Writing raag dreams

Updated: Aug 25, 2019, 11:44 IST | Rishi Majumder | Mumbai

With each having come out with a new book, Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan discuss their 'aashiqui with kaam' and each other

Aneesh Pradhan Pic/ Nishad Alam
Aneesh Pradhan Pic/ Nishad Alam

Rishi Majumder

Sitting across from Shubha Mudgal, 60, and Aneesh Pradhan, 54, at the Tea Lounge in Delhi's Taj Palace I wonder what I like about this couple. Some couples you like because they're in love with each other. This may be true for them, but the reason you like Mudgal and Pradhan, above all, is because they're in love with their work: their own as well as one another's. "We started our association as professionals at a recording studio," Pradhan says. That was 26 years ago. They've been married for 19. "We respected each other as professionals from the beginning and we continue to do that. And we respect each other as individuals as well."

For instance, they conduct their riyaz or practice sessions separately for the most part. Even when the other person is in the same room, she or he reserves comment while riyaz is on. "That solitary process is very important," Pradhan says. While Mudgal acknowledges that their contribution to each other's work has been "massive", she says that the secret to their enviable personal and professional relationship has been "fairly brutal honesty" and "knowing that there's someone who you can talk to, yet the independence to follow what you would like to do".

And they've done a lot. Together or individually, Mudgal and Pradhan have created some of the most exciting music our generation has known, researched and documented precious nuggets and epochs of Indian music history, penned eye-opening columns, collaborated with cinema and theatre, started an independent music company, founded a website that spread much needed awareness about Indian classical music and written fascinating books.

Mudgal's recent offering of short stories called Looking for Miss Sargam, contains tales full of vivid tragicomedy that you don't have to be a music lover to enjoy. The queen of Khayal gayaki and Thumri-dadra brings alive in her writing worlds from the Indian musicverse in North, East and West India, in small towns as well as cities, and—in doing so—highlights issues that are important for all of us to consider. One of them: How do you not hanker after success, instead drawing your happiness from a profession or cause that you love? Mudgal and Pradhan are exemplars of this. They are, apparently, those khushqismat (fortunate) people who in the great poet Faiz's words, "ishq ko kaam samajhte the ya kaam se aashiqui karte the (who deemed their love to be work or those who were in love with their work)."

Shubha Mudgal
Shubha Mudgal Pic/ Nishad Alam

Take the way Looking for… evolved. For Sunil Shanbag's play Stories In A Song Mudgal and Pradhan had, according to Mudgal, presented "vignettes of information that we had picked up during our general research work connected with music". She was working on an idea for a sequel with "more nuance" which she then shared with Pradhan's literary agent Kanishka Gupta. 'Aman Bol' (the first story in the book) "just tumbled out". "I wanted to set a scene for the story to unfold." What would the characters—competing star musicians from India and Pakistan—look like? What would their transformation on stage look like? For later stories Mudgal "wrote a small summary of high points" adding character development notes as she wrote. For some characters, like Mrigo of 'A Farewell to Music', a brilliant boy whose musical ambitions have been cruelly thwarted, she wrote an entire backstory which she then omitted. But it helped to "bring the story alive" Mudgal says, describing, perhaps unwittingly, how Hemingway's 'iceberg theory' can be put to practice. Her next book will be a personal account of her "work with popular music". A humorous account, because "it will be difficult to separate me from humour". She's also obsessed with finding new ways of using language to describe music, "not just with adjectives, but using images and metaphors from other disciplines". For example, she tells her students to: "Use your breath like a pencil. Then you can have softer as well as darker impressions."

Pradhan's latest book, Chasing the Raag Dream, is for those who are not merely interested in Indian classical or art music but are also curious about what can be done to infuse its legacy with new life. An excellent introduction into the subject, it will fill you with questions and ideas and a desire to do something to help build on this legacy. Chasing the… comes after Hindustani Music in Colonial Bombay, a much needed history of music that emerged out of Pradhan's doctoral thesis. The seed of that idea lay in Pradhan, one of the country's leading tabla players, wondering how musicians dealt with the challenges he was facing as a performer today "hundreds of years ago". While the previous book stops at 1947, this one traces the history of Indian art music from 1947 to present times. Trained as a historian by the legendary J V Naik, Pradhan has employed impressive research methodology, collating primary sources as well as empirical evidence through questionnaire based surveys on music among various stakeholders, from musicians to school students.

Pradhan's research often culminates in music. He came across compositions published in 1887, in Gujarati, by one of Bombay's first formal music clubs for a jalsa—"From Dhrupad to Khayal, right down to Lavani"—which were recreated in a modern day programme. Mudgal and Pradhan's Underscore Records commemorated the Vikramaditya Conference, a music festival of greats from 1944, at the Mumbai University Convocation Hall where it had taken place "to inform the public that different architectural spaces can be used for music as they have been before".

Both their books highlight the terrible plight of the average classical musician today. For first steps towards change, while Pradhan stresses the need for conversation between the various stakeholders his book has identified ("No one is dialoguing with the musicians.") Mudgal calls for a review and evaluation of our country's cultural policies: "The government is offering a stipend of R6,000 a month in some cases. Does this match minimum wages? Who is assessing the impact of various music festivals?"

Historian Peter Burke has written persuasively about why we need the "endangered species" of the polymath "to 'mind the gap' and draw attention to the knowledges that may otherwise disappear into the spaces between disciplines". Mudgal and Pradhan are wary of calling themselves polymaths. Attributing their multidisciplinarity to gurus and parents who worked across an array of fields, they prefer to call themselves "students of life" aware of how cliched this sounds. But in this era of super-specialisation and an evermore avaricious quest for bottomline, where the idea of the Renaissance being is a dwindling shadow and the idea of the polymath a far cry, where there is no patience for process, having coffee with Mudgal and Pradhan is a bit like stumbling upon an oasis in the desert.

And if that sounds cliched, let me end with Mudgal talking about when she got her first tanpura, for I have seldom heard a greater, yet more subtle declaration of love for one's work: "One of the biggest things for me as a student. The whole process of my guru calling the master craftsman in Miraj. Then him selecting it, it arriving, it being unboxed, Guruji checking whether it is good or not. Then telling me how to maintain it. Teaching me the tuning of the tanpura, my getting used to the tuning, not just at home but also on stage where you can't keep an audience waiting… "

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