We use the cliché about ‘necessity’ and ‘invention’ ad nauseum, but at no time has it seemed as relevant as now, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Social media has been blowing up almost every day with collaborations between writers, filmmakers, singers, dancers — artistic innovations that encompass works of inspiration, fun, power and reach. In February, Toronto-based singer-songwriter-composer Abby V’s take on Vogue ’s 73 questions, where he replaced celebrity revelations with ragas, raked in over 3 lakh views. A month later, pianist (and student of Brooklyn College MM) Harrison Sheckler’s efforts to spread cheer — bringing together 300 artistes from 15 countries to re-imagine the song You’ll Never Walk Alone , from the musical Carousel — has been watched nearly 7 lakh times on YouTube. And let’s not forget projects like The Bangalore Collective’s Hindi and English cover of Michael Jackson’s Heal the World (with names like fashion designer Sounak Sen Barat of House of Three pitching in) or Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra’s From Us, For You , a goose-bump inducing video that reinforced the power of innovation.
Needless to say, for the audience, lockdown has been a surprisingly great opportunity to catch potential works-in-progress, mini-projects, bursts of explorations, full-length albums, and a series of experiments that defy the limitations of social distancing. Here are a few performing arts experiments from across the globe that you will enjoy. And, yes, all of them plan to keep at it even post lockdown.
Rithvik Raja and group
Six artistes — Rithvik Raja (vocalist), Vittal Rangan (violinist), Sumesh Narayanan (percussionist), Shweta Prachande (dancer), MT Aditya Srinivasan (sound engineer) and Susha (visual artist) — from the four disciplines of music, dance, art and sound have come together for this album. Short for Work from Home, the collab is the culmination of artistic experiments as performers grappled with being housebound. “I remember singing a song eight times to get it right — to get used to capturing the emotions while sitting alone in a locked room, but being sensitive to the fact that a world will consume it soon,” says Raja. #WFH is also a statement to support creative work during these uncertain times for performing arts. And though they were limited by the technology available at home, Raja says that it was a learning curve “to appreciate creative ways of using what we have and finding solutions for things that can seem unattainable”. Downloadable on gumroad.com, for approximately ₹1,500.
The Mridangam Explorative
“I’ve always been conflicted about teaching beginners the basics of mridangam over a digital platform,” says the percussion artiste. “I wondered what the relationship would be like between the commitment of the student, the patience of the teacher, and the pros and cons of the medium.” But the last few weeks gave the Chennai-based artiste some much-need time to sieve through his ideas and create The Mridangam Explorative , a three-part YouTube tutorial that sheds light on the fundamentals of the instrument, while keeping in mind the eclectic nature of those who’d tune in to learn. The first 53-minute module — which breaks down the form of the mridangam and takes viewers through a simple rhythmic cycle, step by step — went up on his YouTube channel on May 6. It has already got over 1,600 views; the second module will go live next week. “At the end of the three modules, you will understand that this is merely a drop in the ocean, but it is also enough to get you to appreciate the potential of rhythm, and the instrument, a little more.” Watch it free on youtube.com/praveenkishen.
Performing in gardens, living rooms, terraces and home studios, renowned dancers from around the world answered Sarabhai’s call to create “something that was truly representative of the liberating nature of dance”. “I have always felt that artistes must co-operate and not compete with each other,” says the Ahmedabad-based classical dancer and actress, explaining how she reached out to performers young and old, across dance styles, to share a 30-second clip each. On May 2, the video with 24 dancers — set to the beats of percussionist Tanmoy Bose’s Rivulets of Innocence, and featuring names like Kathak dancer Kumudini Lakhia, Kathakali artiste VP Dhananjayan, and contemporary dance Mandeep Raikhy — went up on Darpana Academy of Performing Arts’ YouTube channel (jayrajdarpana). Directed and edited by Sarabhai’s colleague, Yadavan Chandran, the experience was challenging primarily because many artistes were unfamiliar using recording technology. “But we went back and forth and made it happen over four weeks,” she says, reiterating how the present is a time to be “together and demonstrate a spirit of belonging, to be able to weather this catastrophe”.
Dayal wanted to create something “diligent and honest” during lockdown, but writing a song felt preachy. “So I settled for a cover and Dil Se [his milestone track from the 1998 Mani Ratnam film] was the obvious choice,” he says. Setting May 13, his birthday, as the deadline, he began working alone, until he saw an Insta live with Bengaluru-based duo, Bryden & Parth. “I DM-ed them and two minutes later, we were on a video call deciding how to do the project together,” he says. “The next day, I recorded my parts — playing the ukulele and the vocals — and, in a day, they added theirs.” But the track still felt incomplete. So, a day before the launch of the video, he decided to layer it with dance. Dayal reached out to Rukmini Vijayakumar, the Bengaluru-based classical and contemporary dancer, who shot her sequence, dancing on her terrace, in less than 24 hours. “The movement came from what the music made me feel,” says Vijayakumar, adding that this was her first time doing Bharatanatyam for a Bollywood track. Catch the video on YouTube.
