Tag Archives: Music

Swara in Hindustani Classical Music

The usage of the two words swara and raag in music are the symbols of delight. For the simplest of definitions, swara is the interaction of breath with musical notes and tone.

The correct swara is an infallible weapon that pares a path for emancipation. The concepts of swara are applied to the Indian khayal system. Deep like an ocean and omnipresent like a sky, swara plunges into the depth of imagination of the singer. 

According to Patanjali, “swayam rajante iti swarah” which means “swaras are those which embellish themselves.”

Sharngadeva while defining the swara states “swatah ranjayati shrotractittam sa swara uchyate” which translates to “that which spontaneously muses the minds of the listeners is called swara.”

When the soul wishes to express its thoughts, it prompts the mind. Subsequently, the mind ignites the fire of the body and this fire propels the air. This air situated in Brahamagranthi in ascends to the heart, throat, and head ultimately reaching into the mouth from where this air merges in the form of sound. This sound is none other than Swara.

Swara is very subtle. It contains a secret meaning hence its manifestation of sentiments can not be grasped by just anyone. Just as the sound of the mystical Om is heard only by a person having divine or superb knowledge so he only can relish the gravity of the swara.

Defining swara is beyond the expression of words.

The swara, as integrated with the feelings of high order sentiments, elevates the pleasure of the singer and the listener. Similarly, if these swaras are composed with inferior and graded words, they degenerate the singer and the listener, alike. The wise go beyond the expression of words, delve into the depth of swara and rejoice like a saint who in deep meditation (Samadhi).

 The swaras of a raag adopt a number of forms. In a bandish, there is gravitation, anti-gravitation, and contraction of one swara with the other.

For the creation of art, most important for a musician is the concentration of mind; s/he is visualizing the secrets of swaras and establishing a sequence and coordination.

In the art of music, raag is an embodiment. To compose a raag, the musician practices the swaras. S/he establishes a sequence among the swaras. With these salient features, the composition of a raag is the aesthetic beauty of music.


Dr. Abhay Dubey is an Assistant Professor of Indian Classical Vocal Music for 10 years at The M.S. University of Baroda in Gujarat, and previously as a Lecturer at Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidhyalaya. He has performed for many years and published 4 books on the topic of Indian Classical Music. Contact him here: 91 -9510244455 .


 

Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)

‘I Was Told to Tone Down My Ethnicity to be Successful in America’ Notes Raja Kumari

Indian-American rapper, songwriter, and singer Raja Kumari is a force of nature. Hailing from Claremont, California, she is best known for her collaboration with notable artists including Gwen Stefani, Fifth Harmony, Knife Party, and Fall Out Boy. A fearless, charismatic personality and natural-born storyteller, her mission is to create art that blends her Indian roots with her American upbringing.

In this exclusive interview, she talks among other things about the challenges she had to face as an American of Indian origin, her latest tracks ‘I Am A Rebel’ and ‘Hello World’ which released on Women’s Day, and philanthropic activities that she participates in through her music.

Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)
Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)

Being of Indian American origin, tell us more about the challenges you had to face and the uniqueness you bring to your music. 

RK: One of the main issues I faced trying to get started in America was racism. I was always told to tone down my ethnicity, that I was “too Indian” to be successful in America. I struggled to find someone to look up to as a South Asian kid in America. I remember, on weekends I would travel for classical dancing and wouldn’t necessarily share that with my friends. I would come to school with the Alta (painting the palms and feet with a red dye) fading on my hands and they’d ask me, “What is that? Do you have a hand disease?” 

Things are evolving in the US now. I like to call it the ‘brown renaissance’ Indians are more relevant in so many fields, especially entertainment. On the other hand, some people in India called me a ‘culture vulture’. How can I be a ‘culture vulture’ in my own culture just because I’m born in America? I’m not just another South Asian. I still have put in my time to be Indian enough to talk about India without being an appropriator of culture. My family did a really great job of preserving the culture for us. We don’t fake it. We wear sarees for pujas, my mom does Vijayadashami and Navratri, I have studied Indian music and dance. As a result, my style is just a balance between the East and the West. 

I think learning to navigate both worlds with authenticity has helped me become the artist I am today. I have carved a place for myself in the male-dominated music circuit by staying authentic and rooted in my culture. I think there a lot of women in the industry who say a lot of things from the female perspective about relationships, broken hearts, love lost, pain, sadness, happiness, or sexiness; there are so many of those voices. I felt like we were missing my perspective. Of course, I could sing soft and beautiful songs but there are many people to do that.

You are also a trained dancer in Kuchipudi, Odissi, and Bharatanatyam. Tell us more about this passion of yours. 

RK: My passion for Indian dance started at a very young age. My mother had always wanted to be a classical dancer and it wasn’t feasible for her to pursue it growing up, so it was always in her heart to have a daughter who was a dancer so I came out dancing. My attachment to classical Indian dancing really gave me so much of my personality, so much the way I dress and the way I perceive the world, and also the stories that I relate to. Some kids grew up to Batman, Superman and I was really obsessed with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the stories of Hanuman. Those were my superheroes, and so I think classical dance really made that a part of my life. 

