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Looking For Miss Sargam: By Shubha Mudgal; Speaking Tiger; 208 pages;  ₹499.
Looking For Miss Sargam: By Shubha Mudgal; Speaking Tiger; 208 pages; 499.

Unheard melodies

  • Set in the music industry, the stories in this collection speak of truths and triumphs we don’t always hear
  • From ambitious PR professionals to small-town music teachers, a colourful cast of characters appears in it

Shubha Mudgal’s gift as a singer, composer and columnist is well-established. But in Looking For Miss Sargam: Stories Of Music And Misadventure, she firmly announces her arrival as a writer of fiction. A collection of seven short stories, all thematically linked to the world of music, the book sizzles with warmth and wit, cutting and acerbic one moment, soaring to lofty heights of pathos at the next.

From cut-throat PR managers to humble musicians cheated out of their rights, Mudgal gives us a ringside view into the workings of the entertainment industry, where classical rigour and contemporary trends coexist symbiotically, if uneasily. This isn’t so much a book about musical genius as about human psychology—a bracing reality check about ambition, avarice, and the way things are in this competitive era of film music, talent hunts and corporate patronage.

While there are exceptions who hold on to a dwindling value system and their belief in the power of music to transcend petty politics, not many are immune to the push and pull of business. Even the most unassuming performers, such as Asavari Apte in Foreign Returned, are susceptible to the lure of fame and money that is believed to come from tours abroad. She learns her lesson the hard way, as does Manzoor Rehmati, a barely literate harmonium player desperate to get a Padma award.

Although stars and celebrities flit in and out of these stories, Mudgal shines a light squarely on the marginal, the barely noticed, and the forgotten. A small-town music teacher, a talented singer attached to a religious sect, an aspiring sitar player whose ambitions are first thwarted by parental pressure, and, subsequently, by an ugly boardroom drama at a music producing company—these characters span a wide social and economic spectrum. Authenticity comes in the way of lengthy, often entertaining, exchanges in Hindi. Mudgal also breathes life into these men and women with her close attention to their attires and accessories, quirks and weaknesses.

Although structurally neat, a couple of the stories (the one about Rehmati, for instance) feel hurried, if not a bit anti-climactic, in their resolution. The titular Miss Sargam, a classically trained singer who enjoyed popular success after making a splash with pop music, might remind us of Mudgal herself, but there isn’t much else about her to go on. Elusive yet ever-present, Miss Sargam’s spirit flutters through this collection like a butterfly, weaving its discordant melodies into a note of harmony.

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