My 11-year-old swirls his head around as it begins, like a startled fawn down a country road. The reason’s not the car headlights but the opening notes of the song of 2017, the catchy opening tinkles of Ed Sheeran’s infectious ‘Shape of You’.
But then, just like the realization in the fawn’s eyes, my son’s face contorts in bewilderment as an unknown singer starts to sing raga scales in perfect tune as a whole new world appears to open up before him.
I’d like to think that he’s realized that ‘Shape of You: Carnatic Mix’ is the result of a rich culture that is a complex and glorious cornucopia of the most beautiful things in the world but he’s just flabbergasted that someone could even think about infusing Indian classical styles into “popular culture”.
For that is exactly what ‘IndianRaga’ – the people responsible for ‘Shape of You: Carnatic Mix’, is doing and it is the perfect marriage.
India is “booming”.
50-year-old Bollywood stars are attending Justin Bieber concerts in Mumbai and young kids in “floodwater” trousers, wearing shoes without socks (EUGH!) are strutting around – swaying to…well, Ed Sheeran often – on the streets of Delhi and Mumbai and Bangalore.
Such serious issues as “co-habitation” are being discussed in the movies and India’s mind-numbingly ancient and rich cultural traditions appear to be…well…”old fashioned” to many.
The solution? Why not marry what they know with what they’d like to – and should – know.
That ‘Shape of You’ remix is the latest production of IndianRaga, a creative venture based at no less an august body as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a place more associated with life saving drugs and scary, gun-toting robots.
Its’ YouTube channel boasts nearly 50,000 subscribers and millions of views and is racking up followers everywhere on the globe.
The man behind it is Sriram Emani, co-founder and current CEO of IndianRaga.
A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai and now…MIT – where IndianRaga is his fulltime project – , has always been a man who understood the potential of social media to enrich people’s lives, as opposed to harming their self-confidence.
The UKAsian caught up with Sriram to find out what’s, what.
Let’s start at the beginning and how did MIT – a place which has given birth to start ups in advanced robotics and artificial intelligence – also spawn IndianRaga?
I think it was a combination of MIT’s highly inspiring entrepreneurial ecosystem and my relentless passion for the performing arts and a keen desire to do something in this space. My professors at MIT always encouraged us to solve problems and create value in whatever we are most passionate about – it wasn’t restricted to any specific areas. The idea of leveraging technology and new business models to disrupt a traditional sector like the arts that really needed this intervention appealed a lot to me. I chose my electives and projects in primarily two areas – entrepreneurship, and media/entertainment – so that I equip myself with the insights, best practices, and trends that were most relevant to me. It was ultimately the business plan that I wrote as a final deliverable for a course at the MIT Media Lab that laid the foundation for IndianRaga the company, and things started rolling from there.
I do vividly remember this scholarship interview prior to my MBA at MIT where a leading corporate icon asked me why I was going to MIT and not to say a school more focused on media/entertainment if my passion was for the arts. I told him that schools focused on the arts would teach me what is happening in the present, but MIT would help me visualize what the future is, and empower me to apply insights from other fields to the field of my choice. Every bit of that came true at MIT.
Would it be accurate to say that IndianRaga brings a scientific/techy approach to classical Indian musical education?
Yes and No. Yes because we do believe in enabling greater access through video conferencing technology and social media, but we are not advocating for a machine-led pedagogy, or solely video-based learning of fundamentals. The core role of a mentor or a Guru is still critical in our view, and technology helps support this process to create more avenues to practice, listen and perform. Also – We are not only about music, we have a significant program for classical dance as well which deserves a mention.
There are five main areas in which you work: explain these.
The five main areas we work in are:
1. IndianRaga Fellowship: The IndianRaga Fellowship is the world’s most prestigious network of performing artists producing the best collaborations and music videos. Past Fellows have performed at Lincoln Center, Chicago Cultural Center, Joe’s Pub, and been featured on NPR. The videos have collectively garnered over 10 million views. The best young artists are selected. They collaborate with some guidance from the IndianRaga creative panel. They come together for 8-10 days and produce high quality videos of their collaborations
2. Raga Labs: Raga Labs is a similar experience as that of the Fellowship, but at a city level where we work with the best talent in a given city that comes together. Sometimes we do Intercity Labs, which is different people coming together from different cities to work on a project.
3. IndianRaga Certification: The IndianRaga Certification is a pioneering initiative in Indian classical music and dance to create a performance-oriented curriculum for students of music. Our unique pedagogy and curriculum can be taken by any student from any school of music or dance, and will receive detailed, meaningful and inspiring feedback that will take his/her art to the next level. The syllabus for this certification has been designed by experts in the field, with input from professional performers.
4. IndianRaga Competitions: IndianRaga Competitions for Indian musicians and dancers in Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced categories across different age groups. Performance is a critical part of arts training, and we are happy to be able to offer a platform for talent to be recognized by audiences across the world. There is a new contest every month on a different theme. The entries will be evaluated on the basis of technique, creativity and other aspects. Winning performances will be showcased on the IndianRaga Facebook and other social media channels for the world to see, and applicants find this to be an exciting opportunity to keep growing and performing!
5. IndianRaga Membership: Becoming a member with us gives access to all of our opportunities at a much lesser price, and helps you really take advantage of all our offerings in a meaningful way. You can take certification and then get ready to do a Raga Lab, and win some monthly contests, and in some time be able to apply for a Fellowship, for example.