Tell us more about philanthropic activities you have participated in in the past through your performances. 

RK: I always believed art should be used for the greater good. Since I was a child, my parents always involved me in a lot of charity work and I was able to help build the meditational hall in Hyderabad and donate a wing for a hospital in Bengaluru. I consistently performed for so many temples to raise funds for building certain temples in Southern California. I think now I definitely use my art to open doors for others to create an opportunity to inspire. There are many philanthropic activities I am a part of but I mostly like to support the charities that support the girl child because I believe in India, we need more attention and more support to encourage young girls to be in art and not just sciences or leaving school as we usher in an era of more creative artists. I think we have enough of everything else and I would hate to lose our artistry as a culture with the idea of modernizing ourselves and lose everything we are, so anything that will help support the art, I am there.

Who are some of your inspirations? 

RK: Madhuri Dixit, Lauryn Hill, Kamala Harris, Missy Elliot, and Beyonce.

Tell our readers more about your latest tracks ‘I Am A Rebel’ (featuring Kiara Advani and Bani J in lead roles) as well as ‘Hello World’ (with Hollywood actor Rita Wilson and Brazilian singer Claudia Leitte), both of which released on Women’s Day. 

RK: Both these tracks were created from the inkling to motivate and inspire young girls. Teaming up with Rita Wilson and Claudia Leitte on ‘Hello World’ was amazing, as these are two women I have so much respect for and it was really cool to see how our styles complemented one another. When boAt approached me to write ‘I Am A Rebel’, I was so excited to collaborate with my longtime friend DJ SA on the music. I’ve always considered myself a rebel in my music choice, my career, and my unapologetic nature! I loved crafting the lyrics to depict that energy and I’m so happy to have been joined by so many strong women like Bani J and Kiara on the campaign.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 


 

Artist, CoMo, recording music.

After Immigrating to Cupertino, I Found My Place Through Rap Music

6 schools in 5 years across 2 continents is no easy feat for any adolescent…

I was constantly trying to pick up on the likes and dislikes of my peers, trying to find a crowd that would remind me of home.

After coming back from India and starting 6th grade at Kennedy Middle School, I found myself in a position I had been in far too many times for my liking. I met a couple of friends and my mom was ecstatic! She wanted to know everything about their families and have dinner with them, as is in Indian tradition.

I stepped into my friend’s house and his parents direct me to his room where all the other kids are. I hear a heavy bassline, horns enunciating each downbeat, and a man’s voice riding the instrumental effortlessly. I was instantly enamored and wanted to know what this music was. That is the first time I listened to In Da Club by 50 cent – an introduction to rap music. 

From there, my journey into rap took me to artists like Eminem, Dr. Dre, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, and so much more. I felt like I finally belonged. I spent hours on end listening, I felt like I had a voice. I was obsessed.

Going Nowhere Fast Album Cover
‘Going Nowhere Fast’ Album Cover

It never occurred to me, until after college, that I could try and start making music. Now, it’s been four years and I have released over 100 songs. Most recently, I put out my debut album ‘Going Nowhere Fast’

My pursuit of Hip Hop stems from those feelings of wanting to find a home. I have written music about subjects like being a first-generation Indian American and cherishing a good time with friends on a Friday night. That’s the beautiful thing about music, songs truly just encapsulate moments in time.

We are all multi-faceted creatures making our way through life and what it presents. I have found my music helps me document these instances and provides me an outlet for self-expression and realization that I haven’t found anywhere else in my life. I can get completely lost in a chord progression because of the triggered emotion. My music is my scrapbook on display for the audience to take as their own and create their own world in. I hope everyone finds a place in it. 

 


Amogh Changavi, or CoMo, is a hip-hop musician based out of the Bay Area that’s been making music for the past 4 years. Rapping about everlasting topics on moments in time that are here to stay. Instagram| Twitter | Facebook


 

Author, Lakshmi Rao with her tanpura(Image by Jigna Desai)

The Enduring Poetry of the Gwalior Gayaki

Poetry As Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

“Geetam Vaadyam Tatha Nrityam, Trayam Sangeeta Mucchyate.”

This quote from the ancient Sangeet Ratnakar by Pandit Sharangdev, defines ‘sangeeta’, or ‘collective music’, as singing, instrumental music, and dance. De rigeur for many Indian children, I have fond memories of training in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic vocal music myself. While my exposure to playing instruments was limited, I spent time listening to soulful Hindi film songs and singing in the school choir.

 I also ventured outside ‘sangeeta’. Over the summer holidays, I lost myself in brooding Dutch skies and the idyllic English countryside, while painstakingly recreating the paintings of the Old Masters on my own. My unexpected partner in artistic ventures was my mother. I still remember her reciting “For whom the bell tolls”, during our weekly Sunday oil-bath ritual. The oil was smelly and the bathroom floor was cold, but John Donne lit up my seven-year-old imagination. 

“No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”

Captivated by words, endless hours were spent in bookstores and libraries, train compartments, and dull classes secretly devouring Dickens and Austen and later, Sheldon and Nabokov. Fascinated by these cerebral and rather mysterious personalities, I wondered: was writing art? If a picture paints a thousand words, are words then less, or more? And do they not have a place in “sangeeta”?

