KEEP­ING TRA­DI­TION ALIVE

Shubha Mud­gal and Aneesh Prad­han share a pas­sion for In­dian clas­si­cal mu­sic. By Justin Burke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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

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