'Seems to be of little concern': Shubha Mudgal on safety and wellbeing of women musicians

Indian classical musician Shubha Mudgal, who is all set to perform in Dubai on May 11 at the Romancing Tagore concert, talks about her journey and the causes close to her heart

By Dev J. Haldar

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Published: Thu 2 May 2024, 5:55 PM

One of the most popular and versatile Indian singers, Shubha Mudgal has experimented and excelled in various forms of Hindustani classical music. Outside of music, she has also lent her voice to socio-cultural issues ranging from royalties and legal problems faced by musicians to women's rights. On May 11, Mudgal will mark her presence at Romancing Tagore, a concert to be held at the Emirates International School Auditorium in Jumeirah that will focus on the Indian Nobel laureate's musical works, which incorporate dollops of Indian classical music. In a conversation with Khaleej Times, Mudgal speaks at length about why Tagore's music resonates across cultures even now. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You’ve had the fortune of learning from some greats of Indian music. Did you get to choose your guru or was it the other way around?

To the best of my knowledge, it is always the shishya (student) who approaches the guru, and that is true in my case too. The great masters whom I had the fortune to learn from had scores of students, packed concert schedules, assignments and I remain very grateful to them for having accepted my request to guide me despite their crowded schedules.

Your album Ab Ke Sawan is still generating some serious streams on popular music apps, after almost 25 years of its release. Did you never think of following up with another album?

It is always satisfying to find that a song I recorded 25 years ago is still being heard and sung by other artistes, even though my streaming revenues and royalties have never ever reflected the track’s popularity. And I did follow it up with other albums and tracks, some of which also enjoy a fair amount of popularity, for example, Dholna (from the album Pyar Ke Geet) and Mann Ke Manjeere (from the album Mann ke Manjeere).

What do you think of introducing music or performing arts in schools as a part of curriculum?

I believe a robust arts education programme would greatly benefit every school-going child in the country, and while I was chairperson of NCERT’s National Focus Group on Arts, Music, Dance and Theatre in 2005, a recommendation suggesting the same was formally submitted to NCERT, CABE and the Government of India. Our Position Paper on the subject is still available on the NCERT website.

You’ve lent your celebrity status to various social causes. Would you like to comment on the treatment of women in Indian classical music? Could you detail the campaigns you are championing?

I align with and support causes that I believe in and engage with, but at no point do I lend what you term my ‘celebrity status’ to various causes. This is because I neither believe in celebrity culture nor do I think of myself as a celebrity.

As far as the treatment of women in Indian classical music is concerned, the situation is complex and diverse. On the one hand, first generation women musicians like me have had the opportunity to learn classical music and take up music as a profession and lifetime’s work. We have also received a fair amount of acclaim and acceptance. On the other hand, the safety and welfare of women musicians seems to be of little concern to anyone in Indian society. Men accused of exploiting and assaulting women continue to be feted and invited to perform at the most prestigious festivals and events by leading organisations and even music schools where an entire population of students may be particularly vulnerable. The culture of silence and hypocrisy that exists in Indian society is mirrored in the Hindustani classical music ecosystem as well.

How do you see the role of social media in maximising the reach of musicians and music?

Social media platforms and online formats were the only option available to artistes during the pandemic. Most artistes therefore, adapted to the requirements of these formats for a few years. However, I really cannot say that these formats have been beneficial for all artistes, simply because there is not too much data available to decide one way or the other. Connectivity issues, the equipment and professional help required for these formats, and indeed, a familiarity with the presentation styles still position these formats out of the reach of many artistes.

How do you manage to keep yourself relevant?

I am a student of music, and an artiste, and I happily follow my artistic urges and make the music and art that I believe in. That is all I can do honestly. Whether or not that makes me relevant today, or whether or not I will remain relevant in future is not something I can manage, or manipulate or even predict.

What can we expect to see and hear at the Romancing Tagore concert produced by Malhaar?

I am grateful to Malhaar for inviting me to perform with them in Dubai. The Malhaar choir will present Rabindranath Tagore’s compositions, while I will respond to the compositions by presenting khayal or thumri or raag-based compositions in Brajbhasha, Awadhi and Hindi. I will be accompanied for this performance by accomplished and experienced musicians, namely, Dr. Aneesh Pradhan on the tabla and Shri Sudhir Nayak on the harmonium.


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