A cappella by Abby
If you are tracking interesting virtual experiments, you’ve probably heard of Abby V. His 73 Ragas with Abby — a musical video inspired by Vogue ’s 73 questions, where he segues between ragas — went viral in February. Now he’s taking on A cappella. “Growing up in North America, I’ve always tried to bring together my South Asian and American backgrounds in my music,” says the Toronto-based artiste. But arranging Indian music rooted in the classical in an A cappella format is challenging. A song like Kuhu Kuhu Bole Koyaliya , for example, is set to unique scales that make it difficult to harmonise. “The harmonies have to be planned very strategically to heighten the emotion without taking away the authenticity of the raag,” he explains, adding, “While vocalising the percussive elements, it is important to stay within the mood of the song and not stray from the subtlety of the original composition.” It takes him a week to create one track (two songs are on his YouTube page), and now that he has realised the potential of being self-sufficient as an artiste, it “helps to execute my ideas without dependency”.
Nirali Kartik and Kartik Shah
Hindustani vocalist Nirali Kartik and composer-music producer Kartik Shah of Maati Baani went live with Karpur Gauram (meaning ‘Language of the Earth’ and first created in 2011 for the TV show, Devon Ke Dev... Mahadev ) in the first week of May. The project brings together 17 musicians from Covid-hit countries in one song, in an attempt to spread hope and “energise people”. “We wanted to have a vibrant set of musicians from Italy, Israel, USA, Switzerland, the UK, Argentina, Spain and Russia, whose music blends with Nirali’s unique vocal style,” says Shah. “We were also keen on a heavy percussion section.”
The song, which took 20 days from start to finish, features a string section, harp, Indian slide guitar, and a taiko (made from a biryani vessel!). “The highpoint for us was to see non-Indian musicians playing Indian classical instruments,” adds Kartik. The song — which is in sync with their musical personality that marries classical and folk music with a contemporary aesthetic — is a reiteration of the importance for innovation in music and “how technology can bring cultures together”. Catch it on youtube.com/Maatibaani
Madurai R Muralidaran
25 Days Varnam Challenge
During the second week of lockdown, Muralidaran decided to write a varnam every day, for 25 days. Every evening, the Chennai-based musician, dancer and composer would send a draft to a young musician (from India, Canada and Germany to New Zealand). “I was keen to create a diverse range of ragams , talams , themes and moods. I also wanted to pick singers who’d do justice to them,” he says. “The biggest challenge was time zones. Just as I’d finish writing and sit down to dinner, I’d be inundated with calls, for clarifications on poetry, modulations, expressions.” The experiment had him working non-stop for 20 hours every day. Muralidaran personally edited each of the voice tracks before sharing it with his veena and violin artistes, who added the instrumental layer. The response to what he calls “his humble contribution to the field of Bharatanatyam” has been overwhelming. You can watch the videos on his Facebook page, facebook.com/pg/madurai.r.muralidaran.
When lockdown put an end to live events, Venkateswaran, of Chennai-based record label MadRasana, turned to Instagram (@madrasana), curating Carnatic concerts under his Gridlock series. But recently, during a chat with veena artiste, Ramana Balachandra, from Bengaluru, he pitched a more offbeat idea: layering classical singing and the veena, much like English singer-composer Jacob Collier. The result: Somemukhapriya. Set in the framework of the classical ragam, it interprets and unifies the ragam’s many facets as 48 tracks. “It was a four-week-long process, but an exciting one. I had to learn the full suite of video editing on Premiere Pro from scratch [he also roped in percussion artiste and sound engineer, MT Aditya Srinivasan, to help],” he says. The learning has opened up many possibilities — expect a video with Yuji Nakagawa, a sarangi player from Japan, next.
Composing his newest project wasn’t tough; it was zeroing in on the poetry that took time. “Sanskrit is one of my favourite languages. I spent a lot of time discussing the lyrics — for what I wanted to become an ode of sorts to this pandemic — with a friend and scholar,” says the classical musician and playback singer, who shot to fame in 2010 with Airtel Super Singer Season 3 . Once the poetry fell into place for Sukhino Bhavantu (Sanskrit for ‘may all beings be happy and free’), composing took exactly an hour. “I wanted to layer the song with two ragams : one that represented the idea of prosperity and the other evocative of prayer.” The vocals were layered with music by Ravi G (keys and bass), Saurabh Joshi (tabla and percussion) and Rangapriya (violin). “The challenge was the video,” he admits. “We couldn’t use the outdoors much and had to shoot on our mobile cameras. But since most collab videos have been using the grid format, we decided to keep it simple too.” Since its launch on May 15, the video has hit almost 2,000 views and is getting positive feedback from classical music artistes.
Berklee India Exchange
Dil Chahta Hai
What began as an attempt by the Berklee India Exchange (BIX) team to garner support for artistes on the lower end of the economic ladder — reaching out to students and alumni of Berklee Indian Ensemble, and influencers — culminated in an epic collaboration featuring 112 artistes from across 21 countries. “ Dil Chahta Hai is one of India’s most iconic youth anthems. BIX had created a fresh arrangement in 2016, with a distinct Snarky Puppy influence , and invited Shankar Mahadevan to perform it during his Berklee residency. But we never created a video,” says Annette Philio, Artistic Director, BIX. “During lockdown, the song took on a whole new meaning, especially once we invited our global collaborators to share their messages of hope, resilience and optimism.”
A labour of love, the project was put together in five weeks “filled with sleepless nights, in collaboration with the video editing team from BToS Productions lead by Nazeef Mohammed”. The proceeds from the video , which has over 4.7 lakh views, have been given to two Indian foundations that are doing quality work supporting marginalised artistes. Watch it on youtube.com/BerkleeCollege