‘Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure’ (Speaking Tiger Books, 2019) is Hindustani classical musician Shubha Mudgal’s first attempt at fiction. The book is a collection of seven heartwarming stories about Indian classical music set against a contemporary backdrop. In the acknowledgements, Mudgal summarizes that “humor camouflages the inevitable sadness that often casts a shadow over the lives of artists.”
While the stories talk about the music business from the perspective of the media, diplomacy and the diaspora, it also addresses it from the country’s heartland—its small towns and villages. The stories subtly delve into how classical music in India has evolved over the years due to various external influences and the struggle among its practitioners of traditional and modern schools of thought.
The following is a short summary of five of the vignettes from ‘Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure’.
‘Aman Bol’ is a spoof on The Times of India’s real-life 2010 campaign with The Jang Group. This story involves musical collaborations between artists from two neighboring countries. The story presents a humorous side to all that went on behind the scenes to put together this publicity stunt–a ‘concert of peace.’
‘Foreign Returned’, on the politics of foreign tours in the music industry, shows how Indians living in the US perceive Hindustani classical music. The story also touches on some delicate, modern-day challenges that the art is facing, such as clashes between gurus and their shishyas.
‘Taan Kaptaan’ focuses on a small-town musician who gets into the big, bad world of showbiz once he enters a partnership with a big businessman during a musical talent hunt. When he is duped, he has to, literally, ‘face the music’.
‘A Farewell to Music’ is about a music label looking to reestablish itself as the country’s number one label. The story highlights how Hindustani classical music is being distorted in the present day, due to a conflict in ideologies between the traditionalists and young musicians, who are experimenting with music and altering it to fit the tastes of current listeners.
‘Manzoor Rehmati’ is a story revolving around an average harmonium player who meets an influential Ustad in a quest to receive a Padma Shri award. The story sheds light on the prevailing lobbies that act to push for the prestigious national honor.
While reading the book, it is evident that Mudgal is writing about so many people whom she may have possibly encountered and worked with during her long and illustrious career as a Hindustani classical musician. They all come together and make up an interesting cast of characters in this witty book that could even make for a fun Bollywood potboiler!
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul,’ an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.