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Composer-Singer Vinod Krishnan on Fusion and Indian Classical Music’s Relevance

The Chennai-born artist, who is creative director at popular education start-up and video channel IndianRaga, talks about how he crossed genres

Anurag Tagat Jun 04, 2019

Indian composer, producer and educator Vinod Krishnan. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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For his latest Tamil release, Chennai-bred, Minnesota-based composer, singer and producer Vinod Krishnan decided to call on San Antonio, Texas-based dancer Sophia Salingaros to choreograph ballet and bharatnatyam for his love song “Ninnaye Rathi Endru.”

Krishnan – who has collaborated with the likes of singer Vijay Prakash – also called on Texas A&M University’s Swaram A Cappella group, led by Akshara Parashar, for harmonies that punctuate the song. If that’s not modern enough a mélange for you, “Ninnaye Rathi Endru” also features lyrics by Tamil freedom fighter-poet Subramania Bharathi.

This is Krishnan’s world and it’s not surprising that he’s also involved with IndianRaga, an arts education startup which also boasts 273,000 YouTube subscribers and over 40 million total views for their mash-ups and fusion songs that often feature unique choreography in different parts of the world. Just last month, Krishnan teamed up with violinist Akash Gururaja to cover Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” and mash it up with A.R. Rahman’s “Nadiye,” from the 2000 Tamil film Rhythm. Krishnan says over the phone, “We decided to pick a frozen waterfall and it was -17 degrees Celsius and it was interesting.” Just as interesting is IndianRaga’s clickbait title for the video: “Carnatic Music in -17 degrees Celsius | How did they do it?”

While IndianRaga was set up at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in the U.S., Krishnan was a senior fellow invited to work with other artists in 2016. The following year, he was invited back as creative director and mentored over 30 teams to create different art productions. “I give them creative direction on their videos and in general what steps they can take to bring in more aspiring artists and collaborate. That’s really what they’re trying to do – create a platform for aspiring artists to step up and engage in creating innovative content,” Krishnan says. In April 2017, he created a “New Age Carnatic” version of Ed Sheeran’s hit “Shape of You,” which was streamed by senior citizens and millennials alike, currently standing at 6.8 million views.

Aiming to be a full-time independent musician (he’s currently working in UX design), Krishnan has been figuring out how fusion, Indian classical and Carnatic music can be inclusive as it rolls into a future where traditional music is still fighting for acceptance. In an interview with Rolling Stone India, Krishnan talks about his influences, dealing with purists and marketing music. Excerpts:

When did you realize the international potential of Indian classical music? Was there any incident or moment that sparked that?

I’ve always had that sentiment in my mind, right from my late teens. I’m trained in Indian classical – I know the heritage, richness, depth and variety of the culture. I’m not putting down other genres of music, but simply just the way other genres have been received with so much inclusiveness – if you see reggae or R&B, they’re fully respected in ecosystems like iTunes or Apple Music. It’s a proper well-defined unit by itself but there’s nothing for Indian classical music.

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It gets bundled up as folk music, it’s been a pinpoint in my heart for a long time. When IndianRaga came along, I thought, ‘This is it. There’s no better way to take Indian classical music to a wider audience.’

It’s two-pronged – there’s a younger generation that’s being exposed to so many genres that a classical musician has to work twice or three times harder to not be ignored. It can be packaged in a way that they find interesting.

Some people might say you’re diluting it, but whatever artform you have, unless you deliver it to the audience you’re trying to reach in a way that they’ll appreciate it, there’s no way the artform will grow and gain wider acceptance. That’s part of my mission. I want more people to appreciate what Indian classical music has to offer. It’s in no way less than what any other genre has to offer.

Traditional music now more than ever, is being loved even when it’s contemporized – by old and young. Where do you think that comes from?

Every genre of music has a certain boundary that defines it. If you sing a particular melody in one style, it becomes classical music. If you sing it in a different style, it becomes pop music. It helps you define styles of music, but you can afford to bend the boundary a little bit to see how much it mixes.

There’s no formula for it, because sometimes it’s like oil and water, and other times, it’s like sugar and water. It entirely lies at the discretion of the artists who are combining different genres of music to see what is pleasant to the ear.

Of course, with time, I can’t predict how the tastes of audiences will change, but that’s the best part of being a musician who’s trying to mix two genres. You’re constantly being forced to come up with new ways of redefining the aesthetic.

How do you deal with purists?

It’s still a form of criticism. If you go to any of my YouTube videos, there’s always a healthy mix of both in terms of comments that say, ‘Oh this is so wonderful’ and ‘This is nonsense, why did you do this?’ I also see who’s giving the feedback – if it’s an established (classical) musician, I get where they’re coming from, because to them this is blasphemy.

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I don’t know what their (purists) motivation is to reach the next generation, but for me, I see young kids’ variety of music interest and think, ‘There’s plenty to distract them away from Indian classical music.’  The formula that was in place when I was a kid was your parents would drag you to a class and say, ‘Nothing doing. You’re doing this class.’ You have no say in it. The difference today is that kids will question you about it. If you want the artform to flourish, you have to take it to them (kids).

You have an interest in multiple genres – where did that come from?

I grew up listening to A.R. Rahman growing up. I somehow felt his aesthetic of mixing different genres was very appealing. Rightfully so, because the majority of his albums have been phenomenal hits. Especially when he got into movies like Roja, Bombay and Dil Se.., it was new sounds for everybody. Once I came to college in Chennai, my seniors were training to be professional musicians, introduced me to Illaiyaraaja, another South Indian music giant. My other friends from college introduced me to Bollywood giants like R.D. Burman and I used to see how those composers were dealt with. Everyone was breaking ground at the time. Another Tamil composer, M.S. Viswanathan, is known for bringing rock and pop, rock and roll, swing… all of those genres into film music.

When we went into all that, it was strange that it was all commercially successful. You don’t find this with musicians in other countries, who’ve done this to this extent. It’s an established career path for so many in India for decades. If you’re good enough to become a composer, people will expect you to mix genres like this.

As an artist who is also an entrepreneur, are there some tough decisions you had to make in the course of setting up IndianRaga?

I wouldn’t say tug-of-war, but it was more instances of my irreverence being put down. If someone is a marketing specialist and they tell me about how to label my video or do something for more traction and engagement, I’m all for it. The way YouTube and other medias work and change their algorithms, it drives everybody nuts. It’s always a learning curve for me, because it’s a full-time job in itself. That’s what I like about IndianRaga as well – they’re open to dialog.

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