call ‘not for profit’. You provide major support and major sops to the industry but you want the artistes to not profit? What are we thinking? There are organisations like the Sangeet Natak Akademi, which are supposed to advise the government on policy. What policy are they advising on?
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline: ‘Shubha Mudgal on her first collection of short stories and why arts education in India needs an overhaul’