Time passed and I “grew up”; focusing my energies on studying and working, traveling extensively while juggling the demands of career and family. In 2009, I decided to take a much-needed break when we moved to Mumbai and rekindled my interest in the arts, this time through Hindustani classical music. I found a compelling and motivated teacher in Vidushi Neela Bhagwat, the doyenne of the ancient Gwalior parampara. Neelaji, as she is affectionately known, traces her lineage through her guru, Sharathchandra Arolkar, to Krishnarao Shankar Pandit and in turn to Haddu and Hassu Khan. Of course, the millennia-old river that Indian music is, there have been many others that gently fed the rivulets and streams. I feel incredibly lucky to be connected to this lineage of artists, spanning space and time.

Gwalior Fort (Image by Pavel Suprun and under Creative Commons License)
Gwalior Fort (Image by Pavel Suprun and under Creative Commons License)

Famous for its “ashtanga gayaki” (or eight-fold ways of voice projection), the distinctive Gwalior aesthetic relies on the composition as the portal into the raaga. The gayaki employs  a number of musical forms to render emotion: “khatka”, “meend”, “gamak”,”aalaap”, “behlava”, “taan”, “kampan” and “murki”. The richly detailed, complex compositions typically contain many of these forms, both conveying the essence of the raaga and the unmistakable singing style. Gwalior singers typically favor the “siddha” raagas (principal raagas). Yet, what drew me most was the focus on the “bol” or words of the bandish, and the interplay of these words with the “layakari”, or play of rhythm. While many gharanas emphasize similar musical forms, the Gwalior gayaki melds them with the “bol” – and “bol aalaap” is a hallmark of this tradition. 

In my quest to convey the beauty of these verses, I stumbled upon an entire world of poetry and lyricism. One of my favorite bandishes, set to raaga Vrindavani Sarang:

“Bore jina Allah ko yoon na jaaniye. Karna tha so kar chuka, aur ji chaaha so kara.

Adarang sanchi kahat, as kaaman ko, rahim reejha reejha layi, kahu ki as kaaman kara, so hi det rab”. 

Translated:

“Oh simpleton, do your duty and once done with it, do what you desire.

Adarang says truly Allah will satisfy your sincere wishes.” 

Written by Adarang who was a poet in the Delhi court of Mughal Emperor Mohammed Shah Rangile (1702-1748), the soaring notes pay tribute to the Creator. Singing the composition day after day, I noticed how my mood gradually grew more positive – and I realized the power of poetry. Poets weave magic, and “geetham” would be closer to “vaadyam” without their precious words.

Another evocative piece set to raaga Bageshri, about the plight of a lovelorn woman pining for an indifferent partner and confiding in her friend strikes a different chord. The second stanza, especially, conjures vivid imagery:

“Kaun gat bhaili, mori sajani, yeri mayi, piya na pooche ek baat;

Ek ban dhoondhoon, sakala ban ban, gayi daar daar, karahi paat paat”

Translated:

“Where has he gone, dear friend, my love did not take leave of me;

I am searching for him in the forest, through all the woods, branches, leaves.”

I joined the “Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley” circle in 2019, hoping to better understand poetic sentiments and bring more feeling into my singing. Surrounded by verse in languages ranging from Pali to Portuguese, and meeting online as a getaway from Covid-imposed isolation, I eventually summoned the courage to write, too. Here’s a bandish on my travels, to meet my teacher:

“Badhi kathinayi saha guru dwaar aayi,

Ghar baal chhod kar, gyan pane mayi.

Guru haske kahe, jaanat nahin baawri,

Main antar mein rahoon, tu kahaan jayi”

Translated:

“Braving great troubles, I came to my guru’s door,

Leaving my family, in order to gain knowledge,

The guru laughed, asked if I didn’t know,

That the guru resides inside, where are you headed?”

Listening to poetry has unexpectedly grown into a much-anticipated weekly ritual. I’m delighted in my discovery of an art form within an art form, expanding my horizons and making friends along the way. Many of the members in our circle share common interests and creative collaborations bubble up quite often. I look forward to the ventures and adventures that beckon in 2021!


Lakshmi Rao is a senior disciple of Vidushi Neela Bhagwat, training in the vocal style of the Gwalior parampara. She calls the Bay Area home, and remains ever curious about the world that was, that is and that will be! 


 

Agni Whips You Into the Environmental Crisis Overtaking Bay Area Landscapes

The world premiere of Bay Area Based Chitresh Das Institute’s (CDI) short Kathak film, “Agni” is on Earth Day, April 22, 2021, at 7:30 pm PDT. The video premiere will be followed by a Q&A panel discussion moderated by India Currents.

The short film is directed and voiced by Filmmaker – Alka Raghuram, choreographed by CDI’s Artistic Director – Charlotte Moraga, composed by musician – Alam Khan, and shot by cinematographer – Anjali Sundaram.

