Mitra Phukan talks about her new novel, “A Monsoon of Music” that was launched on Friday in New Delhi.
Indian classical music belongs to a tradition that has resisted being caught in written scores till nearly the present day. For generations, it has been possible to be illiterate and yet a maestro of music. Today, if musicians are also highly qualified academically, it is usually due to factors other than the pursuit of musical excellence alone. But in this changing world, one of the more positive upshots has been committed artistes who are as adept with the pen as with their art practice, and these individuals very often form a bridge between the relatively opposite worlds of the classical arts and the rest of life. Mitra Phukan, a vocalist trained under the late Biren Phukan and now under Pandit Samaresh Choudhury of Kolkata, is among such artistes. The protagonists of her new novel, “A Monsoon of Music”, being launched by Zubaan and Penguin Books India this Friday evening in New Delhi, are practitioners of Hindustani music. If one is a dedicated student on the brink of professionalism, two are serene gurus and accomplished performers, while the fourth is a globe-trotting star who seems to have it made. The duality between spirituality and materialism of classical music, old-world images and modern performers, a gentle satire on the ambitions of today's youngsters…all these find a place in the novel. Here Mitra speaks about what went into the writing of the book that took her several years. Edited excerpts from a conversation with the author:
Do you perform regularly?
I used to perform very regularly on the radio and TV and in various performances. But now my writing is taking over, it seems. Also, because of all the conflict, it's difficult for organisers to arrange programmes, especially of classical music. People don't want to stay out late. For the last 10-15 years there has been a dwindling of such shows. If there is a bomb blast the atmosphere changes and you don't really feel like organising a music programme. And if there is a bandh on the day...such events cost lakhs of rupees, so people don't want to take the risk of inviting musicians and having to cancel the programme.
Do you teach?
I'm part of a group of Guwahati-based musicians that takes music to the interior areas, where access to music is much more difficult. We hold workshops. Sometimes there are performances, the people who attend the workshops also sing. So from those workshops, some people come to me off and on. It's not really in the guru-shishya parampara. It's not like a regular music class but we do voice training, etc. And they pay me with the produce from their gardens…cucumbers and laukis (bottle gourd) and all that. It's nice, I like it! But somehow, teaching of music, in fact teaching in any form is not my core competence at all. But this I like — off and on. That's why I admire the gurus who teach consistently.
The classical arts are also great healers. Is this aspect of Hindustani music of help in a conflict-ridden area?
Hindustani music didn't originate here (in Assam). It was brought in by the Bengalis who came here. And now the Sattriya tradition is coming up (in a popular way) in Assam. That music is also very soft and healing. People are going much for that than Hindustani classical music. It is not (a) political (reaction) in any way. But the good thing is that they take voice training through Hindustani classical music and then go in for Borgeet and so on (musical traditions related to Sattriya). Actually it is a very interesting thing that is happening. Many people who have dedicated themselves to Hindustani music are not getting opportunities. They are struggling, they have to take up jobs, etc. This is a performing art, and unless you have performances you can't grow.
This aspect of the profession finds mention in your book. Also the idea that the older generation of women artistes were freer than the current generation, as Nomita realises that she is bound by the values of the middle class that has appropriated the music but not its unfettered mores…
I agree, in a similar context my other protagonist Sandhya begins to write her own lyrics, and these are metaphors and allegories. There are so many issues but they can't all be included. After all, it is a novel.
Classical music is a technical subject, not everyone understands. Did this come in the way of your storytelling?
That's a very important point. When I finished writing the first draft it came to 700-odd pages and I realised somebody not heavily into classical music will not be able to understand it. But this is for the lay reader. I want to get more people interested in music. Those who know music are anyway interested. Always it was a struggle not to be very technical and even if I used a technical term, to explain it without seeming to explain. And I didn't want to put a glossary obviously. It was challenging in a way. My previous novel (“The Collector's Wife”) was about conflict in this area. And not many people knew about it, so it was a similar tightrope walk. But music of course is more technical.
(The novel was launched at New Delhi's India Habitat Centre ( Gulmohar Hall) by Shubha Mudgal. Vidya Rao will be in conversation with the author. Friday, 26 August, 6.30 p.m.)
Keywords: Hindustani classical music