With many prestigious awards, including a Padma Shri, to her name, and a recent international collaboration called Bridge of Dreams, you could say acclaimed singer Shubha Mudgal could well afford to rest on her laurels. But at 60, the diva with a youthful personality, thinks nothing of diving into a whole new adventure as a first-time author.
Looking for Miss Sargam, by Shubha Mudgal,
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd
Pages: Rs 208
Price: Rs 499
With the rain cascading outside the window and her Ab Ke Saawan Aise Barse filling the room, the mood is right to soak in the seven short stories that make up Looking for Miss Sargam, Shubha’s debut novel. Just like her singing voice, her writing voice is strong and distinctive. The book is a tongue-in-cheek take on the politics and machinations that go on behind the scenes in the music world. Each of her stories, set within the microcosm of the music industry, is rich in detail and yet handled with a light touch. There’s pathos, but balanced with humour; there’s stark reality nuanced with softer emotions; and there are very believable characters whose situations and motivations are quite compelling for the reader. Shubha’s writing also has the quality of an astute observer of human foibles and she is able to take a step back and write in a detached and sardonic way about certain realities even as she is very much an industry insider, who empathises with how the ways of the world impact music makers.
How true-to-life are these tales of auditions and ambitions, tantrums and treachery? “As someone who has been studying music for over four decades, I continue to enjoy the opportunity to be an insider in the world of Indian music in many roles — as a student, teacher, performer, a recording artiste, and of course, as a keen listener. I have therefore had the chance to keenly observe musicians, audiences, on-stage drama, backstage drama, riyaaz sessions, training sessions, diva and star tantrums, good days, bad days and more. Although the stories do not replicate any real-life incidents, they do create situations and narratives that many may find familiar,” Shubha answers.
She explains how she took the plunge into doing a book, “A few years ago, I wrote one story around the world of Indian music in English and another in Hindi. But I had no plans to work on a collection of stories or seeking a publisher. I wrote the stories more with the intention of using them as a storyline for a music theatre project that I had hoped we could work on. It was my husband Aneesh (Pradhan), who encouraged me to send my ‘single’ (to use a music industry term!) to Kanishka Gupta, our literary agent. Kanishka’s response was also extremely heartening and that was where Miss Sargam started to take shape.”
It has been over three years since she started working on these stories and she admits that progress was slow because she travels a lot and also spends a lot of time making music. “But I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of writing and also put in some amount of writing riyaaz in the bargain,” says Shubha. The home environment was conducive to this creative endeavour. “Aneesh was busy working intensely on his own book but always spared time to give me feedback and suggestions. As for our dogs, Ringo (the Dalmatian) and Nargis (the Boxer), they don’t easily tolerate any neglect. They make sure that they get attention whenever they want any,” she laughs throatily.
A yen for literature isn’t alien to this singer, who has been a voracious reader since her childhood and has slowly built up a good collection of books. She admits though, “In the last ten years however, my reading has been more music-related. Some of the books I have read in the recent past are Monsoon Feelings: A History of Emotions in the Rain edited by Imke Rajamani, Margrit Pernau and Katherine Butler Scholfield; Requiem in Raga Janki by Neelum Saran Gour; and I have just begun reading Babu Bangladesh by Numair Atif Choudhury.” When we ask her why she chose to write short stories and not a full-fledged novel, she replies, “I guess I felt comfortable with the short story format and never felt the need to stretch out the narratives further for these stories.”
We ask Shubha to describe the elusive Miss Sargam from her book. “She is the quintessential artiste, ready to adapt, strategise, reinvent herself with changing times. In this book, she is a woman, but could as well have been Master Sargam. In fact, in one of the stories, a rather androgynous Miss Sargam appears as a singer who wears a three-piece suit and hat in concerts and sings in both male and female voices. She is therefore, this mysterious artiste who flits through some of the stories briefly but never appears as a major character in any story. She isn’t me, but could be any artiste, anywhere in the world, dealing with the challenges, the highs and lows of being an artiste,” she muses.
There’s a hint of sadness, sometimes even cynicism in the narrative, whereas Shubha’s persona is no-nonsense yet very positive. We wonder if there is a particular reason for the dichotomy. Shubha explains, “The life of an artiste anywhere in the world is not an easy one. It has always been a struggle and in all likelihood, will continue to be so. I have tried to describe the challenges and heartbreaks that an artiste invariably experiences without any rancour or melancholy, lacing the stories with generous doses of humour.”
While we think her book is a worthy read for anyone who enjoys human stories and Indian music, this evolved and progressive individual is quite open to criticism. “It is quite possible that some readers might not find my writing good enough, others might not agree with the portrayal of characters or the direction that the stories have taken. But those are reactions that I also face as a musician. Some listeners might not like my voice, others may not relate to my music. I still continue to sing and write knowing full well that my work, whether it is music or writing, has its many weaknesses and yet I enjoy the gift of music in my life,” she says with an endearing humility....