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Of ragas and cheap thrills

Published : Oct 22, 2016, 11:02 pm IST
Updated : Oct 22, 2016, 11:02 pm IST

When another cover of Sia’s popular song, Cheap Thrills, was doing its rounds on social media, it didn’t seem like something to go gaga over. But, a little deliberation revealed something special.

A still from the video
 A still from the video

When another cover of Sia’s popular song, Cheap Thrills, was doing its rounds on social media, it didn’t seem like something to go gaga over. But, a little deliberation revealed something special. Carnatic melodies with instruments such as the mridangam, violin and ghatam, perfectly accompany western lyrics, is taking the already hit song up several notches. The musicians belong to Indian Raga, a 21st century arts-education platform, founded at MIT, to help students learn and perform the arts.

Sriram Emani, the founder of Indian Raga, tells us how this cover came about, “We were thinking of capturing the attention of young audiences, when Mahesh Raghvan, the music director for the piece and creative director, and I decided that adding an Indian element to a global hit song would be a fun start. Neha Pullela, the lead singer, has an exceptional voice, and I knew she would be perfect for the song. We got the rest of the team together in Boston and rehearsed. The rest is history!”

“I’ve done quite a few desi covers, but this was my first with a full Carnatic band. We didn’t think whether this would be successful or not, but were really happy with the outcome and the creative satisfaction we got out of it,” admits Mahesh Raghvan.

For Neha Pullela, the lead singer, whose voice captured the hearts of audiences worldwide, Carnatic music was something she respected. She discovered that her interest lays in singing Western pop songs — “I started my YouTube channel, ThatTeluguChick, and later applied for the Indian Raga fellowship. When the idea to perform alongside the team was pitched to me, I immediately knew it would be an experience like no other.”

She goes on to say, “Personally, as a Western musician, I prefer to do classical versions of Western songs. There is a lot of potential in that kind of crossover style music, and it’s a relatively unexplored avenue. I believe that Carnatic music lends itself very well to this kind of collaboration, due to the sheer flexibility of the music style.”

She also says that she would love to tour India and sing across the country, especially in Hyderabad, where her grandparents reside.

Neha’s brother, Naren, accompanied her on the mridangam, which he has been playing for three years now. “Although my sister and I are pursuing two different genres of music, I believe the mridangam and tabla can be easily adapted to accompany western music. So, both of us have been experimenting for a while. Neha and I further realised that we could even embellish and provide a distinct Carnatic flavor to the rendition of western songs, by clapping out the underlying rhythmic beat (thalam), dressing like Carnatic musicians, playing thirmanams (3 cycle percussive endings), doing percussive trades (ghatam and mridangam, etc.) and a short raga alaap at the beginning.” He further says that he would love to cover Like a G6 by The Far East Movement, One Dance by Drake and When I’m Gone from the movie Pitch Perfect.

“It’s always a risk to put a spin on a popular song because it’s hard to tell how it will be understood, but I saw it as an opportunity to collaborate with talented musicians and create something magical that represents our Indo-American culture,” starts the violinist for the song, Sushmita Ravishanker. “I think classical versions of both Western and Carnatic songs are important to maintain the roots of the music. However, music is the only language that is universal and can be understood by everyone. Thus, collaborating in fusion music is essential to bridge different styles and identities, and it is an opportunity for me to share what little I know of Carnatic music with others in a way that can be understood and appreciated by people who are not well versed in this music,” she adds.

The young ghatam player in the video, Ananth Kumar, started playing Carnatic music when he attended his first concert in this genre. He says he did not expect the video to be such a huge success, “I know there are many covers of the song online but I think ours was unique. Almost all the reactions we’ve received so far, have been positive and it made us feel good about ourselves and our music. I’d love to explore this type of music more since this was my first time covering a classical version of a western song. I look forward to making more covers.”