Shubha Mudgal’s voice is at once primal and contemporary. Her markedly individual style of khayal (a dominant form of North Indian classical vocal music stemming from the Persian word for imagination) freely explores long sustained notes balancing acrobatic melodising. She is known for her detailed lyrical study, regularly singing poems by Sufi saints and medieval mystics, as well as her contemporary relevance through popular records.
Like the art form itself, Mudgal’s embrace of Indian classical music is holistic. “There is enough repertoire in circulation even today to prove that this system celebrates all aspects of life and living, from nature to wisdom, the sensual as well as the sublime,” she says. She views the genre as, “…immersive, demand[ing] discipline, concentration, and surrender. It teaches you humility because you can never be in complete control even after you attain considerable skill and mastery.”
As a living legend in the industry and probably the finest classical musician in India today, Mudgal’s own mastery and skill are nonpareil. There is a lyrical luminosity to her singing, which brings forth the purity of the raga and depth of heritage with almost elemental force, and she is well-known for her many musical accolades and achievements, including the Padma Shri from the Government of India in the year 2000, the Gold Plaque Award for Special Achievement in Music at the 34th Chicago International Film Festival, 1998, and the Yash Bharati Samman from the Government of Uttar Pradesh in 2015.
Yet, she takes time to share the breadth of her success and enable sustainable change for her community. Mudgal is renowned for her strong commitment to social causes, and is one of the most prominent advocates for improving the treatment of women in Indian classical music. She has supported various movements pushing for a more equitable distribution of power and resources in Indian society. She has also served on various national education committees, and runs Underscore Records with her tabla-playing husband Dr. Aneesh Pradhan, aiming to give Indian artists control of their own catalogue. Formerly a member of the Central Advisory Board of Education constituted by the Government of India, she has also campaigned for inclusion of arts education in mainstream school education.
So where does this veritable powerhouse of talent come from?
Born in Allahabad to two Professors of English Literature, Mudgal’s versatile style is the result of study with a wide range of gurus - notably Ramashreya Jha ‘Ramrang’, Vinaya Chandra Maudgalya, Vasant Thakar, Jitendra Abhisheki, Kumar Gandharva, and Naina Devi.
“Each of my gurus (for a complete list, see here) shared an almost fanatical appetite to learn, collate, compile and enrich their understanding of music from various sources,” explains Mudgal, adding that “…it is not surprising that their many students like me, also inherited from them this highly eclectic approach.” Such diversity in approach has also enriched Mudgal’s repertoire with, “compositions and traits from diverse gharanas such as Gwalior, Kirana, Agra-Atrauli and Jaipur.”
As a result, Mudgal’s specialty lies in khayal and thumri-dada, but the richness of her voice also has unbelievable malleability and tonal flexibility. And she has continued to pursue and perpetuate the study of music, both at an individual and community level.
“I was encouraged by my gurus to immerse myself as completely as possible, in the study of music. That meant learning both theory and practice because one cannot be a practitioner/performer of Hindustani classical music without any knowledge whatsoever of shastra or theory,” she says, adding that an understanding of the sahitya or literature/texts one performs was also encouraged by her gurus, who were themselves very well versed in literature, writing their own lyrics and deliberating about important issues. “At home, too, I was encouraged to read, discuss, analyse and articulate,” adds Mudgal, “My musical upbringing and parental upbringing has helped me to live my life in the constant companionship of music, and approach my study of music from different perspectives—those of a student, performer, composer, author, teacher.”
This has led to her versatility and talent across a range of fields. Also an author, her debut collection of short stories Looking for Miss Sargam showcases her insightful understanding of the music ‘sadhana’ and industry. Her keen sensitivity to the ecosystem within which artists navigate speaks volumes of her immersion in both the technical and creative facets of the field.
As she said in an interview, “The life of an artist anywhere in the world is one which is difficult…All along you are trying to find your voice in practises and in systems that have been around for a long time…and then you come along with a keen, obsessive compulsive passion to make music, and you are pitted against [centuries] of music-making and artistic endeavour…and there you are, trying to say, ‘I need to find my voice.’”
But as an acclaimed artist foraging in uncharted territory and making headway in her espousal of the khayal tradition, hers is a voice that rings loud and true. Her many contributions to music have helped reclaim the narrative and ensure that music—and music education—thrive in the Indian musical context.
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