By Shubha Mudgal, Hindustani classical vocalist, as told to Kumkum Bhandari
Ten years ago, a woman, Veena Modi, who was to become a good friend later, approached me to teach her. When asked what she wanted from music, she replied: ‘I want to do raga seva.’ Little in my liberal, secular upbringing had prepared me for such thinking.
What, I inquired, is raga seva? Quoting her guru, she said that as a devotee, the greatest offering that she could make to Lord Krishna was music. It baffled me that anyone should want to go through years of rigorous training, only to sit in a temple and sing.
From her spiritual guru, Acharya Sri Purushottam Swami, a great scholar of the Gauriya sect, I learnt that in Vaisnava (a section of Hinduism which upholds love and devotion above all else and worships Lord Krishna and his divine consort, Radha) thought there can be no equivalent to singing the name of God. Today, I sing bhajans (devotional songs) in the temples of Vrindavan in India.
In the past few years, I’ve read a lot of Vaisnava literature—texts, verses, an entire philosophy of life which pulled me away from the mere grammar and technique of music. I’ve also been working on the Nirguna poetry of Kabir, the Bhakti saint and Bulle Shah, the Sufi poet. When I was younger, I simply wanted to experiment with tans (a very intricate and metrical section of Indian classical music), see how far I could go and what I could do with my voice. But art is one thing and emotion another. Your life is enriched if you see both in the proper perspective.
I grew up in Allahabad, India, where my first guru, Pandit Ram Ashrit Jha, gave me much more than the basics in music. Often when I would reach his house, he would be teaching someone. I could fret myself silly while I waited, but I might not be taught at all that day. Learning with him was not about putting money on the counter and feeling entitled to receive. With him one learnt patience and humility, what you call patrata, or being ready to receive.
I desperately want to share what I’ve received in music. But I’ve failed as a teacher and need to rework my role. My students are completely devoted to me, but that’s not what it’s all about. Where is the devotion to music? The guru must be able to turn your face in that direction, make you focus completely.
It’s difficult to choose a career in music. As in any other walk of life, you can always go mad envying someone with more cassettes or concerts to his credit. But, for the musician, it’s like being in love. Even if you feel that this is not the right person, all you can do is be grateful for the gift of talent, which is out of grace. Music gives strength, a meditative quality to your life.
I am human. I do want certain things. But I surrender to the power of music and ask to be taken along. My only ambition is to be associated with music in any way it allows me.
I sometimes come across a child—at some show or brought over by a parent—who strikes a musical note which sends a shiver down my spine. I know that it’s probably better than one I’m ever going to be able to sing. With music, you can never say that you have reached it, you are there.
Music can make you forget yourself. But it’s also necessary to live as part of nature and the community at large. In cities, we barely notice the changing seasons. You know it’s winter when you have to air your woolens. Pandit Kumar Gandharva used to remark: ‘What does it say about you if you don’t even know the name of the tree growing outside your house? Find out.’ If you rest content just practicing skills, life is not going to come to you. Finally it is the lessons of life, your experiences, understanding and moods that find expression in your work.
It’s too recent for me to claim that I’m not embittered by the lessons and huge letdowns by organizations, producers and recording companies. I’ve had copyright suits, lawsuits. I am learning to ensure that contracts are tightly sealed, and not to be wishy-washy about what to charge or not charge at all.
I want to return to learning with a teacher who is constructively analytical about my work. It’s rare to share such a relationship with other musicians.
I often feel like meeting a spiritual teacher. That will happen when it does. I like the idea of raga seva: to make the gift of song. But I must confess that it doesn’t happen each time. At times I feel I’m not going to be able to do a good job. I’m working to lose that inhibited self-conscious quality. I’m learning to be more truthful about my work, do what I believe in. I believe that there is bhakti (devotion) in the concentration required to strike the true pristine note, as there is in learning to be truthful. Finally, it’s how truthful you are that gives you the correct spirit to approach a note.
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