If you want to live life and make music on your own terms, it is very difficult,” says Shubha Mudgal. “The world of classical music comes with its own set of baggage (as does) the world of film and pop music.” She should know, since she has traversed both these worlds with aplomb and to much acclaim.
Inspired by Vidyadhari Bai of Varanasi: The tawaif who at the request of Gandhi began including songs of protest in her repertoire. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
“I have been lucky,” she says of her own journey, attributing her good fortune to two factors: the support of her family and, she adds, “because I am obstinate”. The robust singing voice is soft during a conversation but it does convey calm determination—and also slight agitation, which stems from Mudgal’s deep sense of grievance at the treatment meted out to musicians in India. Citing many examples, she explains how they are usually paid too little and, are often expected to play or sing for free uncomplainingly. They can ask for what is their due only at the risk of being labelled “too commercial”.
Particularly egregious over the past years has been the role of the recording companies, say Mudgal and her husband Aneesh Pradhan, the noted tabla player. In 2003, the husband-wife team established Underscore Records, a music company that seeks to nurture a very different kind of relationship with the artists whose recordings and albums it sells on the Internet from its website Underscorerecords
“For about 10 years now, major recording labels have stopped recording new music; they have been rehashing old stuff in their archives,” says Pradhan, explaining why they set up Underscore. Mudgal points out that in a typical agreement with a recording company, an artist is expected to record the music himself, has to give away the rights to his music and his royalties are abysmally low.
“Whenever we were travelling in India, we were hearing great music—different kinds of music—rock bands, fusion, tribal music,” she says. But recorded versions were never available. To ensure that new as well as neglected music found a way to reach listeners, that artists were not beholden to record companies, got decent royalties, had control over the kind of music they wanted to make and owned its copyright, They launched Underscore as a Web-based distribution platform. This means that Underscore does not produce any albums (with some exceptions); it only sells them via the Internet—the onus of production or publication, as it is also called, lies with the artist.
Its two debut albums, both produced by Mudgal, were recordings of her revered and beloved guru Pandit Ramashrey Jha of Allahabad, a giant in his own right but little known outside the world of Hindustani music connoisseurs. However, Underscore has been set up to become a hub for all kinds of Indian music—classical, as well as folk, rock and jazz. From two, the number of albums available at the website has gone up to 125. On offer is such varied fare as En Route by Artist Unlimited, the Delhi-based collective of young musicians, field recordings of folk music in Punjab titled Khissa Punjab and a reissue of the first recording by Kesarbai Kerkar, the doyenne of Hindustani music, done in 1935.
Pradhan and Mudgal are looking ahead—besides the artists, she says, the goal is to empower others involved in music, for instance instrument makers such as the reputed tanpura makers of Meraj in Maharashtra. She is pleased with the response they got at Baaja Gaaja 2009, a music expo organized by Underscore in Pune in February that brought people and businesses associated with music under one roof. “The instrument makers were the heroes,” she says with evident pride.
The Underscore website also offers books on music, in regional languages such as Marathi and Bengali along with English and Hindi, as well as posters and other merchandise related to Hindustani classical music. The initiative to make available model contracts which artists can download has been much lauded.
Those who know them say Pradhan and Mudgal form a formidable team because theirs is a meeting of minds—neither are from khandani families of professional musicians and both were born to working parents who raised them in an atmosphere steeped in music—Hindustani, as well as film, folk and Western music. They met at a recording studio in 1993, and went on to collaborate in concerts and various other projects—two of which, presaging Underscore, were dot-com ventures. They married in 2000; it is her second marriage.
After five years, the distribution component of Underscore is self-supporting and it recently received a three-year grant from the Ford Foundation which will enable Pradhan and Mudgal to work on many of their plans.
“Their whole effort is to give musicians the freedom which the record companies were curbing,” says Sudhir Nayak, a long-time associate who often accompanies them on the harmonium. “They are thorough and meticulous, so they are able to take projects forward.” Sarangi exponent Ulhas Bapat, who has three albums for sale on the Underscore site, is all praise for them. “Sale is fast, then sometimes slow, but the main point of satisfaction is that (the music is now) available to the people out there,” he says. “The main benefit is (that) artists duniya ke saamne aa gaye hain—they are getting the exposure.”