KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE
Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan share a passion for Indian classical music. By Justin Burke
As the commercial and cultural juggernaut that is Bollywood sweeps all before it, there are still some Indian artists, such as celebrated classical musicians Aneesh Pradhan and Shubha Mudgal, who are striving to keep traditional Hindustani music — and values — alive.
In fact, to hear the married couple describe their respective disciplines — Mudgal is a vocalist and Pradhan a tabla player — it sounds strikingly similar to love.
“Hindustani classical music is a lifelong journey, a companionship that is fraught on many occasions, when you doubt yourself or find things to improve upon ... yes, it is challenging,” Mudgal tells Review from Delhi. “But it’s wonderful,’’ adds Pradhan with a laugh, “to have a great critic at home to bounce off all sorts of crazy ideas — ours is quite a partnership.’’
The pair will perform in Melbourne next Friday and Saturday as part of the 50th anniversary of the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University. (Pradhan is an adjunct senior research fellow at the school.) The celebrations also include performances by Kate Ceberano, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Paul Dyer, jazz pianist Paul Grabowsky (who is a professor at the school) and others.
Pradhan has performed in Australia almost annually since 1990 and Mudgal since 2000, and as such they are confident that local audiences are suitably discerning.
“I’ve been studying two different forms for a long time: khayal and thumri,” says Mudgal. “What I try to do is to present a sincere interpretation and I believe that the music speaks for itself. Of course I am always prepared for people to be unable to connect at times, but I feel it is important not to present a watery version of what one does normally; I wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Pradhan will perform on Friday night, solo as well as with long-time collaborator Adrian McNeil on sarod (Indian lute) and Sudhir Nayak on harmonium. The following night Mudgal will be accompanied by both Pradhan and Nayak.
“The tabla is primarily an accompaniment instrument, but also has this major facet of being a solo instrument and sometimes we play solo for a couple of hours — this will be a shorter version of course,” says Pradhan.
But if the love of performance is one aspect of the pair’s mission, the other is a message of tough love for the forces in Indian life that devalue classical music. Madgal and Pradhan are prolific contributors to online publications and social media, vocal critics of arts funding in their country and persistent voices of concern about India’s development generally. In addition, they are founders of Underscore Records, an online music label that respects artists’ copyright and has promoted 700 albums since 2003.
“Our concerns stem from a personal experience as musicians, teachers and students of music, but are of a wider nature, looking at music not just in a vacuum but also what is happening in the larger social sphere: politics, society and the economy in general,” says Pradhan, whose book Hindustani Music in Colonial Bombay was published last year.
Mudgal, who has been writing for online publication Live Mint since 2007, says the “massive idea of development’’ doesn’t always trickle down to the grassroots level. “People are not thinking of providing long-term support to the arts,” she says.
Her concerns extend to the lack of insurance available for traditional Indian instruments. “You can insure anything under the sun but we can’t insure handcrafted traditional Indian instruments because there’s no model number specified on it.’’
It was the dearth of non-Bollywood music recordings that led the pair to create their label. Yet their attitude to Bollywood is nuanced.
“Occasionally people invite me to record a song for a film, I’ve always found it challenging and quite exciting at the same time; on the other hand, it doesn’t bother me if I haven’t sung for a film for three years,” says Mudgal.
“Shubha and I enjoy listening to Bollywood music, too — not all of it, but we would not listen to all classical music either.’’
Pradhan acknowledges Bollywood has been a huge revenue spinner but adds “there are problems for musicians working in that set-up’’. “With the increasing use of software and computer technology many musicians who were becoming wealthy as session musicians have now fallen by the wayside.’’
McNeil, an ethnomusicologist at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music and a sarod player since 1980, says the contribution of Pradhan and Mudgal has been “just phenomenal’’.
“I am inspired by them,” he says. “I can tell you a few things they would be too modest to mention, like their unbelievable generosity to their students.”
He says Pradhan and Mudgal’s presence at the celebrations is important to mark the school’s long connection with Indian music, not least its extensive collection of traditional instruments first brought to Melbourne for the International Exhibition in 1881.
“The school is in rude health and performan- ces like this helps us to grow music culture rather than just being a vocational institution.”
Aneesh Pradhan performs on Friday at Monash University’s School of Music Auditorium; Shubha Mudgal performs on September 26 at Alexander Theatre, Monash University.
Hindustani music vocalist Shubha Mudgal, left, and her husband, tabla player Aneesh Pradhan, perform in Melbourne next week