Boston-based start-up IndianRaga is giving traditional art forms a modern makeover

In February this year, in the Al Badayer Desert on the outskirts of Dubai, three young dancers born and raised in USA and dressed in traditional Bharatanatyam costumes performed abhinaya (expression) and nritta (movement) to ‘Aadu paambe’, a classic Tamil folk song that celebrates the beauty and majesty of the snake and its dance. For nearly six hours that morning, with the desert sun for company and snoopy camels in the background, the dancers sweat it out to shoot for a video that they hope will become a befitting new ode to this iconic song. As of April, this will become the 382nd video released on IndianRaga’s YouTube channel. 

At the helm of the shoot was Sriram Emani, 32, co-founder and CEO of IndianRaga, a Boston-based initiative geared towards making Indian classical arts accessible to the current generation. “I believe our classical arts were founded by visionaries who designed them to be timeless. We just have to empower today’s generation to define how these forms can be relevant to their journey,” he says. Through different channels, the company has been instrumental in unearthing little-known creative talent, and introducing them to a structured programme, where they are coached on how to collaborate on an impactful piece of work, record in a professional setting, and evaluate its reception upon release. 

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Tabla Fellow Hrishikesh Dharam on set, while shooting for ‘Highlights’, one of the earliest videos of the IndianRaga Fellowship

The IndianRaga Fellowship, a carefully curated network of young performing artistes who come together to produce high-quality music videos, was launched in 2014, a year after IndianRaga was founded. The Fellowship was inaugurated with a series of three videos – ‘Sunsets’, ‘Highlights’ and ‘Rhythm drive’. ‘Sunsets’ used the classical forms, Hindustani and Carnatic, to articulate emotions like “loss, separation, memory and nostalgia”. ‘Highlights’ was an experiment “with harmony” in three Indian ragas in an attempt to capture the joy and exuberance of everyday life. ‘Rhythm drive’ was a coming together of three young and talented percussion artistes based in America, and a tribute of sorts to the layered textures of Indian drums and vocal percussion. 

When IndianRaga’s videos burst onto social media, the classical community lapped them up for their form and feel. For audiences outside that framework, the concept represented the possibility of foraying into classical forms in a manner that made them exciting and accessible.

Dancers on set in Boston Photo Courtesy Anasuya Mandal

A production of ‘Nandi Chol’ at the 2016 Fellowship at MIT in Boston

“Parents and artistes from across North America, who watched these videos, reached out to us, asking how we could create these videos in their cities,” says Emani. An alumnus of the MIT Sloan School of Management, with an undergraduate degree from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Emani worked out a TED/TEDx-like model where local instructors could be trained to run labs that were overseen by people tutored by the central IndianRaga team, and managed by the city partners. In April last year, IndianRaga released the Carnatic redux of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of you’ (‘SoY’), which went viral instantly. With over three million views and 65,000 likes, it continues to trend at the top of the company’s platform. ‘SoY’ was inspired by the release of IndianRaga’s other hit, a Carnatic take on Sia’s ‘Cheap thrills’ that was created for a competition in America, and earned seven million views almost overnight. “I think we were fuelled by the success of ‘Cheap Thrills’ and that, in a sense, was the birth of ‘SoY’,” says Emani.

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Sriram Emani Co-founder and ceo, IndianRaga

Recreating the addictive vibe of the original, ‘SoY’ features three musicians walking through city streets, effortlessly humming complex versions of the pop track in a Carnatic format. “What makes the story of ‘SoY’ interesting is how it was actually produced,” Emani says. “The musicians never met each other. They only shared drafts back and forth.” When the draft was ready, Emani roped in Mumbaibased video editor Karan Bakshi to stitch them together. “You should’ve seen how disparate the individual videos were in terms of lighting, style and colours…I couldn’t believe the final edit when I saw it,” he says.

As of now, IndianRaga has under its umbrella nearly 3,000 artistes from across 40 cities around the world. The company’s success — impacting and inspiring talent, young and old, to imagine and believe in the possibility of realising their artistic dreams — stems from the fact that it is as much a labour of love as it is a business venture

Emani, a student of the arts, who grew up studying Indian classical music, and with a keen interest in experiencing all kinds of art forms, traces the beginnings of his journey to watching The Phantom Of The Opera when he was 22. “I think something sparked in me around that time. I thought about why something so intrinsically powerful like the Indian classical arts had such a limited reach. Five years later, that period of introspection crystallised into the first business plan that I wrote for IndianRaga, as a student at the MIT Media Lab.” There hasn’t been a dull moment since.

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The First Indian Fellows in December 2017 in Mumbai, on the final day of the Fellowship with Sriram Emani and his parents

Three months ago, he launched the India edition of the IndianRaga Fellowship. The response, needless to say, was phenomenal. “From nearly hundreds of applications that came pouring in from India, UAE, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia, we picked 30 musicians and dancers who joined us for a week in December last year to produce 50 collaborations that will be released on social media throughout this year, every week,” he says.

Emani is currently living out of a suitcase as he continues to take IndianRaga to new markets around the world, building creative partnerships and ensuring the Indian classical arts have their spot in the zeitgeist. But the most satisfying experience of his venture, he admits, will always be unearthing “the incredible talent that has remained hidden till now, and finding avenues to showcase them.”

Photographs: Vladimir Weinstein (Hrishikesh Dharam), Anasuya Mandal (Swathi Jaishankar, Vivek Ramanan, Surya Ravi and Earthy Sundar; Sriram Emani)

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