To purchase tickets for the event, head on over to ODC Dance website:

Tickets are $10 before the day of the event

https://t.co/Yw2IfPqjYH?amp=1

Be sure not to miss the event this Thursday!

Here are some sneak peeks about the film when we spoke to the director and producer, Alka Raghuram. 

What was the inspiration to make this film?

Before getting into that, I want to give some context of my association with Chitresh Das Institute. I had worked with Pandit Chitresh Das for his last performance for a live Kathak Flamenco production named “Yatra,” where I was doing the audiovisual element part of it. Initially, Charlotte wanted to create a live show called “Mantram” based on Panchabhoota, five basic elements of cosmic creation. Due to pandemics, live performances are not happening.

We tried to bring out a collaborative effort for “Agni,” the element that brings out the fire’s force or ferocity. Fire is a destructive force but also creates fertile ground for rejuvenation. This film was very much a response to the wildfire burning in California and the social and political wildfires of social injustice in the spring and summer of 2020. Earth’s perspective on fire and what our role is to play in it. It is a collaborative effort to tell the story through different mediums. Charlotte tells the story through dance, and me through film, poem, paintings, and Alam through music. It is the plant’s seed, i.e., the actual live show coming up in the near future. We are going to do a series of short films like this in each of the elements. 

How is watching this film different from a live dance show (watching from the front)?

Projecting a painting is usually static. Watching a show as an audience is a different experience altogether but watching a movie is dynamic. I filmed the dancers from various angles so that they are dancing in other ways. That helps viewers to witness as an insider. Even the side wings of the auditorium stage have the same three-dimensional visual effects. We took a creative decision to make this film distinct that way from watching a show from the front. 

Can you tell us about the poem used in the film?

I wrote the poem to highlight the environmental aspect of the story. The artistic process is iterative by nature. Your vision evolves and gets refined as the work progresses. The first cut of the film was eye-catching and beautiful but we were missing the allusion to the wildfires of the last couple of years. Which led us to experiment with text that would complement the visuals and bring out that dimension without sensationalizing it in any way. We wanted the whole piece to be cut from the same cloth

The poem in the film is complimenting what is already there rather than underlying it. The poem is also another culpable way here to ask whose fault it is. Dance and visuals say whose fault is this, and the verse is also saying that through words. It is giving a hint to the audience about what is going to come. I recited it as well. 

Music is one of the critical elements of this production. We noticed no particular raaga or taala associated with it, like traditional Indian Classical performances. Can you give some background about the creation of this unique music?

Alam Khan created the music piece, and Charlotte made the bols and rhythmic composition. The taal is a complex five and half-beat taal. Charlotte Moraga notes that it’s like fire, it is quick, exciting, and unpredictable! Alam adds that the music is not based on any particular raga. The music is a continuation of Alam’s contemporary approach in blending Indian classical instruments with other instrument types. He has been doing this for many years now and feels his style in this vein continues to grow. We wanted to do something musically out of the box for Kathak and push the limits of what we are accustomed to. 

Can you tell us about the artwork and paintings used in the film? it is an integral part of this film. Is it digital? Can you tell us a little more background of it?

Those are hand-painted, and I used ink. I am a painter too, and the idea was to use those paintings projected in the auditorium during the performance. In the film, the backdrop is not so much focused. I painted blue woods and redwoods and took pictures of tree barks and fire. I needed to rearrange, superimpose, and layered all of these during editing in such a three-dimensional way, telling a dynamic cinematic story altogether. Paintings are also done in a way to interpret it globally, not so region-specific. I used a blue color tone in paintings overall. Blue represents the hottest and the most intense part of the fire’s flames. Blue is also the calm part of it before the fire starts. 

What is the concluding message of this production from the environmental aspect? Can you tell our audience about it a little more? 

The film communicates from the perspective of the Earth and speaks about who is culpable for it. It asks the question and includes everyone. Towards the end, the dancers stare at viewers and say whose fault it is. Then there is smoke, and the Earth’s mouth is filled with ash. Earth speaks with grief. Then there is ash in the landscape, and birds are disappearing. It is like Earth’s lament through the poem, dancer’s expressions, and visuals – Why is this happening? Who is to blame? Our deeds are recorded in the time ledger how we acted so far caused us to come to this point. Agni is raging and destroying. It brought us to think brink for our deeds. This film visually takes us on the journey from sparks to the raging fire. 


Piyali Biswas De is an accomplished Bharatnatyam and Non-classical dance exponent, guru, and well-known choreographer in the Greater Seattle region. When she is not dancing, Piyali works as an IT professional in Seattle and spends time with two beautiful daughters who seem eager to follow in her footsteps. 


 

The Cowboy and the Yogi: Ever-changing Traditions

“India, like America, feeds and nourishes creative individuality. Just as Americans have been inspired by the archetype of the Cowboy, who wanders the open spaces in search of a dream, so Indians are inspired by the Yogi, who wanders inner spaces in search of realization,” claims The Cowboy and The Yogi, by Teed Rockwell. For those of you who don’t know, Rockwell wrote the India Current music column for decades and I carried on for a few years after him. Thus, it was an absolute honor and delight when we had a delightful conversation about his journey into India and Indianness.  

