Review: Looking for Miss Sargam by Shubha Mudgal
Shubha Mudgal’s short fiction teems with authentic characters and situations peculiar to the world of the Hindustani classical performerUpdated: Aug 17, 2019 10:17 IST
Sikandar Sufi, “the metrosexual mystic musician with designer stubble”, Asavari Apte, the Hindustani classical vocalist and teacher from Pune, who longs to bag a foreign tour, Vikas Saxena, who “waged a war of sorts to preserve and promote authentic classical music” in Meerut, Mrigo, the musical prodigy, thwarted by the emosional atyachaar of his parents, Manzoor Rehmati and his tireless quest for a Padma award… Shubha Mudgal’s short fiction teems with characters so real; the reader often stops to wonder if the author hasn’t just recreated a personality. To believe that would be to doubt Mudgal’s talent as a writer. Good writers are keen people watchers and Mudgal, so far famous for her powerful voice and an absence of snobbery that has allowed her to straddle the worlds of Hindustani classical and popular music is now revealed as an acute observer.
Mark Twain pronounced, “Write what you know”. Mudgal’s subjects are all classical musicians grappling with the complexities of a world that values the fruits of their dedication to art but is too crass to appreciate the effort. It is Mudgal’s world and she knows it intimately: its eccentricities, rivalries, the obsession with artistic integrity coexisting with the greed for awards, the serious practitioner’s need to immerse himself in the single minded pursuit of an intricate form that constantly reveals unspoken truths, while also making a living, and fighting off charlatans intent on exploiting him.
Mudgal’s charlatans come in many avatars: There is the “successful businessman from Delhi” who pronounces that “actually my true love is Hindustani classical music”; the EDM duo who thanks everyone (including their cats Bijli and Chamki) in the credits to their albums but the one man who makes their compositions work; the eminence grise who ‘reigned supreme in the world of Hindustani classical music” and “learnt early in his career that an artist desirous of popular and abiding success should never have political opinions, and should cultivate the powerful no matter which political party or business empire they belonged to”, the table player who arranges US tours that are actually a series of performances at the homes of well-meaning NRIs.
The protagonists aren’t paragons either. Mudgal sketches inner lives laying bare the hypocrisy, egotism, willful blindness and manipulations of obsessive artists. This reviewer’s favourite character Manzoor Rehmati is both pathetic and wonderful in his deep craving for recognition from the establishment. His slow self destruction is painful to witness. Occasionally, the charlatan turns out to be the most sympathetic character in the story. This is true of Aman Bol, where the reader is primed to dislike marketing maven Shweta Bansal, who is “sallow, nearing forty and dressed in a flashy distracting palazzo-kurta set” and seems to have “tumbled out of a Hindi soap opera”. By the time the tale reaches its deafening crescendo you have great sympathy for her, even if it is leavened with much laughter.
Looking for Miss Sargam is an exploration of the inner world of serious Hindustani classical musicians and the ecosystem in which they exist; it is one that values commerce over pure art, and is intent on besmirching the single-mindedness of purpose of these passionate artists with grubby but oh-so-necessary money. The title works at many levels. Sargam refers to the notes of a composition but in these stories, Miss Sargam – Mudgal, never one to deny credit, thanks her in the Acknowledgements for “flitting through this collection and adding sparkle to it” - is also a singer who achieved great success and chose to vanish, appearing only in the memories of characters. In Taan Kaptaan, Gupta says, “She was so big as a pop singer but she gave it all up and returned to her first love, which was classical music.” In The Man Who Made Stars Ramani asks Manjusha, “You must have heard of Miss Sargam – she was a pop star and she was a classical star, you know that... And who gave Miss Sargam her biggest film hits? Yours truly. She was talented, I made her sexy.” Perhaps Miss Sargam is the phantom ideal, the one who turned her back on the world in her pursuit of artistic perfection in splendid isolation.
In an interview Shubha Mudgal revealed that these stories grew out of a short piece she had initially written for theatre. Perhaps that explains the visual nature of these pieces. While the Rehmati story would make a great tragic film, the other pieces, each exploring a specific milieu including small town music classes, the entourage of a charismatic godwoman, and a music company with a vast archive, would do well in a web series.
Looking for Miss Sargam is at once funny and sad, entertaining and thought-provoking. Shubha Mudgal’s voice emerges powerfully in her writing too.