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Classical music can go viral

IndianRaga, a digital start-up founded in MIT, sees no reason why Carnatic vocals and social media should be out of sync

A video shoot at Cleveland Raga Labs.
A video shoot at Cleveland Raga Labs.

In February, five prodigiously talented youngsters did a Carnatic-style cover of Sia’s popular song, Cheap Thrills. The YouTube video went viral, even attracting the attention of my five- and-eight-year-old nieces, who played it several times on repeat. When I watched it with them, I discovered that something called the IndianRaga Fellowship was behind the video and the end credits mentioned that anyone could apply for the programme.

I met Sriram Emani, the 31-year-old chief executive officer of IndianRaga, at the Blue Tokai café in Mumbai. But I had misjudged the café’s popularity—it was near impossible for my voice recorder to pick up Emani’s voice over the ambient clatter. Finally, the manager offered us a quiet spot and we ended up having our conversation in the fragrant coffee-grinding room.

“Right off the bat, let me tell you that I’m not related to Emani Sankara Sastry, as I’m asked that quite often," Emani laughs. I respond with a nervous chuckle, for the name doesn’t ring a bell—and it is only later that I discover his namesake was a renowned veena player. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Sriram Emani at a studio in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

My nieces showed me ‘Cheap Thrills—Desi Style’ a month ago and I really liked it. It’s interesting to see classical content rejigged for a new medium and made accessible for a different audience.

That’s how IndianRaga came about—to take deeply rooted classical traditions and present them in a relevant, modern-day format. While traditionally the audience for the classical arts is older and more mature, we have a very young audience that appreciates quality. The most popular videos on the IndianRaga YouTube channel are those that demonstrate extremely high degrees of classicism or skill.

How did you get here?

I grew up in Mumbai, in a family with no musical lineage. But when I look back at my school days, the images that come to mind are those from my experience working backstage at different shows all through school and college, especially at Mood Indigo, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay college fest. I was one of the few people in my class (in school) who trained in classical music, and I also won many choir-singing competitions. During my engineering days at IIT Bombay, I often thought about being a classical vocalist, but didn’t know how to go about it. It was easy to give an IIT entrance exam and become an engineer. But where did one begin with music?

After my graduation, I became a management consultant and was posted in New York. It was one of those high-stress jobs, but I nonetheless made it a point to take time out to watch Broadway shows every Thursday. A couple of years later, at an interview for a new job, I was asked what distressed me the most. I answered almost instinctively, without even thinking about it, “The fact that kids in this country could grow up, and go through school and college, without knowing what a raga meant literally burned me." This spur-of-the-moment answer was an actual epiphany. I quit my job and joined the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and thereafter, I decided to go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to get my MBA. My business plan for IndianRaga was part of my final thesis. My professor at the MIT Media Lab looked at it and asked me why it wasn’t a company already. And so I went ahead and incorporated IndianRaga, got a grant from the Council for the Arts at MIT (Camit), and before I knew, it was up and running.

What, in your opinion, makes cultural content go viral?

Our Cheap Thrills—Desi Style has cultural elements, but takes off from a popular song, so it’s easier for something like that to go viral. We have also produced a Bharatanatyam piece called Nandi Chol. This traditional piece is usually performed by a soloist as a tribute from Nandi the Bull to Lord Shiva, but our four dancers (who had never worked with each other before) choreographed it so that the four of them formed one perfectly coordinated unit, representing Nandi. So, even within the classical paradigm, I think anything that is an interesting innovation has the potential to go viral.

Another thing to keep in mind is alignment with a contemporary theme, or the sentiment of the time. For instance, we just released a Bharatanatyam piece, Reflections, where the dancer enacts the story of a transgender woman expressing her inner reflections, and it received a lot of good press.

How does IndianRaga combine talent and publicity?

That’s the value we really add as an organisation. It’s sometimes difficult to explain this to parents or artistes, because it appears much easier than it is. We’re not a video production company. We want to help you craft something that will be exciting to audiences. There is an art and science to this. It’s not as simple as taking a three-hour concert and condensing it in a linear manner for social media. It must have its own format and one that is thought through from scratch.

What role does collaboration play in the programme?

It’s the day and age of collaborations. There’s no pedagogy available for musicians who want to learn how to do that, nor is it an experience a teacher or guru can offer. We wanted the IndianRaga Fellowship to be that channel—where highly talented people could meet and collaborate.

How is this different from something like ‘Coke Studio’?

You can’t apply to participate in Coke Studio unless you’re already an established artiste. We are trying to create the same experience, but anyone can apply as it’s a meritocratic process. For the current fellowship, we already have applications from the UK, US, Canada, Germany, UAE (United Arab Emirates) and India. But since 1,000 people have reached out to us from India alone, we decided to do an Indian edition this year.

I think it’s inevitable that while some traditions may work for the Internet, some may have to be left behind. What would you not like to let go of?

I would never want to let go of the improvisation aspect of Indian classical music, or the fast-paced elements such as the swara and taan. I would also want to feature rare ragas, and revive some of the songs and lullabies that our grandparents sang to us. It’s not just about those old songs dying out. We also stand to lose out on the best practices, insights and philosophy that could potentially be applied to other genres to further embellish them, or create new traditions. I’m passionate about oral history, and want to preserve the traditions that rely on it.

A performance titled ‘Chetti Mandaram’ by under-12 dance fellows.

What has it been like to work with such young and talented artistes?

Let me give you an example: Two of our artistes, Sashank Sridhar and Adithya Chakravarthy, were 13 years old when they attended the fellowship back in 2015. As the final production days tend to be intense marathon sessions, I offered both a break in the middle, so they could get some rest. Instead, the two went off into a corner to jam on another piece. And to my surprise, this was actually fun and relaxing for them. One of our youngest fellows, nine-year-old Rishabh Ranganathan, is a classical violinist who can instantly compose and improvise on a variety of ragas. I realized that many of the new-age skills, which we strive so hard to imbibe today, are already embedded at the core of Indian classical music pedagogy. We just need to rethink the format in which they are presented.

For details on the IndianRaga Fellowship, visit

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