The Cowboy and The Yogi is a glimpse into the Indian music scene over a span of roughly two decades, largely in the US, as documented by Rockwell. It is an intelligently curated collection of his own research, study, writings for his India Currents music columns, and blogs. Thus, it is a passionate, loving, intimate, insider view into Indian music combined with a sense of adventure. Sprinkled with anecdotal tidbits such as “first article commissioned by India Currents,” the book traces a path between classical music and its many representations, note-worthy performances, as well as its practitioners. Thus, the book, as Rockwell himself describes, talks about Indians and non-Indians performing Indian music, along with Indians performing non-Indian music. Chapter 9, “Indians Doing Cool Stuff” is about Roc Zonte, Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, Nitin Sawhney, Vijay Iyer, and Tony Kanal, who was one of the first people of Indian ancestry to become a Western rock star and to let the world know it.” 

Rockwell is a musician himself (enjoy his fascinating introduction to his jugalbandi-friendly “Touchstyle Veena” here) and therefore it is all the more believable when he claims that “In the area of rhythm, Indian music is totally without peer.” The Cowboy and The Yogi acts as a guide to how to listen and appreciate Indian music, deliberately, through chapters such as “Listening to Indian music,” and also through his own discoveries. Such as “In Memoriam” where he rues the fact that he got to know much about the Masters and their genius when he was asked to write their obituaries. “Yogis all, but with more than a little cowboy in each of them,” he states, of Vilayat Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, and Bismillah Khan. 

The book is also a portrait of the gurukul that existed within the campus of the AACM (Ali Akbar College of Music). Rockwell writes, “Classes included people from Germany, Argentina, …as well as Bengalis, Punjabis,…I remember a blond two-year-old who regularly came to class with her mother, and whose baby talk combined so many different languages…There was an atmosphere very like an Ashram…spiritually devoted to profound and enigmatic music.” 

Rockwell, a Buddhist now, then does a CowBoy-Yogi-combined on you, as he dons his scholar lens and delves into Islam. This is poignant since many of the Masters of Indian music are of the Muslim faith. “I read the entire Koran in different translations, studied histories of both Muhammad’s life and the Islamic political empires, and read commentaries on the Koran and Hadith [the sayings attributed to Mohammed]. As a result of these studies, I have concluded that although many horrible things have been done in the name of Islam, a careful reading of Islamic sacred texts reveals that these behaviors are contrary to the teachings of Muhammad and to the most intelligent people who follow his spiritual path.” 

The book is a must-read for those who seek soul-food, an intellectual-nudge, a musical historical journey, and an emotion-drenched read.  

Here is an excerpt from our interview, the video can be found below:

IC: Tell us about how you got started with India and Indian music. 

TR: In the West, there is a lot of interest in Orientalism. I grew up as a hippie in the sixties interested in an alternative to Christianity, western culture in general. But what I began to find out is that any generalization that includes both Punjabis and Koreans isn’t going to be worth much…There are tremendous differences between South Asians and East Asians, for example, and I spent a lot more time with South Asians…The thing that really got me interested in Indian Music, rather than feeling that it was some sort of meditation tool, was the band, Shakti – (John McLaughlin (guitar), L. Shankar (violin), percussionists Zakir Hussain (tabla) and T. H. “Vikku” Vinayakram (Ghatam) – live at Kennedy Center Washington D.C. I went out and bought my first set of tablas. Then I got the feeling, I got to study this! 

IC: America is “free”, but you’ve said that Indians are also free to follow their own intuition… 

TR: When I wrote my articles, people always said, oh you know the traditions never change, and people would say that’s the problem with India, that they need to be able to change their traditions. But every time I actually studied somebody who supposedly was preserving the tradition, they were always changing it! There was nobody who was just doing it the same way. You do go through this kind of training but then you always have to go through a period of throwing it off. I interviewed and did research on dozens maybe hundreds of artists when I was with India Currents; there was never anybody who wasn’t changing the tradition. They would preserve it but they would change it at the same time! Trying to operate without rules, I think it’s a real problem but having rules, recognizing that sometimes rules can be broken is a really important characteristic. Letting your intuition be more important than rules – I see that in Indians time and time again.  


Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.

2021 Is the Year For Indie Indian Artists

The global pandemic changed the way we live. And, it has definitely impacted the lives of independent artists in more than one way. While 2020 taught independent artists to innovate and channel their creativity, it also increased online content competition.

India Currents speaks to two independent artists, Atlanta based singer-composer-coach Vinod Krishnan and Mumbai based singer-songwriter Mallika Mehta – to learn the challenges they faced in the indie-music scene in 2020 and what’s in store for the new year.

Vinod Krishnan, who previously released viral productions with IndianRaga and his independent hits like Kaalai Pozhudhil, Saajan, etc., has been in the independent scene for more than two years now. He is popularly known for his IndianRaga Shape of You Mix, which garnered a viewership of 8M+.

Mallika Mehta, titled the “Adele of Mumbai,” released her first EP Evolve when she was 19 and has come a long way while dabbling between genres, styles, and songwriting processes. She recently released a single “Kaafi” that has been performing incredibly well on all audio platforms. 

