IndianRaga started out as a graduate school project. Now it’s trying to reach a larger audience with its teaching model
Classical music, the world over, is followed only by a few. This is exactly why many of the programmes are aired mostly on publicly supported or government-funded TV and radio stations. With a specific geographical stamp, Indian classical music perhaps becomes even more niche. Yet, there are some who practice or follow it and are passionate and wish for others to experience the joy that they themselves derive from engaging in it.
Often, lay person construes Indian classical music as complex and out of reach, entailing formally dressed performers in staid arenas with strict codes of conduct and behaviour. This is a series that looks at several entities who are rethinking all aspects of the art and its presentation with a view of expanding its listenership and following.
Anyone with even a little interest in Indian classical music has probably come across IndianRaga videos. Ranging from 2-3 minutes to a maximum of 9-10, these are excellent studio recorded music and dance productions. IndianRaga was the idea Sriram Emani wrote up as a business plan for the capstone project for his MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Business. When he made it a reality in 2012, this IIT Bombay alumnus was enacting his childhood desire of making large swathes of population enjoy and be aware of Indian Classical Music.
Setting up the ‘school’
In 2013, Sriram launched the first IndianRaga Fellowship. “In music competitions in India, I noticed that competitors would perform nervously by themselves but never interact with each other. I wanted to change that,” says Sriram on the reason behind setting up the Fellowship.
Getting a Fellowship is a competition, but once selected, Fellows work together to come up with a creative piece to put up on IndianRaga’s YouTube channel and social media handles. In the first three years, IndianRaga sponsored each artiste’s airfare, accommodation, meals and a stipend for three years. Sriram pitched in with significant personal funds too.
Sriram quickly discovered that with no worries about funding, artistes often worked on projects that purely interested them and not on what might ‘take’ with the public. To ensure fellows too owned skin in the game, Sriram came up with a moderate programme fee to be paid by the fellows to be part of the programme. “IndianRaga Labs is now more like a finishing school for artistes. We take care of the entire production – audio, video, editing, publishing, etc.,” points out Sriram.
Making them popular
The fellows of IndianRaga are its most skilled musicians and chances are any IndianRaga video you recall features one or more fellows. The beautifully choreographed videos get millions of views, making stars of some of the fellows and inducing leading classical musicians to willingly collaborate too.
Now, several fellowship cycles take place each year, across three countries and multiple cities, with an acceptance rate of 5 per cent. Fellowship videos are the most expensive to produce but are also IndianRaga’s best marketing avenue. Besides the advertising and ensuring of brand awareness, it brings in new clientele.
IndianRaga now caters to both skilled musicians and absolute beginners – validation via Certification, opportunities to jam with others via RagaJam, competing via monthly thematic competitions with cumulative points and leaderboards, learning and teaching via Raga Labs Academy. Every one of these opportunities requires the participant to pay fees to IndianRaga Labs. Musicians make money when they get called in for live performances based on their videos.
The curriculum and the connection
IndianRaga is a for-profit corporation incorporated in the US. They remain bootstrapped, with just five full-time employees and others on contract. Acquiring new customers is always the hardest part for any company. Raga Labs Academy, their teaching arm, alleviates this issue with a subscription model, and is now the biggest revenue earner for the company. The curriculum includes the connecting of standard lessons to popular music numbers right from the beginning, helping students sustain interest.
A syllabus and curriculum have been set up. However, Sriram’s simple credo to the teachers is just to make the student want to come back for the next class. “In the teachers’ goal to make the student perfect or in their inability to do so, they should not make it a hard experience for the students,” says Sriram about ease of learning in the classes. There is a stringent selection process that aspiring teachers have to go through to meet these requirements.
Sriram’s burning desire for the future is for participants to start composing and writing their own lyrics and some original dance choreography on actual modern-day problems. “This generation does not relate to traditional bhakti era compositions. They are also very patriarchal.” He refers to some dance productions they did – the story of a transgender person conveyed through Bharatnatyam, one on mental health and another on the reception of a cancer diagnosis by the patient, the spouse and the doctor. He is also looking at pitch detection algorithms to facilitate understand the concept of sruti by tone-deaf individuals.
Off the Beaten Track is a series that looks at several entities who are rethinking all aspects of Carnatic music and its presentation to popularise the art form globally. Click here to read more in this series.
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