British singer Adele’s Hello from her 2015 album 25 created a flutter when its haunting piano interlude was replaced by sounds of the flute, tanpura and nadaswaram. Hello had gone Carnatic, and Adele had become Adeleshwari. Mahesh Raghvan, creator of this unlikely fusion, meted out the same for the theme song of Game of Thrones.
Previously, Chennai-based musician Krish Ashok—using the Raga Keeravani—had attempted a Carnatic adaptation and improvisation of Adele’s Skyfall from the James Bond movie soundtrack. Western music is getting an Indian classical flavour and listeners are wired right into it.
Composer Ram Sampath and his singer wife Sona Mohapatra did an interesting musical collaboration and blended varying genres of music on MTV Coke Studio. They are the few who have taken fusion across new boundaries. Ram says he has always had a soft spot for music that fuses cultures, even if it doesn’t fall into the fusion genre, like what The Beatles did in their 1965 masterpiece, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown). Many years ago, Ram had attempted a fusion track with Australian rock band INXS. “While working on our version of their song Afterglow, I tried to interpret its emotion from an urban Indian perspective, so we wrote a whole new verse in Hindi, re-arranged the rhythms of the song and introduced a sargam in the solo. The band loved our version,” says Ram, who has just completed the score for the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raees.
The idea is not new. Way back in the 60s, sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar taught and inspired The Beatles’ George Harrison to play the sitar in Norwegian Wood. Ravi Shankar also collaborated with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, besides participating in the Woodstock festival in 1969, which took Indian music onto the global stage.
With the Internet shrinking the world and piggybacking on technology, music has no boundaries. Be it western instruments taking precedence in a folk song or a thumri, or the sitar and the tabla in a jazz rendition, musicians are thriving on experimentation. Part of this change is being fuelled by the demands of the listening populace, mainly youngsters who—while contemptuous of the old traditional music—are eager to embrace a new sound.
Self-taught musician Tushar Lall is one of the exponents of this new musical synergy. Around two years ago, the 22-year-old fan of Game of Thrones gave its theme song an Indian classical touch using the tabla, flute and keyboards. “I think I was the first to try this kind of fusion. A bunch of my friends and I shot the video and put it on the Internet, where it received an overwhelming response,” says Tushar who just has to listen to a piece to reproduce it. He grew up listening to western classical music but his friends’ influence—who were deeply into Indian classical—prevailed. A big fan of British rock band Coldplay, Tushar churned out his version of their song Fix You, which is “emotionally evocative and touches one in a lot of ways”.
Tuch before the Carnatic version of the Adele cover made Mahesh a rage on the Internet, his productions were targeted at a very niche audience. Aiming for a wider reach, Mahesh started doing Carnatic style covers of Western pieces. “Presenting Western tunes in an Indian way is one way of presenting Indian classical music to a wide audience, as not all of them might be keen on listening to the art in its pure form,” he says.
While introducing himself to the class during one of his lectures at Edinburgh University, he played his Game of Thrones cover and was surprised that most of them had already heard it. Mahesh recently added his version of Pirates of the Caribbean theme to his list, and got requests for an Indian version of Harry Potter’s theme song and a few Carnatic pieces.
Cheap Thrills by Australian artist Sia reined at the top of the charts ever since it made its debut this year. But to hear it being played on the veena? That’s the handiwork of the veena-playing sister-duo Aranya and Athiya, who were introduced to the instrument when they were seven and nine years old respectively by their Carnatic vocalist mother. “We did the Cheap Thrills cover in a short time, posting it after an hour of arranging the piece. We never thought we would get such a whopping response,” says Aranya. “We try out anything that we really like and might sound interesting to play on the veena.” This kind of fusion will create interest among the young, especially where Carnatic music and Indian classical is concerned, chorus the sisters. “Indian classical music is something that everyone can enjoy. We wouldn’t be experimenting and mixing styles without learning Carnatic music,” says Athiya.
A career in IT with frequent travels abroad meant that Krish had to settle for being a quasi-musician. He might have learned the violin under duress, but acquired decent playing skills under Carnatic music violinist T N Krishnan and other gurus. During his sojourns abroad, he got acquainted with the guitar and the cello. In the last couple of years, his fusion pieces such as the Game of Thrones theme, Darth Vaadhiar, Riders on the Auto, Daft Pankajam, his adaptation of black metal into the Sanskrit Loha Purusha and Adele’s Skyfall set to a Carnatic raga, have made Krish popular on the Internet. “Classical music has never been pristine or totally unchanged. It is completely different from what it was 60 or 70 years ago. Musicians such as R D Burman, Ilayaraja and A R Rahman have been performing fusion for long. It is only that fusion is happening in classical music that has got everyone’s attention now,” says Krish.
A fusion piece he attempted turned into a funny experience. “I had adapted a German parody of wedding vows, ‘Du Hast’ (You have), peppered with ‘nein’ (no) into Sanskrit when I got a call from someone who wanted to use it for a wedding. I told him that the meaning in the song was quite otherwise and did not suit the occasion. He retorted that nobody understood Sanskrit anyway,” laughs Krish. The Sanskritised version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, or as Krish says, Farewell to Vaikuntha, is next on the cards.