Indie Artist, Vinod Krishnan.

“Challenges make our journey interesting.”

Independent artists have been facing challenges like remote collaborations, remote productions, remote content, shifting trends in 2020. “But every challenge presented a learning opportunity.,” says Krishnan. When thrown with the lockdown, musicians collaborated over Zoom and released videos through online collaborations. Event management companies took concerts online and supported other artists and music communities.  

“This year is going to be a learning curve,” says Krishnan. “There is more online content now because of the pandemic (concerts, movies, short series) are all coming online, so an indie musician has to now make video content to make their songs get some attention. That’s expensive.” Meanwhile, Mehta says the pandemic has definitely nurtured her creativity and gave her more time for music that she will continue to do this year. “If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I don’t think I would have written so much music in one year,” she adds. “One thing 2020 taught us is that planning forward is not always the best idea. So for now, I’m taking each day at a time.” 

Mehta adds that she enjoys the challenges for the love of her work. “I love telling stories through my songs, and when I get messages from people saying how they love the melody or lyrics or how they feel the exact same way or how it made their day better, that right there makes me want to write another song,” she says. “It’s the love for music, the support from loved ones and strangers, and the fact that you know you’re making a difference doesn’t matter big or small.” It’s intriguing to see how independent artists are highlighting the challenges they faced and growing from them simultaneously while giving us beautiful music to listen to.

Indie Artist, Mallika Mehta.

We are all playing the social-media-game!” 

While there are opportunities, there’s also competition on the online spectrum. Mehta says, “a lot of labels have been supporting indie artists, but the competition is incredible, the number of artists releasing music is in numbers you certainly can’t count on your fingers. So until then, independently releasing music is our only way forward.” 

Yes, there’s going to be more competition for viewer attention this year,” adds Krishnan. “That means more OTT content since people are indoors because of the pandemic. Independent artist channels without labels or sponsors are tackling hurdles like viewer reach, social media visibility, shares, and the Instagram algorithm to reach their new fans,” he adds. 

“2021 is a year of possibilities.”

“Despite the curveballs, the joy of creating new music keeps me going,” says Krishnan.  “Why do filmmakers make more movies, even if they had a flop one time? Creative artists have risktaking as quality.” Independent artists are inspiring the music community with their philosophy and never-give-up attitude, and that’s exactly what we need for this new year.

Mehta says that being an independent artist comes with its set of challenges, and if you add the pandemic to it, it only becomes more unprecedented. “But as I said, I create music because I love it.” 

This is the year of possibilities, and indie artists are hopeful for a positivity-filled 2021. “Independent musicians are coming up by the dozen, which I think is absolutely great. A singer-songwriter is a storyteller, and it’s funny how a lot of people across the globe do share a similar story with you.“2020 itself had a lot more independent music released, and 2021 would just add onto that,” says Mehta. 

Krishnan agrees that 2021 is the year where more indie musicians will join, build, and create content. Because being an independent musician, this year, means, as Mehta says, “all the power and decisions are in your own hands.”

According to Mehta and Krishnan, this year will show more growth and opportunities. We are looking for an indie-filled 2021, where more artists emerge and put out their music and share their talent with the world. 


Sruthi Dhulipala is a San Francisco-based communications professional and writer. She is also an independent singer-songwriter and you can find her music on all audio platforms. Sruthi enjoys the art of writing and has been priorly published in an International Anthology, “Lakdikapul II,” through an Indian Poet’s Association. She is passionate about music, writing, expression, and her goal to promote music to the benefit of the people through her own art and others’ art.

Trip-Hop Artist Combines English and Urdu

Experimental solo artist, Neeq Serene introduced her haunting and introspective debut single, ‘The Others‘ in May 2020, crossing over genres of trip-hop, alternative RnB, and gothic neo-folk.

An emotive and cinematic soundscape, the sophomore single ‘Fields of Gold’, released on 8th January 2021, features hypnotic vocal layers sung in both English and Urdu, inspired by Serene’s South Asian roots. When writing the song, Serene envisaged crossing the boundary from this world to the next – where departed souls shall meet again.

2019 saw the launch of PINERO|SERENE, a dream-pop songwriting collaboration with bass player Cheryl Pinero. The debut EP, ‘Dark Matter,’ was released on 28th July 2019, with the first single, ‘Take My Soul’ premiered by Clash Magazine. In this new sonic chapter, Neeq reveals a self-reflective journey through minimal, electronic music and deep lyricism, drawing on influences from the alternative music world and her Kashmiri heritage.

‘Fields of Gold’ written and performed by Neeq Serene
Instruments written, played and recorded by Neeq Serene
Orchestra, guitar and additional synth-overdubs played and recorded by Gon von Zola
Mixing and production by Gon von Zola


 

SandiSpell: Spelling Bee Champ to Tollywood Remix Artist

Masala In Ur Dosa – A column addressing identity through the lens of a Telugu Indian-American in conversation with his South Asian peers.

