Shubha Mudgal’s stories make transparent the often difficult world of Hindustani classical music
Shubha Mudgal’s lovely singing voice takes a backstage in these seven tales from the world of Indian classical music. In tangy, tasty street-food language, she tells us of the mayhem taking place behind the curtains of a modern musician’s life. Each story covers some aspect of Indian classical music in our era. There’s a concert featuring two popular singers, one Indian, one Pakistani. An acclaimed Hindustani classical vocalist goes on her first ‘foreign tour’. An ambitious classical music competition is attempted in Punjab. A brilliant young singer in Bengal struggles with conflicting loyalties. The tale of a man with a sling-bag full of original songs precedes the story of a singer who confronts a musical pimp.
In the final piece, a simplehearted devotional singer dips his toe in the shark’s pool of commercial cinema. Despite the light tone and the claim on the front cover that the stories are ‘wickedly funny’, these are desperately sad tales. It’s not clear whether the author’s aim was to entertain readers who know nothing about music in today’s India, or to warn talented young artistes of the ugly choices awaiting them at every turn in their careers. The recurring theme is one of gifted but innocent artistes brushing up against the brigands who patrol the creative airwaves, deciding whom to
suppress, whom to promote.
The many set-pieces are like TV commercials promoting uniquely Indian forms of tastelessness. In ‘A Farewell to Music’, for instance, a video is played to the executives of a major music label in Kolkata of a girl-band called The Badass Bandariyas. ‘The dense black dissolved into light to the sound of heavy breathing, to reveal a young woman in ushtrasana, the camel pose, with an enormous eye painted in the middle of her forehead.’ In ‘Foreign Returned’, there’s that moment when the classical diva is made to listen to her host’s young daughter in their home in Philadelphia, ‘accompanied by a tanpura and tabla generated from an app on her Mum’s phone.’
Mudgal’s keen ear for linguistic quirks results in spicy passages of Indian slang. They’re charming in their variety but the bracketed translations into English break the flow. As for Miss Sargam? She flits about in the wings, a perfumed phantom presence, reminding us of the values and grace of a nowvanished era. ■
LOOKING FOR MISS SARGAM Stories of Music and Misadventure by Shubha Mudgal SPEAKING TIGER `499; 205 pages