A scholar, who has blended the Classics

Photo Credit Nandit Desai

“Purity of purpose, perseverance and hard work are the key ingredients to success,” remarks Subhadra Desai, the renowned Hindustani classical vocalist.

Dr Subhadra Desai started learning classical music at a very young age. “I loved to sing and engage in any activity that was linked to singing. But I never realized that it had become a part of my life. Perhaps the training that I received from my music Guru, MadhupMudgal and the exposure to the world of Classical Hindustani Music through listening to some of the greatest legends of my time drew me closer to it”. Subhadra’s musical journey began under the guidance of PanditVinaya Chandra Maudgalya and Smt Padma Devi, founders of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in New Delhi.

Thereafter, she received rigorous professional training from PanditMadhupMudgal for more than two decades. She was awarded the first Manimann National fellowship by SanskritiPratishthan, New Delhi, at the aegis of which she received the opportunity to study for short periods, under VidushiSmtMaliniRajurkar of Gwalior gharana and PanditDinkarKaikini of Agra gharana. Subhadra continues to receive guidance from her guru Madhup Mudgal to achieve greater rigor and artistic insight in her music.

After completing her PhD in Sanskrit literature she worked as a lecturer in a college but continued to pursue music with serious commitment. She began performing professionally about eighteen years ago.She believes that her “transition from being a student to becoming a full-fledged musician was fortuitous”.

The life of a musician is extremely demanding and hard. In her journey the biggest influences have been that of her husband and her Guru. She tries to follow her Guru’s sincere approach to the Art. Her husband, who is an ardent lover of classical music, not only supports her unconditionally but has always encouraged her to pursue music as a profession.

In spite of the support of family and friends, her journey was never easy: it had its moments of frustration. When asked, Subhadra replies in her unusually calm and composed manner, “Well, there were many. Firstly, the system here is not a structured one. When one starts singing on the professional platform, one is required to do a lot of networking for which one is never trained. Also, in the Indian classical music scenario, a son or daughter of a musician is instantly recognized while a musician,who is without a lineage,initially has toface external challenges as not getting enough concerts and exposure. At a different level, I think every artistfeelscertain level of frustration as the expectation from oneself ishigh and one always wants to take his/her art to a higher level. The concept of achievement is different for an artist”.

In addition to pursuing music she is also an esteemed researcher of Indian heritage. Her academic work hasbeen influenced by her interest in Music and Culture. Her PhD thesis was based on the Musical Heritage of Valmiki’s Ramayana, which was published in 2008 and is housed in many libraries including the Loeb library at Harvard University. Her next book which is based on an extensive research on Songs of Women Seers and Saints of India is slated to be published soon. “The lives and song-expressions of women spiritual seekers of India scattered in different space and time are fascinating and inspiring. Their songs of divine love have survived the test of time in the past many centuries and are sung in several vernacular languages in their respective regional styles even in the present day”.

She has also done some preliminary research on Samavedic singing: considered as the earliest reference to Indian music. It is a living tradition where Vedic scholars / practitioners chant and sing Samavedic hymns in the age-old Vedic tradition. Subhadra’s workis based on their various traditions and the parallels if any, with the Hindustani music of the present times.

Taking her calling forward Subhadra continues to be a student, performer and a teacher. Rather humbly she remarks, “I am conscious of my shortcomings as a musician and constantly workto improve myself. With my students I am at ease and want to give as much as I received. It is a fulfilling and enjoyable experience. As a performer, I love it when listeners share their gratification with me. I love it when some listeners invite me more than once. But at the same time, I realize I have to do much more. I owe this responsibility to myself”.

One of her most memorable performance was many years back, when her musical performance was telecast live (for the first time) all over the world on the occasion of Pt Jawaharlal Nehru’s anniversary. It was attended by the President, Vice President, Chief Minister and all the top leaders of the country. “It was a completely humbling experience for me. The other memorable moment was, when my Guru expressed his appreciation after hearing my performance, I felt the greatest joy”.

Talking about classical music in modern India today, Subhadra remarks “The younger generation is showing interest in classical arts, the number of students has increased over the past decade and music institutes are doing well. However, the kind of hard work and perseverance required to pursue classical music as a career is sometimes daunting. Youngsters often want to achieve without the required effort and hard work. Classical musicians of India are recognized globally today, which is a very positive sign. But at the same time, there are many artists who need the support of Government and other cultural agencies to sustain themselves professionally. Much more is ideally expected in this regard”.

Talking about the necessity of financial stability Subhadra, feels though financial stability is a basic necessity in life, artists are driven by sheer love for their art. However, she feels that Government needs to address it in a more comprehensive manner.

Photo Credit Nandit Desai

As a Sanskrit scholar when asked about the importance of Sanskrit today, Subhadra explained, “I am proud of the rich cultural heritage of India. As a musician and also otherwise, I look at language as a source of knowledge. Not only is Sanskrit a beautiful language, the arts, philosophy, social sciences: the thought processes of ancient scholars are all robustly expressed in this language. It forms the bedrock of Indian culture and civilization.In addition; it is now widely accepted as the most scientific language in the world. I think the knowledge of Sanskrit is extremely relevant in the present times”.

Photo Credit Nandit Desai

As we concluded I couldn’t help but ask her howshe sees the future of Indian classical music,

“Classical arts of India have survived through centuries. Indian classical music as other classical arts is practiced meticulously by artists all over the country.It is an ever evolving art form which will be sustained for a long time as it has in the past. Classical music has always had a niche audience who come for pure music”.

Dr Subhadra Desai stays in Delhi with her husband and son, Nandit, who is a keen photographer, and also passionate about the Tabla and Drums.


  • Written byOur Frontcover Desk



    Comment: It s inspiring to read such a story of a scholar-singer, who is completely devoted to her art. I look forward to reading Sm. Desai's forthcoming book on the Songs of Women Seers and Saints of India


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