After a hectic day in high school, comparing notes with classmates to understand derivatives and limits to traveling to various suburbs in central Massachusetts to play tennis, nothing grounded me more than resting my forehead on the window of a moving school bus listening to my favorite song. The melodious vocals of Sadhana Sargam on her award-winning song ‘Manasa’ from the Telugu movie ‘Munna’. Fast forward 10 years, I still find comfort listening to Desi tracks every morning on my way to work. Recently, I came across a mix on SoundCloud called “A Decade in Rewind: Tollywood Edition“. A mix of familiar Telugu classics I grew up with blended with hip hop vocals and beats by a name familiar to those in the desi dance circuit, SandiSpell aka Snigdha Nandipati. Having seen her name as the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion, I knew I had to speak to her and find out how she was breathing new life into songs that of us grew up with.

My interviews on ‘Masalainurdosa presents’ primarily focus on identity. What has been a constant amongst the different personalities I encounter is this – this generation finds its own unique way to express their South Asian Identity. For Snigdha, one such outlet of her identity was through her music. Like many, she grew up singing and continued to hone her craft at Yale through her campus acapella group. While she learned how to harmonize with others, dissect melodies and beats, she wanted to implement the same techniques to the Telugu classics she grew up with. In between recording covers and acapellas of Telugu songs, she found herself in a community that many young South Asian creatives find their roots – The Desi Dance Network Forums. Check out my interview with Snigdha Nandipati on ‘Masalainurdosa presents’ to hear about what her Telugu identity means to her, and how she expresses it through her music.


Prithvi Ganesh Mavuri, MD is an Internal Medicine physician in the Southeast region in the United States. However, his other passion lies in learning about South Asian languages and cultures.

Raj Ramayya

Spicy Beats Brings the Indian Heat

Indo-Canadian Musician, Raj Ramayya loves to be busy. When he’s not traveling the world performing at anime and game conventions for some of his hit soundtracks like Cowboy Bebop and Resident Evil, he is hard at work writing and producing music for some of the top anime and games in the world like Tower of God or perhaps just scoring award-winning culturally relevant documentaries about social justice and environmental issues with titles like Shadow of Dumont or Who Killed Gandhi?

Sometimes, Raj can be found remixing tracks with an Indian Electronic flare for classic artists such as Stephen Stills or at his studio in The San Francisco Bay area sipping pinot noir and cooking curries. Other times, when he’s not in the studio (which is rare) you can find Raj cooking spicy dishes with his mom in Saskatoon or sourcing chili peppers in South Asia, or drinking sake in Tokyo.

For Raj, music, food, drinks, and traveling make the world go round and his voice can literally be heard all over the world. As one of the most highly sought after session singers during his decades-long stint in Japan, Raj was the voice of John Lennon and featured on 200 spots on ads for everything from Pokemon, Astro Boy, Sapporo Beer, and Toyota

This latest release entitled “Spicy Beats” pulls together classic acoustic rock-influenced melodies with electronic beats and a host of Indian instruments and singers all held together with funky baselines and recorded in studios, bedrooms, bathrooms, and bars in Chennai India, Tokyo, Japan, and San Francisco, California. Spicy Beats puts a unique twist on some incredibly catchy hooks. If you enjoy spicy music or would like to know what spicy music is, then tune in and get ready for Spicy Beats.  Pre-order / Pre-save the album: https://smarturl.it/htr-raj-spicybeats 


 

Sakaar Singh Leaves Punjab to Become R&B Singer, Simba Sing

Sakaar Singh, son of Bhangra Artist – Jasbir Jassi, “Simba Sing”, is an emerging R&B and Pop Singer. Singh left his home state of Punjab at the age of 16 to embark on absorbing and contributing to musical styles far beyond his homeland. Sarkaar’s released singles, “Got You,” “80s Love,” and “Big Boy,” bring to his listeners an eclectic mix of influences, which represent his upbringing in India, along with his adventures around the world. 

Singh’s exposure to Western-style music began when he was about nine years old and he sang in a school choir group in English for the first time. As a result of this experience, Singh thought, “this is what I want to do. That was the only perception I had of what I like to do.” Later on, his friends introduced him to famous American rappers such as 50 Cent, Eminem, and Akon. Singh remarked candidly, “At first, I was more fascinated by their gold chains and big cars. But later, I realized that was not everything they were about. There was much more to them.”

Although Jalandhar was his home for 16 years, Singh felt it was not enough for his future as a musician. It seemed to him that he was the only musician pursuing Western music styles in Punjab. Singh recalls, “The place I was growing up was a place where you did not think of being a pop singer because there were no pop music sources around. Bhangra music is so deeply embedded in the state’s culture and there are so many sources of Bhangra music that everyone can think of being a bhangra singer. I made a decision to be an American R&B singer, that made my choices and tastes different from others.” 

While Singh always had an inclination towards Western music, he considers his constant exposure to Indian music in Punjab as important in shaping his own style. All of his father’s songs are Punjabi folk tunes and Sufi songs. Singh says, “Indian music tends to take a story into intense detail. I took the calm serenity of Sufi songs and applied it to my own music.” He added, “when I perform, it is just inbuilt in me. It is not something I consciously learned; it just naturally came to me.” For example, “Got You,” is about an experience with a lover and the lyrics invoke strong passion and love. “I like to go to those places so people can feel these things at a deeper level,” Singh says.

