FEATURES Madhuvanti Pal is Defying Traditions of Indian Classical Music By Michal Wieczorek · January 08, 2024

According to tradition, the stringed instrument known as the rudra veena was created by Shiva when he looked at his wife, Parvati, sleeping with her arm over her breast. Enchanted by the view, the god decided to create an instrument in her form—two resonator gourds connected by a hollow stick. As one of the oldest and most revered instruments in Hindustani (North Indian) classical music, the rudra veena holds a special place in South Asian tradition of a sacred instrument used in dhrupad, the most ancient form of Indian classical music.

The rudra veena wasn’t the first encounter that Madhuvanti Pal—a Kolkata based musician, luthier, teacher, and a former model—had with music. She started singing khyal, one of the lighter forms of Indian classical music, at an early age. But her first guru, a male, forced her to perform harmful exercises to increase her voice’s weight. “I didn’t like his extremely misogynistic approach” she straightforwardly admits. So she left khyal singing out of frustration and turned to violin, where her voice and appearance mattered less. “I could play very fast on violin,” sye says. “I was known for being one of the fastest players. I could do all kinds of fancy stuff.” But even that wasn’t satisfying for her. “When you reach a certain amount of success, you start thinking about what you are doing with your life, right?” she says. “You have everything, but what you’re doing is just a hollow empty shell.” Seeking a new challenge, she turned to the rudra veena. “You can’t play it fast, so you try to become a real musician. Playing veena has no entertainment value at all, it’s about something else altogether. Veena brought me closer to who I am,” she says, adding that as a feminist. playing the veena is her way to fight the omnipresent misogyny in the Indian classical music community.

Merch for this release:
2 x Vinyl LP

Some of this is due to the fact that the rudra veena is viewed as a male instrument—even though there is plenty of evidence that, several centuries ago, it was the other way around. ”In the ancient time of the Vedas, it was women who played the veena,” Madhuvanti explains. “Look at the sculptures in Indian temples. It’s always a woman with a veena, never a man. Look at the miniature paintings from the early Mughal era. It’s most of the time a woman with a veena.” The situation gradually started to change; the women who played the veena began to be considered cursed, and people who didn’t hail from selected veena dynasties couldn’t even touch it. But there was always someone who broke the taboo. “You can see stories popping up,” Madhuvanti  recalls. “Here, an ustad stopped teaching, so his wife took an apprentice. There, an ustad’s daughter taught someone or took on his apprentices when he died. There, a recently widowed woman passed on the knowledge of her late husband to someone who became a famous musician. Unfortunately we don’t know the names of those brave women.”

Meeting Mita Nag, a one of the best living sitarists, changed Madhuvanti’s life. “Finding a guru opens a lifelong relationship,” says Madhuvanti, who still studies with Mita. Nag said she’d teach Madhuvanti dhrupad if she found someone who’d build her an instrument—each rudra veena is unique, tailored to each musician. “That’s why we say you don’t hold it while playing, you wear it,” says Madhuvanti. Finding an artisan wasn’t difficult. The problems started to mount afterwards. “[veena maker] Rajshekhar Vyas is a very kind and very knowledgeable man, but he also comes from this very traditional mentality,” Madhuvanti recalls. “If I asked him a question he would look at my ex-husband and talk to him. He would not even look at me.” At the same time, Madhuvanti was too determined to learn how to make a veena and to get her own instrument, so she swallowed the bitter pill. Now, she’s built four veenas for herself, and many for others. “It’s not that hard,” she says. “I come from modelling and fashion. I had zero experience with carpentry. If I could do it, anyone can.”

Even though Madhuvanti is an accomplished musician, people still laugh at her when she walks on stage. “I’m a tiny person and my veena is quite big, but I don’t know why it’s funny,” she says. She stopped accepting male Indian students almost completely, saying that they wanted to study with her only because of her gender and their need to disprove her talent and experience. “Indian men just know it all better,” she sighs. It has been getting better though. “More renowned musicians like Jyoti Hegde or Bahauddin Dagar don’t have that kind of mentality, and are more welcoming to new students. I see this gatekeeping mentality coming from frustration. When someone younger and an outsider can achieve something they can’t, they just cannot handle it,” she says.

Merch for this release:
2 x Vinyl LP

Madhuvanti didn’t plan to release an album—she was happy just uploading recordings to her YouTube channel and teaching. It was one of her foreign students, Richard, who insisted she must have a proper release on wax. It was impossible in India, “Nobody has record players anymore, that culture is completely dead,” she says. Skeptical about the idea, Madhuvanti joked that she’d do it if Richard found a label willing to release it. He did: Founded by Alan Bishop of Sun City Girls and Hisham Mayet, Sublime Frequencies is a home for artists reinventing tradition, a perfect place for an uncompromising musician like Madhuvanti. In a true DIY spirit, she recorded the album by herself, in her apartment, again citing the stubbornness of the Indian recording engineers. “Trying to get them to do the right thing is always so difficult,” she says. “Instead, I can just record at home by myself. Fortunately Bahauddin Dagar taught me some things about recording veena and it worked beautifully,” she adds.

Madhuvanti’s choice of the title and the two ragas—or raginis—that she decided to record for the album is telling. When I ask her about Todi and Bhairavi ragas, she instantly corrects me. “They’re raginis, female counterparts to ragas.” Over the years Todi ragini became more and more masculine. “It’s interpreted in recent years in the exact opposite way of how it should be played. I wanted to embody that extremely feminist energy and to harness divine femininity.”

Merch for this release:
2 x Vinyl LP

Both raginis are a reference to “divine mother,” and by choosing them she pays an homage to Mita Nag’s personality.  She is the titular Holy Mother. “She’s much more than a teacher or a guru for me,” admits Madhuvanti. “The way I look at her is a combination of Todi and Bhairavi, the divine loving mother like Bhairavi, but also the all-knowing all-powerful, sometimes a little bit grumpy like Todi,” she smirks. Madhuvanti’s music is bold. She unfolds ragas easily and—for dhrupad standards—quite fast. “I don’t play compositions on the record, I dive deep into raginis and explore them”.

Madhuvanti, Mita Nag, and other female musicians still face discrimination. “A western male playing the rudra veena would be cherished by the media, while they are silent about me because I’m a young woman,” she says immediately adding that she doesn’t need anyone’s approval, apart from her guru’s. Mita is so happy with the result, that she is already planning recordings with Madhivanti. And while Madhuvanti might be the first woman who released an LP recording of rudra veena, for her it’s just the beginning. “This gender tag is so vivid and clear as well as discriminating,” she says. “But what we can do about it apart from playing and showing that you’re capable, right?”

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