“I started learning music because of my parent’s love for it but never knew when it became an inseparable part of me. The processes of learning, singing, listening to masters, practicing, and teaching, researching and performing have taken up the entire space of my mind and time. I left a teaching job in a reputed college in Delhi, where I taught Sanskrit, as I found my true calling in music,” says Subhadra Desai, a renowned Hindustani classical vocal musician.
Born in Kalyani, West Bengal, Subhadra and her family moved to Delhi when she was two years old. “As far as I remember, my family was always deeply involved in academics, music, and spirituality. My mother though a lecturer by profession is a natural singer. My father is an engineer, but he would play Israj in his younger days. Many of my immediate uncles and aunts used to sing or play instruments such as Israj, violin, and organ. Music was a constant feature in the family, but nobody, in those days thought that it could be pursued as a profession,” says Subhadra.
The Musical Journey
Subhadra began her musical journey at the age of five. “Like any other culturally- inclined Bengali family, I was put under a local music teacher. This slowly graduated to a more formal training at a music institute nearby,” adds Subhadra. However, when she was years old Subhadra discovered her true love for music. “It was during this time my real learning in music began. It was nurtured at Delhi’s Gandharva Mahavidyalaya under the guidance of its founder principal, Pandit Vinaya Chandra Maudgalya and Srimati Padma Devi,” adds Subhadra.
Soon she began training under Guru Pandit Madhup Mudgal, and found herself beginning to truly fall in love with music. Talking about her training experience she says: “Guru Pandit Madhup Mudgal was always very strict and exacting while imparting training. I completed the formal institutional training in about eight years and thereafter pursued learning music professionally under him for many years according to the guru-shishya tradition. I still take his guidance to enhance my understanding and skills.” For a brief period, Subhadra has also trained under Vidushi Malini Rajurkar as part of a national fellowship.
Subhadra is not sure when she transitioned from a ardent student to a confident performer. “I think the transition came naturally, or there was no transition at all. It is a process, which I believe every artist goes through. The journey is as beautiful as it is tough. It is beautiful, because it involves an inner journey. The intimate relationship with the Tanpura, the Svaras, the Ragas as they very slowly open up to you. It is tough because, you are completely alone in it,” says Subhadra.
The musical highs
The first recipient of the ‘Mani-Mann Fellowship’ in Hindustani classical vocal music, Subhadra has had several highs in her musical journey. Whether it has been learning and developing a deep love for music with her Guru Pandit Madhup Mudgal or learning the nuances of Tappa from Vidushi Malini Rajurkar.
Subhadra describes her musical journey as beautiful, having performed at prestigious festivals and events like: Vishnu Digambar Jayanti Samaroh in Delhi; Teen Murti Bhavan before the President, Vice President, Prime Minister, Chief Minister, and other senior dignitaries of India;. Bhakti Utsav at Nehru Park in Delhi before the Dalai Lama; the sacred temples of Tirupati and Dwarka;, Berlin University in Germany; Washington DC and Rhode Island in the US,.
Her first book ‘Music in Valmiki’s Ramayana’ got housed in the Loeb library at Harvard University. “It was released by Dr Karan Singh, the erstwhile king of Kashmir and an erudite scholar himself in 2008,” adds Subhadra.
Career and family life
Subhadra says that she is fortunate to have had an extremely supportive family. “My husband has always encouraged and helped me to single-mindedly pursue music. Whenever I have had to travel for performance or research related work, my husband and parents-in-law have been supportive. Thus, I was able to strike a fine balance between pursuing a career in professional music and continuing my research work on India’s rich cultural heritage.”
Subhadra has been busy with her research on ‘Songs of Women Seers and Saints of India.’ She completed this work at the aegis of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, and the book is slated to be published this year. Speaking of the book Subhadra says: “I feel enlightened and inspired by the lives and compositions of these women of India, who have expressed their innermost feelings (mostly spiritual in nature) through songs, during a span of two millennia, defying parochial social norms within their families and society. I feel inspired to sing the songs of these powerful, heroic women, who composed in their own mother tongue including Vedic Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, Marwari, Oriya, Kashmiri, and other languages.”
Evolution of classical music
Subhadra believes that classical music is very vibrant these days, with several great gurus and discerning students practicing the art from. Unlike, earlier when it was limited to families that practised the art form, and passed it on mostly to family members. “This system and mindset, though still widely prevalent, has taken a definite turn, where aspirants from diverse backgrounds are able to receive solid grounding in classical music in the traditional Guru-shishya format,” says she.
More students are coming to learn classical music in the present times. People are opening up to the idea of taking up classical music as a profession. Corporate houses have slowly begun sponsoring concerts. Many artists are leaving mainstream careers to pursue music professionally.
However, she also feels that the musical fraternity needs to be more interactive. She believes that the remuneration for artists needs to be standardised. “Young musicians should be nurtured and not left to fend for themselves. Concert platforms and job opportunities for musicians must be created and made available to younger artists who have no big daddies to push them,” adds Subhadra.
Advising aspiring classical musicians, Subhadra says: “Perseverance, discipline, and hard work are the key aspects to keep in mind while pursuing any artistic discipline.”