Shubha Mudgal: The industry must invest in traditional arts wholeheartedly

Image by Yeashu Yuvraj

On artistes being treated as priority stakeholders in the music industry, classical vocalist-music composer and Padma Shri recipient, Shubha Mudgal gives it to us straight. “Revenue generation in the music industry in India does not necessarily translate into income for artistes,” she says. “This anomaly needs to be addressed at the earliest, failing which, all else remains cosmetic and superficial.”

Musicians cannot be left out of the discourse on matters to do with the music industry. Mudgal is appalled that almost every big industry event often neglects to involve those who are its very principal stakeholders. With how diverse India’s music is, including just a handful of celebrated mainstream musicians in discussions surrounding the development of the music industry just doesn’t cut it.

For instance, the industry’s disproportionate revenue distribution that’s exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. There’s little to no data around the revenue mix change since the accelerated shift to digitisation.Live music has been one of the main sources of income for a large number of musicians in India performing traditional genres, like qawwali, kirtan, and other devotional music. “The pandemic has left all such artistes devastated,” Mudgal tells Music Plus. “Many of them remain un-recorded, unpublished and, therefore, unrepresented on streaming platforms.”

Skipping spotlight

With Mudgal’s experience largely based on the work that she has been doing with non-mainstream genres and artistes, she has found that this is a segment of the music ecosystem in India that is completely neglected by the music industry. “To the best of my knowledge, original content either finds no support at all or at best, very reluctant, hesitant and anaemic support.” A clear indication that artistes aren’t usually the priority, to her mind, is that public and private organisations flush with funds tend to spend far more on the publicity and organising of music events than the actual artiste fee.

“When have these fora discussed issues that would benefit artistes representing the many forms and genres in India?” Mudgal fires a series of burning questions like a round of ammunition. “Have they discussed issues like insurance for acoustic handcrafted instruments like the sitar, sarod, tabla or tanpura? Affordable housing? Grants for experimentation and research?”

Photograph by Dhruv Sethi

Since the pandemic hit, Indian artistes have largely been abandoned by government and private organisations that should have looked into their welfare. Moreover, many artistes lacked access to live streaming equipment including microphones and cameras when the lockdown first hit in 2020. Those who navigated online were horrified to find sky-high unregulated prices. Then there’s the fact that the Indian law is very artiste-friendly. But carelessly-worded and exploitative contracts and agreements are foisted on artistes, as the pandemic leaves them even more insecure and anxious about the future. Naturally, many artistes were forced to opt for alternative livelihood; working as farm labourers or as daily wagers.

Straddling two worlds

Mudgal is a rare example. A classical singer who has embraced evolution and consistently harnessed technology. Though there are no easy answers to the many questions she has raised, Mudgal herself is becoming the change she wishes to see in the Indian music industry. Ahead of her time in many ways, the singer set up Underscore Records with tabla player, scholar, fellow artiste and spouse, Aneesh Pradhan, in 2003. The platform empowers Indian musicians to independently distribute their work on their own terms; on a non-exclusive basis, including music, books, merchandise, and more. “It does not wrest all rights from artistes in perpetuity,” explains Mudgal. “The artistes hold all rights to their work, and are the decision-makers in all matters pertaining to their work.”

As someone firmly anchored in the world of Hindustani classical music right from the start, her formal training in music is in the two vocal forms known as khayal and thumri. “Raag music remains my musical mother tongue, but I have been curious and keen to know about other forms of music as well,” she says. “​I was brought up by music-loving parents with a keen interest in different forms of music, but the great gurus I was trained by also engaged with diverse forms of music. My own eclecticism is, in a sense, inherited from them.”

No apologies

But Mudgal’s success has been her comfort in her own voice, her own skin, and persona, without the need to pander. As for a solution to the long list of complex problems faced by artistes, she suggests that a beginning could possibly be made with all stakeholders first showing some willingness to bring about change.

“The industry must invest in traditional arts wholeheartedly,” she says. “Artistes performing traditional arts, on the other hand, must be open to professionalising and improving production standards, and audiences should be willing to pay for traditional art. Unless all three segments make a concerted effort, I don’t see a change taking place in the near future.”

Other imperative steps would be for the industry to develop well-considered and intelligent strategies for the marketing and production of traditional arts, instead of myopic ideas, such as asking young exponents of classical music to wear jeans and T-shirts in an unlikely bid to make the genre “cool”. At the heart of it, she fiercely believes that the traditional arts need to be presented without a sense of apology, and without being abashed about their cerebral nature.

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