Upping the quotient of Indian classical music

Upping the quotient of Indian classical music
British star Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’ is the kind of viral hit that leaves you with nowhere to escape. The official video on YouTube has over two billion views and counting; it has been covered by just about everyone and their aunt. There are schoolchildren versions, odissi and kathak versions (no, not kidding), acoustic, Jon Snow version, dentists’ version... you get the idea.

But a Carnatic classical version? Yes, there is one, and arguably, up there among the best. Unlike the boxing badlands of the original video, this one has two studious-looking Indian boys walking around a dappled New York city, ‘alaap-ing’ in sheer joy, singing perfectly in rhythm and doing the typical ‘Carnatic nod’, if you know what I mean.

Completely digitally produced and yet retaining every bit of the original flavour, this video is just one of the many viral videos that IndianRaga, a music-education start-up founded at MIT, has produced over the past three years.

Founded by Sriram Emani, an alumnus of IIT and MIT himself, IndianRaga’s mission, he says, is to provide authentic access to Indian arts internationally and approach music education with a combination of instructor-training and peer-led learning.

Describing it as a “finishing school for performance artistes,” Emani got the idea for the enterprise after what he calls his lonely journey of learning Carnatic music for 10 years.

Excerpts from an interview:

How was the idea for IndianRaga born?
Growing up in Mumbai, I was in love with the classical arts but I was also plugged into the city’s cosmopolitan culture. I could see that primetime music always had great audio-visual elements and high-production quality. I wondered why a classical song could not be presented similarly and made accessible to everybody. While I was at the Media Lab at MIT, I suggested this idea to a professor of mine and it took off from there!

What were the challenges you faced in making classical music accessible?
It is frustrating how difficult it is to find resources that ideally sho uld have been easily available. It is a challenge for students to find a good teacher, connect with like-minded peers to jam with, get access to practise videos and obtain expert feedback when you need it. We intend IndianRaga to provide all this and more — a complete ecosystem for the classical arts.

What is your opinion on ‘contemporising’ classical art forms?
Our approach at IndianRaga is mostly to contemporise the format of presentation, and less so the content. Some of our flagship pieces like ‘Kaa Vaa’, ‘Nandi Chol’, are purely traditional; it is the high quality of audio and video that make them stand out, and also, the ability to watch them anytime, anywhere. In fact, many people have reached out to us saying that they’ve been trying to get their kids to learn classical music, but it was only after watching our classical cover of ‘Cheap Thrills’ that they got more curious and excited about what a mridangam and a ghatam are! Good quality experimentation will stay and what does not work will naturally be weeded out.

Tell us a bit more about your favourite project Raga Labs...
Raga Labs has been launched in over 40 cities across the world, bringing together the best talent locally to produce high-quality work and get them a global audience. Maestros like Viji Lalgudi have had their students join these projects. The Bangalore Raga Labs have been especially enriching, what with our ‘Ranjani Thillana’ and ‘Eri Ali’
becoming viral! I am, of course, very proud of our Carnatic mix of ‘Shape Of You’ that demonstrates how Classical music can be super cool.

Were you daunted at all by what it meant to take on the connoisseurs and the purists of Indian Classical music as it were? Have you had any feedback from people who might not exactly have warmed up to the philosophy of IndianRaga?

We are not ‘taking on’ anyone. We are a very inclusive organisation and would love to work with both purists and experimenters alike, of high standards. Thankfully, many maestros and connoisseurs are very supportive of what we do and enjoy our productions. Once in a while, we may have the odd piece here and there that did not work for someone, but that is the nature of art.

What does IndianRaga hope to achieve in the long run?
We believe whether you wish to be a pure classical performer or a movie playback singer or just learn the arts for the joy they bring, the best way to develop strong foundational skills is rigorous training in the classical arts. Through IndianRaga, I wish to provide exactly that and establish a global platform that offers access to high-quality performing arts both physically and online.

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