Through their band Maati Baani (song of the earth), Hindustani vocalist Nirali Kartik and her composer husband Kartik Shah have repositioned Hindustani classical music, fusing with the latter folk styles and new-age sounds. The result is a unique sound in collaboration with over 100 musicians, bringing to the fore musical instruments—Indian, mid-eastern and western. Nirali’s formal musical training might be in strict contrast to her husband’s natural musical talent, but that has probably worked in their favour. “Learning Hindustani as a child, I am happy to play around ragas and notes. Young audiences are not able to appreciate the beauty of it or the dynamics of Indian classical music. Kartik is a wonderful music producer who knows how to present it to the audience not used to listening to classical music,” says Nirali. Kartik adds that they like to combine musical elements of cultures. “Some instruments are so rare that they are in danger of being endangered. Our formula is that we have no formula, we are open to anything, from hard core classical to bandish to French,” he says.
American clarinettist and music composer Shankar Tucker’s name implies fusion. The name ‘Shankar’ was accorded to him by Mata Amritanandamayi as a child. Shrutibox, a compilation of Internet music videos composed, recorded, performed and directed by him, combines Indian classical music with jazz and pop.
Shankar has collaborated with young Carnatic and Hindustani vocalists and instrumentalists such as Nirali, Mahesh Vinayakram, Rohan Kymal, Shweta Subram and sisters Vidya and Vandana Iyer. It’s a collaboration that has worked well for Vidya and Vandana, who feature a lot in Shankar’s music videos, especially Vidya, who has been ruling YouTube with her songs in English, Hindi and Tamil. “Shrutibox is an absolutely phenomenal series and it showed how beautiful fusion music can be,” she says.
Indo-western mash-ups have produced an imaginative fusion and Vidya Iyer’s is the voice that effortlessly straddles two musical worlds. Not that mash-up is a novel idea; it had gained infamy in America stirring up copyright debates and being labelled bootleg. The imaginative twists to music, not the jarring remixes (jhankar beats), make Indo-western mash-ups popular.
Vidya, who grew up in the US, says, “Often home and school felt like two separate worlds. I’d be listening to A R Rahman and singing Carnatic kritis and bhajans at home, but in school I’d be listening to Destiny’s Child and Shakira. I always wanted to find a middle ground, to marry the two worlds together,” says Vidya, whose How Deep is Your Love/Balam Pichkari, Love Me Like You Do/Hosanna, Lean On/Jind Mahi, Blank Space/Mental Manadhil and All of Me/Main Hoon Hero Tera mash-ups on her website VidyaVox are very popular.
Another singer with whom Shankar collaborated with for Shrutibox is Canada-based Shweta Subram. Well versed in Carnatic and Hindustani, Shweta begun to learn music when she was just five. “The younger generation loves listening to pop songs mashed up with Bollywood numbers,” she says. Her recent collaboration with The Piano Guys (Don’t You Worry Child by Swedish Mafia House and Khushnuma, which is her own composition) was an instant success. “My collaboration with The Piano Guys was serendipity. They loved my contribution and ideas, and we instantly created a successful piece together. The video has crossed 16 million views online,” gushes Shweta, who is also the youngest artist to perform at Carnegie Hall.
Tushar believes the current generation is not interested in Indian classical music. “Direct the audience to a 60-minute sarangi recital and they get bored. But when I used the same instrument in the Pirates of the Caribbean theme, listeners wanted to know more about the instrument and even learn it,” he says.
That explains why Western numbers like Sia’s Cheap Thrills and Ellie Goulding’s Love Me Like You Do (by N S Wageshan) played on the veena have such online hits. “The beautiful stringed instrument might hold appeal for only those who are capable of enjoying the music,” says Tushar. Adds Mahesh: “A lot of people might not learn it these days, but there are great artists such as Rajesh Vaidhya who are promoting the instrument in innovative ways and making great music with it.”
Indian musicians such as Aranya believe that musical genres such as EDM, pop and hip-hop are completely engulfing the Indian global culture. “People miss and yearn for a more soothing and natural sound. That’s where I think instruments like the veena will shine and capture people’s ears,” she says.
Niladri Kumar, a fifth-generation sitarist, created his ode to fusion, the zitar, an electric sitar. “The need to be able to communicate the sound or the voice of a musician through an established tune is something which has been done for decades, so I don’t think it’s a recent trend or phenomenon,” says Niladri, who was, just four years old when he began learning the sitar from his father Kartick Kumar.
Ram believes it will take more than cover versions to garner genuine interest among future generations as the reverence for traditional music is diminishing.
While Indianising Western music might have got the vote of listeners, especially youngsters, purists must be frowning. Mahesh admits that he knows plenty of people who don’t appreciate any kind of ‘adulteration’, but things they are a changin’ quickly. Krish adds that it anchors to one version of nostalgia and the best artists have never been purists. The veena sisters duo admit to dealing with this dilemma as musicians. “What will our gurus and mentors think? Will no one take us seriously? We respect everyone’s opinions and agree that the traditions of Indian classical music should be preserved. However, we also believe there’s room for experimentation and evolution in music,” says Aranya. Niladri sums it up. “Each musician of any genre performing is like they are praying through their music. Can anyone say one’s prayer is greater than someone else's prayer?”