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Simply herself


She can sing Madhuvanti with a traditional flourish and also enjoy jazz on her iPod. Shubha Mudgal straddles a range of musical worlds with elan

Photo: Bhagya Prakash K.

ON HER OWN Shubha Mudgal: `Labels are nice only in a music store. They help you go find what you are looking for'

Crystal clear outlook and a rock-solid voice. Warm smiles with every well-thought word. Old world manners and an uncanny capacity for self-deprecation. A quiet refusal to fit into any image, or pander to anyone's whim. Her big bindi with tika and her traditional image belie the techno-savvy iPod-toting woman who loves technology. Shubha Mudgal has always held her own in a world ridden with a propensity to fit people into water-tight structures.

Her singular voice slices the silence of the air at the Chowdaiah Hall as she tunes up for the concert. One instantly feels a quiver of expectation for that resonant voice that can raise a spirit with an "Ab ke saawan" or tantalise the musical mind with a thumri. A student tutored by the likes of Ram Ashreya Jha, Kumar Gandharva, Naina Devi, she says she's still learning. Invited by the Vivus Group specifically for a Hindustani classical concert on the occasion of their sixth anniversary, Shubha Mudgal rains rapturous ragas on the small Bangalore audience.

Despite being branded blasphemous for having moved away from the pure classical form, Shubha refuses to be pinned down by these trappings and believes in "making her music". Her latest release is The Awakening, but Shubha hurries to say her only contribution to this album, being dubbed a Sufi/Punjabi offering, is her voice. "Over the years, you know sometimes, when you grow older you get wiser," she says with a glint of naughtiness in her eyes and smiles the Buddha smile. Steering clear of being typecast in anyway, and even refusing to sing for films unless it needs her classical touch as composer, Shubha is happy performing, listening to music on her iPod and running her online music label. "Now and then someone asks me to sing for a film, and if it's something that makes my ear go red (laughs)... because most often you find the song is bawdy beyond belief, I say no," she says.

Excerpts from an interview.

Has this year's monsoon inspired anything new?

It's difficult to claim that one has done something new. There are always so many people who have already experimented that I guess people like me can only try in our own little way what is new for us. But actually in the world of music too much has been done for me to be able to say I've done something earth-shatteringly different. But it's specially heartening to note that at times when traditional music is not perhaps getting the kind of support that it deserves, here's a group of people from a different field who are supporting classical music. And it's wonderful that in this part of the country there still seems to be support for traditional music.

After having experimented with music, is there a pressure on you not to sing classical?

No, I think people call me for different reasons. Their motives may be different — some like my classical music, some like popular. Some have liked my bhajans and some merely call me because they feel a larger crowd will come! For me as a singer it's equally enjoyable and equally challenging to sing anything. It's not as if an "Ab ke Saawan" is any easier to sing. In fact at some points I find it more difficult because my familiarity with popular music is far less than with classical music. I think there are, or at least there are supposed to be, ways of presenting classical and popular music. And I don't see myself feeling comfortable running on stage with smoke rings in the back and a few people wiggling and dancing in the background. (Laughs) But having said that, I think it's really amazing that so many people have heard that one little song I sang and enjoyed it, and so many people seem to have hated it too!

Whenever people speak of experimenting with music, they speak of breaking away from the classical mould. Is classical music so constraining that one must "break" away?

(Laughs) Ah... good question. Yes, there are a lot of rules and parameters you need to observe and respect in classical music. The challenge lies in internalising them so well that you are able to transcend them. And people who've been real path-breakers — say a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saab or a Pandit Kumar Gandharv — they've all been able to transcend and create a unique style and utterance. I think in any kind of discipline it could be restricting if you feel the need to get boxed into a particular area. I love jazz for example and I listen to it.

But in my singing of Raag Yaman, I can't bring any aspect of voice projection as used in jazz; yet that's what draws me to it. It all depends on whether your musical upbringing has given you or not given you a certain freedom. I feel you have to make music — and if it fits into a gharana, fantastic! But if it doesn't, well, you still make the music, don't you?

You don't like any kind of labelling and categorising of music?

No, because these labels are nice in a music store. They help you go find what you are looking for. But in reality there is too much give and take everywhere. When you say Sufi what does it mean? Today any song which has a Maula or an Ali becomes a Sufi song. Neither is Sufi philosophy thought of, nor the space. How will you sing a Sufi song in a lounge?

So how did you take it when "Ali Morey Angana" played at discos?

Even "Ali Morey Angana" was called Sufi music. In every interview I kept saying: "This is not Sufi music... " but I guess the word of the label and the media is strong.

(Laughs). I don't think anyone ever heard the lyrics. "Ali Morey" was a dance track and I don't think anyone understood the word wajd or the kind of trance you go into. Now in urban areas, we are distancing ourselves from our mother-tongues to a large extent. And an influence of that is showing up in the lyrics that we sing. So unless it's a dhoom or a boom or something like that, people are wondering what you are singing!

What kind of music do you enjoy?

My familiarity is with khayal and thumri, dadra. But I really enjoy listening to different kinds of music. You'll find on my iPod all kinds of music — Hindustani classical music, music from Tuba and Cuba, folk music from different parts of country.

My husband and I are avid collectors of music and books on music. We also run an online label called Underscore Records. ( .

You seem keen on using technology to reach out with your music.

(Laughs) I'm fascinated by technology. We used to run a site called Raag Sangeet but we didn't have the resources to run it. We tried hard to support it for two years. But at that time (1997) you made a music website either because you were a record label and you wanted to sell something, or you wanted it as a promotional thing for yourself. But the idea of having a space where you could discuss music was not so popular. Then again, we realised there was lots of beautiful music being made in India and no recordings, so why can't we do something within our means that gives independence to everyone. On Underscore Records, one can buy CDs and download music, there are also books on music, articles, all sorts of photographs — it's become more interesting.

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