What is the thought process that goes into creating those pieces that you create. Let’s take Ed Sheeran’s song for instance…what was the thought process and how did you begin to transform it to the end product that so many millions are enjoying today?
The thought process is always to showcase the beauty of our classical traditions, and how it can embellish and enrich any genre. Improvization and complex note patterns are a hallmark of Carnatic music, and we wanted to show that even a pop hit like Shape Of You can be made more interesting and exciting with classical music. This particular piece literally goes to show the magic that you can create if you are trained deeply in a classical art – instead of just copying, you can actually add a lot more to it and give it your own spin.
What makes this and other classical covers so popular is that the base song is already known to millions of people. Its always easier for audiences if they have an entry point to the piece, which in this case is the tune of Shape Of You. That way they can compare and contrast it with what they already know, and it enables them to really appreciate what the classical style adds – else not many have the ability to appreciate classical music by itself.
While working on the piece, we ensure that we pick a song that is age appropriate for our younger audiences. We know that IndianRaga Fellows are role models for the younger generation, and we take great care to ensure that the work we do presents our music and traditions in an elegant and classy fashion. You will see that in many of our upcoming works too!
Do you collaborate with the artist? Do you require some form of permission?
We ensure that we have the requisite licenses for the same, and that the due royalties go to the original publisher. We have not collaborated with the artist per se, but as the popularity of our pieces grows we would love to collaborate with artists to infuse Indian raga elements to their performances with our Fellows. This has happened with many other genres in the past, where pop stars have featured artists from other genres, and taken their work to a broader audience.
One of the things that people have pointed out has been that this is an affront (according to some) to the great tradition of Indian classical music – embedding Indian ragas into existing “western” compilations. How do you respond to that criticism of a “lack of originality”?
Well firstly – Only 5% of less of our work is based on classical covers of western compilations. Its just that this 5% ends up being the most popular given that its appeal is to a much broader audience than to the core classical compositions that have a more niche audience. Different people have different viewpoints, different prejudices, and different attitudes so we are aware that the perspectives on our work will vary, but I would encourage everyone to see more of our work than just the classical covers to understand the spirit of rigor, excellence, and innovation steeped in tradition that we encourage at IndianRaga. Our Fellows have long years of rigorous and devoted training in their genre, and when they do experimental work, it is of a standard much higher than the average fusion that you find in plenty. Those who have actually understood the depth of classicism and work that has gone into our Shape Of You cover find it very refreshing and new!
After watching our classical covers of Cheap Thrills and Shape Of You, many parents across the world reached out to us thanking us for making classical music more exciting for their kids who are now showing a renewed interest in learning it. If 5% or less of our pieces are doing the job of making this genre more accessible and interesting to the younger generation – who are the future – we are happy to have done our bit to make the classical arts a part of conversations and rekindle an interest in them.
Finally – It is a known fact that many current compositions in the classical repertoire, such as the nottuswarams in Carnatic music (English Note and others), were inspired by western compositions. They did exactly what you have written above – embedded Indian ragas, lyrics and notes into existing ‘western’ compilations. They are now a part and parcel of classical music.
At a time when influences such as Hollywood and Bollywood are threatening the very existence of eastern classical music, do you think you are hindering the preservation of these traditions or opening them up to new audiences?
Classical music is timeless and has survived and flourished across several centuries. Trends in pop music are way more short-lived, and while pop stars come and go, a well trained classical musician’s value only increases with age and experience. That is how rock solid this tradition is, so I do not at all think that any Hollywood or Bollywood influences are threatening the existence of classical music. The number of students of the classical arts compared to just 10 years ago, have multiplied several times. Even today when a parent decides to enroll their child to train in the arts, they send them to learn classical music, not Bollywood music. So we all need to shift the debate from this ‘apparent’ death of classical music (which I do not think is happening) to how we can tap into the new energy and excitement for it across the world and provide access to those who are seeking to learn. I do agree that audiences for live classical concerts are going down, which is in stark contrast to the rise in the number of students for classical music. What this means is that audiences are looking for something new and interesting in classical concerts, and part of our effort at IndianRaga is to match audience expectations while retaining the core concepts and excellent standards of classical music and dance.
IndianRaga is certainly opening up classical music and dance to new audiences. Our concert at Lincoln Center, Chicago Cultural Center, Joe’s Pub, Iowa Arts Council was not only received with great acclaim but attracted a diverse, global audience who did not usually attend classical concerts. The audiences on our core classical music and dance videos on social media, and their comments below, are testament to the fact that we are rekindling an interest in the classical arts amongst a broad and varied set of audiences globally.
Isn’t the best way to preserve the beauty and integrity of these classical forms by innovating and encouraging originality rather than this “fusion”?
Have you as of yet seen the hugely successful original works on IndianRaga that have benefited from the marketing buzz created by the fusion works? When even the topmost classical maestros are collaborating on Coke Studio, I think we need to redefine the idea of originality and fusion. Good collaboration can sometimes be more original than taking a classical bandish created by someone else and singing it.
The projects are amazing and hugely enjoyable. What have you got lined up going forward?
We have over 100 new collaborations in the pipeline in 2017 itself across North America, Europe and India. We just launched the IndianRaga Fellowship in India as a limited edition program, and the best musicians and dancers are applying to it as we speak at indianraga.com/fellowship. We are launching Raga Labs projects in many new cities and countries, and interested artists can apply atindianraga.com/labs. The IndianRaga Fellowship in North America is scheduled to take place from 22 to 30 July in Virginia, and we are ramping up partnerships with teachers and their students for IndianRaga Certification in many new genres!