Since it washed over the planet in early 2017, Ed Sheeran’s infectious and beautiful ‘Shape of You’ has become as much a staple of the music scene as a new food fad – enhanced, added to, fused and turned over innumerable times.
The song has been covered as many times as it has been downloaded – some to forgettable effect, others to utterly memorable.
Among the most memorable is the Carnatic Mix created by Indian Raga, a creative venture based at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology co-founded by Sriram Emani, a graduate of the Institute.
It is a surprising and utterly enchanting marriage between ancient Carnatic musical traditions and quintessentially popular music, composed by Mahesh Raghavan and magically vocalized by Aditya Rao and Vinod Krishnan.
What has made the track truly transcend all other similar covers is how it has now been adopted by purveyors of Indian culture in the UK – not least classical and folk dancers who have found in its idyllic marriage of East and West the perfect ingredient to take their own ancient Eastern traditions to new audiences in the West.
Much of the song’s success is down to Vinod Krishnan, a man whose scholarly appearance not only belies a remarkable vocal talent but a centuries old vocal tradition.
We caught up with Vinod to talk about Indian Raga and his other life, which is as unexpected as a Carnatic mix of ‘Shape of You’.
HOW DID YOU COME ACROSS INDIAN RAGA?
I was a senior fellow in the IndianRaga fellowship 2016. I have been invited to their 2017 fellowship as creative director, based on my work last year.
WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING?
I am into software design – I specialize in user experience design, a field that deals with designing the appearance and behavior of software products. I have a masters in computer science with a research focus on human computer interaction.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR MUSICAL BACKGROUND.
I am a carnatic vocalist, pianist, composer, arranger, and music educator. I’ve been learning Carnatic vocal since I was 4 years. I teach, collaborate with other musicians, dancers and dance companies, compose for dance productions as well. I’ve arranged and composed tracks on IndianRaga that have gone viral.
TELL US ABOUT THE PROCESS OF ADAPTING ED SHEERAN’S SONG.
Aditya Rao, Mahesh, Sriram and I got on a google hangout to brainstorm ideas for us to collaborate as musicians. Aditya suggested doing something carnatic with shape of you, so I composed a carnatic template, Aditya added on to it, Mahesh provided the background music and mixed it. and voila! Of course we had multiple rounds of improvements, feedback and suggestions over email, Whatsapp and Facebook messenger.
HOW SURPRISED ARE YOU BY HOW THE SONG WENT VIRAL AND HOW’S THAT IMPACTED ON YOUR LIFE?
I was expecting it would go close to half a million at least, but didn’t expect we’d receive 3 million views in the first 3 days. That was just fabulous. We realized that if your song selection is novel, then the audience is willing to listen if it’s done tastefully. Our team has gotten a lot of press and media coverage and more importantly more requests for collaboration. We have earned some more credibility now. More artists of high caliber are reaching out wanting to collaborate. This gives us some clarity on what clicks with large audiences and what constitutes a genuine fusion vs. just something just run of the mill.
IS THERE A DANGER THAT BY DOING THESE COVERS IN THE INDIAN CLASSICAL STYLE YOU’RE LIMITING YOURSELVES CREATIVELY OR ARE YOU CONFIDENT OF OPENING UP EASTERN CLASSICAL MUSIC TO WIDER AUDIENCES?
This is one example we tried to
(a) introduce Indian classical music to audiences that haven’t paid attention to it
(b) show how carnatic music is cool to millennial Indians and Indian kids who think otherwise
(c) set a tasteful example on how to fuse different genres to create something refreshingly new and innovative.
I’ve had random parents and grandparents writing to me, texting me saying their kids and grandkids now want to learn Carnatic music. Nobody said that when I did pure classical productions. You have to make it relevant to the audience you are trying to appeal to. This is like our grandmothers mixing all bitter but healthy foods with honey and ghee and fooling us saying it’s dessert Sometimes you have to do it with adult audiences too. When you are singing for others, audience is king, but they are also like children – you have to guide them.
Doing something like this doesn’t limit us creatively. This happened only because we weren’t creatively constrained. You need to have that distance with the art form where you can be involved with it completely without any entanglement or identification. You should see other more classical pieces of IndianRaga. Really high standards of carnatic and hindustani music.
I still learn carnatic music from my guru and so does Aditya, I still give concerts, compose and sing for bharatanatyam productions, and listen to Carnatic music stalwarts and contemporaries everyday. We are in touch with our art form and yet not bound by it. It’s my basis, not my bondage. That’s what allows us to see how it can mingle with other genres. We had to do this piece to draw attention so people will go see our other work that has more classical elements. We are gaining traction in people’s music preferences.
It’s a slow process, but as artists I feel it is also our role to help the audiences mature by providing content like this that wouldn’t happen otherwise. You cant wait for the audience to mature and then try something new. You won’t be contemporary then. There may be a few who may not like our work, but we are hoping to win them over with our classical productions. You cannot please everyone all the time. We are aware of that.
ANY PLANS TO COLLABORATE WITH OTHER “MAINSTREAM” MUSICIANS AND SINGERS IN THE US OR ELSEWHERE?
Following this production, we do have several requests for collaborations from many artists. With the fellowship coming up in July and us having taken up collaborative work with newer artists, you can see more work from us in different genres. We are always open to invitations to collaborate or perform and are happy to see how to make that work.