Shubha Mudgal, an iconic musician who specialises in Hindustani classical music, performed on Tuesday 23 April in Cairo and on 25 April in Alexandria. It was a pleasant surprise to find the Cairo Opera House Small Hall full to the brim – so much so that some had to listen to the concert standing.
On stage, Shubha Mudgal, holding her tanpura – a long-necked plucked string instrument with a body that resembles the sitar – treated the audience to a captivating vocal performance. Two musicians accompanied Mudgal: Aneesh Pradhan on tabla (a kind of drum) and Sudhir Nayak on harmonium.
The evening was a part of the India by the Nile festival and included a programme of bandish, or songs in the khayal style. Denoting North India’s classical singing, known since the 19th century, the term khayal (or khyal) comes from the Arabic word for "imagination" and is used to describe a performance filled with extremely personalised interpretations of text and melodic lines. In bandish, the singer works on a theme encompassing the text (sahitya), selects the tune or melodic line (raag) and sets the rhythmic cycle for the whole composition.
Though the vocal line is integral to the composition, other instruments serving as accompaniment can carry rhythmic elements or melodic lines. In the case of melodic lines, the melody-producing instrument maintains a sense of continuity during the singer’s short pauses.
As such, in the Cairo performance, Aneesh Pradhan on tabla added rhythmic elaborations guided by Mudgal's clear vision of the theme. Sudhir Nayak on harmonium, a predominant instrument in a variety of classical Hindustani styles, provided a constant drone for each bandish. "We do not depend on particular scales. Scales can be fed to a computer that then generates thousands of possible musical combinations.
This is not how khayal works," Mudgal explains. "The performance has elements of meditative-style sound and it is not necessarily important to understand either the music or the meaning of lyrics. Without being representational, music is a way of enjoying the sound per se, the sound of lyrics within melodic variations."
Mudgal goes on to say that the universal themes she tackles in her performances – a sunset, for instance – are represented in her personalised musical language. This language understandably differs from one region to another and from one performer to another; what makes a musician unique is his capacity for transmitting the depth and the mood within set parameters. With her soothing vocals, Mudgal brought the essence of Hindustani musical traditions to life, inviting the audience to a rich treat of Indian culture.
No matter how close or distant culturally one may be to Mudgal's world, some listeners might find spiritual values in her music while others will enjoy the sheer beauty of sound. The purity of Mudgal's voice is supported by her strong dedication to the genre in which she works, something that was palpable during her performance and in the brief comments she gave to the audience between songs. This musician has passion for music that is her life and profession. With her perseverance, her artistic endeavours have won hearts of audiences all around the world.
"My parents gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn art. We were told that being involved in art is enlightening and enriching but we were also told that pursuing artistic disciplines as a profession demands a lot of effort and commitment. It's a gift that has to be accompanied by love and respect," Shubha Mudgal says.
Both parents are academics who lecture at Allahabad University, she explains. "My family did not have musicians but they were all strongly immersed in arts and culture. We listened to a lot of music at home and my parents would take us to a variety of performances. After returning home from a concert for instance, my parents would tell us about artistic values, discussing them with us, and direct our minds to various reflections."
Until the mid-20th century, music in India was monopolised by families and communities closed to outsiders. For people not born into such families, it was impossible to have a musical education, let alone become a performer. It was in the late 1940s (following independence in 1947) that the state started funding official music schools which opened the door to "non-hereditary" pupils interested in professional development.
Along parallel lines, the cultural scene began to accept and test young people who were passionate about music regardless of their lineage. Mudgal is one such performer: "Coming from the North of India, I represent the fourth generation of such musicians," Mudgal clarifies. Having graduated from the University of New Delhi, she dedicated all of her time to music, striving for development and knowledge – which helped her reach the highest ranks of Hindustani classical music.
Though khayal, along with thumri (a semi-classical style of a romantic or devotional nature) are her favourite styles, Mudgal experiments with other forms, including even pop, creating fusions of Hindustani classical and Indian folk elements. Today she is well-known beyond India’s borders; she has released number of albums abroad, and her vocal wealth and musical intelligence have gratified audiences world-wide. She has won a number of prestigious prizes for her contributions to music, including the 1998 Gold Plaque Award for Special Achievement in Music at the 34th Chicago International Film Festival.
With such success behind her, Mudgal stresses the constant need for development in music. "I practice all the time, I continue to study and I teach. All those elements help me to go on learning. As I grow older, I learn new things about my changing voice. Khayal is a very customized kind of music and no matter how much one knows, there is always more to discover." Mudgal adds that the continuous development is part of musicianship and life.
Mudgal's dedication to music and the artistic and intellectual growth that go with it make her performances unique. Her concert in Cairo was an opportunity to nourish one's spirit with the creative sap that comes from an imaginative and proficient artist. Though new to many ears in Egypt, the evening provided several interesting reflections on music and the meanings it carries across the cultures, how it is remodelled through artistic concepts and rendered by individual musicians. Though India by the Nile still has a lot to offer before it closes on 13 May, this was definitely one of the highlights.