Delhi's Classic Pop Diva

Shubha Mudgal may not have been dragged kicking and screaming into Indian pop-music stardom, but she is decidedly reticent about her newfound status as the diva of MTV India. "So far I have sung three albums of popular music, and on each occasion, the initiative to do so was not mine," Mudgal says by phone from her home in Delhi. "The invitation came from producers and composers who were familiar with my work in the classical field and were also aware of my willingness to work in unconventional spheres."

Born into what she calls "a musically dedicated family" and trained by some of the finest singers in India (including Pandit Ram Ashreya Jha, Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki, and Pandit Kumar Gandharva), Mudgal has increasingly faced a level of criticism that bypasses Western classical musicians who dip their toes into the pop world. "Having learned from teachers who themselves had an eclectic bent of mind, it was only natural that I inherit that penchant from them, and hence the study of both khayal and thumri, as well as the curiosity to work with artists from other disciplines," Mudgal says, referring to the traditional schools of classical Indian music. "I grew up on huge doses of Indian classical music, heard at soirees, festivals, and concerts," she recalls, "and sprinkled with equally pleasurable stints when my father bought me my first LP of the Beatles, and put together a compilation of the family's favorite film songs by Kishor Kumar. My mother, in turn, gave me her repertoire of folk songs from her native Kumaon hills and the Uttar Pradesh plains."

While Luciano Pavarotti, Yo-Yo Ma, Paddy Maloney, and other European-tradition symphonic stalwarts regularly cross back and forth between "serious" and more playful genres, Mudgal's versatility is viewed by some Indians as tantamount to a sellout. Shobha Deepak Singh, director of the prestigious Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra academy, sniffed recently in India Today: "It is difficult to mix pop and khayal; you have to give up one of the two." Some disgruntled purists have even gone further since Mudgal's latest release, Ali More Angana, has achieved heavy-rotation status on MTV India, questioning if Mudgal was ever really suited to the classical milieu.

Grudge-free aficionados of traditional Indian singing styles, however, praise her husky, sensuous voice, and speak in near-mystic tones about her revelatory live performances. "As her full-throated voice filled the rotunda, my heart stood still," raved Khushwant Singh in Delhi's Sunday Observer. "In turns tears welled up in my eyes and I felt elated and enthralled." With sentiments this strong on the side of tradition, it's not surprising Mudgal limits her concerts to the classics. "I have been unable to feel comfortable about performing popular music in live concert situations," she explains, "and have therefore restricted my work with popular music to the recording studio."

Neither Mudgal's classical music nor Indian-pop CDs are easy to find in the United States, or even online, for that matter. You can find audio samples of Mudgal's pop craft, including her latest MTV India fave, on the Deep Emotions Publishing Website ( The rare opportunity to see Mudgal in concert occurs at Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art this Sunday, September 26. In a performance sponsored by the Association of Performing Arts of India, Mudgal will be singing with accompaniment by Aneesh Pradhan on tabla and Sudhir Nayak on harmonium. Far from the ears of her native land's musical purists, it's possible she may finally delve into the forbidden aesthetic waters of her pop work.

For those looking for a primer into the aurally rich world of classical Indian music, invest a few bucks in Nimbus Records' ambitious new set, The Raga Guide, an introduction to Hindustani ragas, the melodic basis for the classical music of northern India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Four CDs with a combined playing time of more than five hours provide capsule performances of the 74 most widely known ragas. The discs are packaged inside the front and back covers of an 184-page oversize paperback book (though hardcover would have been a much more durable choice) stuffed with analytical and historical information on each raga. Adding a further dimension are 40 additional pages of full-color reproductions of classic ragamala paintings that depict the themes of various ragas.

Unexpectedly The Raga Guide looked to old 78-rpm records from the '30s and '40s in determining how to squeeze so many ragas on to just four CDs. Time limitations of a 78-rpm record meant that a raga had to be concentrated and distilled into three minutes per side. The Raga Guide follows suit by reducing pieces that might typically take an hour to unwind, to surrender their essence in a mere three to six minutes. While the individual parts of this encyclopedic survey could easily have come off as dry and academic, in actuality no matter how much or little one knows about Hindustani music, these pieces are simply a joy to hear. Each features tambura, flute, or male or female vocalists performing the core melody, and the lead instruments are staggered throughout the discs for lots of variety. The splendid miniatures are rich in emotion and ambiance with no loss of subtlety, and no sense of rushing to a conclusion despite the brevity. My favorites feature the flute playing of Hariprasad Chaurasia, who modulates every note with a lifetime's worth of complex tonal inflections.

Over the course of four discs, the ragas are presented in strict alphabetical order; consequently two ragas traditionally associated with late-night performance may bracket an early-morning one. But this doesn't have a detrimental effect on the flow. On disc three, for example, the fast-paced "Jog" is somewhat oddly tagged for nighttime performance, while its successor, "Jogiya," is intended for morning listening. The dreamy attitude of "Jogiya," however, would surely induce me back to bed rather than steer me toward my needed wake-up cup of coffee. So grouping together night or morning ragas wouldn't necessarily have resulted in a homogenous package of moods. A nice sense of seamlessness is provided as one raga segues into the next with little hint of a break, creating, in effect, a kind of raga suite.

Although The Raga Guide is informative, useful, and endlessly entertaining, the learned explanations on each raga will unquestionably be of more use to seasoned students than greenhorns. The discussions of ascent and descent and the musical notations lost me as quickly as a treatise on calculus, and the front-of-the-book overview moves briskly from simple definitions to the deep water of classification schemes and genres. Nevertheless this set is a beautiful thing to have and hold, an ultimate reference guide that reflects the decade of work that went into it, and one that will lead any captivated listener to seek out extended treatments of favorite ragas, as well as the singers such as Shubha Mudgal, who look to use them as exploratory jumping-off points.