A chance encounter at a relative’s wedding in Delhi was the turning point for Singh’s destiny. When Singh sang on stage at the wedding, Madan Gopal Singh, a friend of his father’s and a well-known singer in his own right, encouraged Sarkaar to move to Delhi because it offered more opportunities for aspiring music artists. Singh stated, “It was his influence that made me move from Jalandhar to Delhi, so I could soak in more.”

In 2014, Singh embarked on what became the most gratifying chapter of his life. He traveled to the USA on Madan Singh’s recommendation to study at the famous Berklee School of Music in Boston. He reflects, “Berklee gave me a lot of knowledge. It gave me the foundation of what music is.” The college’s resources also gave Singh access to music styles from around the world and exposed him to teachers from several different nations. This exposure to international music is evident in Singh’s first song, “I Got You,” which features a rhythm that has roots in South American music. 

Singh is indebted to his two years with Jeff Bhasker for shaping him as a human, songwriter, producer, and singer. According to Singh, “Bhasker loves to mix genres…his beats are very unique.

Bhasker commented,  “Sakaar is a supremely talented guy who has a strong lineage to follow because his dad is so brilliant. It has been awesome to see Sakaar going from being an intern to ultimately seeing him release songs on his own. He has so many of the great qualities his father has but he is making his mark with his own style. He is an Indian guy making truly authentic western pop music.”

Singh’s early exposure to the gold chains and expensive cars of American rappers gave him the courage to leave the land of five rivers, and ultimately travel across the globe in pursuit of his vision to become an English music pop star. By soaking in all these unique vibes along the way, he has created a distinct name for himself which further exposes Indians to the richness of music traditions from around the world. His pioneering efforts have sowed the seeds for other enterprising Indian youth to seize the day and picture the universe as a destination full of opportunity in store.

In reflection, Singh says “I think the path I have chosen will influence the Indian audience, especially in my hometown and state. My decision to be an American mainstream R&B singer had a certain amount of risk attached to it. Through overcoming all these challenges to reach my goal, I hope to show to the Indian people that it is possible to think about something and achieve it.”


Nikhil Misra-Bhambri is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. He is a graduate from University of Southern California (USC) with a bachelor’s in history. 

A Whistling Tribute to Lata Mangeshkar

Lata Mangeshkar turned 90 a little more than one year ago, a momentous milestone in a life whose story is the very chronicle of Hindi Film Music in the post-Independence era. Any superlatives used to describe this life seem banal, and indeed many of the tributes that flowed in hewed that line.

Arun Sampath in the recording studio.

A different kind of tribute was shaping up in the heart of Arun Sampath, an unassuming IT professional based out of the NY area. He has been pursuing whistling – what he most evocatively calls MukhVenu (translates to face-flute) – as a hobby for a long time. Being an ardent fan of Lata-didi’s music, his Upahaar is an album of MukhVenu renditions of classic songs of Lata-didi.

At the outset, this seemed like an impossible endeavor. Can one hope to create even a faint shadow of the golden voice? Or to emulate the magic of the golden era? But the results are sure to take your breath away (no pun intended).

I have had the privilege of witnessing the creation of this monumental project. Each step was planned and executed meticulously. Songs were selected from 1949-58, decidedly one of the best decades of Lata-didi’s career. The final track selection is a fine representation of the great music composers that Didi worked with, as well as of their profile in the popular imagination. Arun’s perfectionism surfaced during the recording and finishing stage, as he fretted over minor deviations which I could hardly detect. It is also noteworthy that the recording was done in the traditional style (takes, retakes, and all) without resorting to autotune.

The polished and packaged product is astounding. The great Anil Biswas (whose honey-sweet romantic composition ‘man mein kisi ki preet basaale’ from Aaram is recreated by Arun) noted that Lata-didi’s voice was like a piccolo, sharp yet sweet, and impeccably in tune. MukhVenu turns out to be singularly suitable to mimic that voice. The fidelity of the recreations to the original is evident to the keen listener, the MukhVenu following the voice very closely, including the subtle pauses and even breath-stops. One drifts into a nostalgic journey as the immortal tunes impinge on the mind’s ear as much as the physical ones. And one cannot stop listening.

It is hard to pick a favorite or even favorites. The haunting ‘aajaa re paradesi’ (Madhumati) and ‘aayegaa aane waalaa’ (Mahal), or the mischievous ‘laaraa lappaa laaraa lappaa’ (Ek Thi Ladki), or the ebullient ‘thandi hawayein(Naujawan). Each melody vies for your attention, right up to the coda-like ‘alavidaa…’ of ‘ye zindagii usi ki hai’ (Anarkali).

The period constraint chosen by Arun left a rich tapestry of melodies to be explored, be it from the period before 1949 (the excellent songs of the likes of Master Ghulam Haider or Pt. Shyam Sunder) or that after 1958 (a song from Pakeezah, Parakh, or Picnic)

There is a hoary tradition of recreating Hindi Film songs on instruments. When one listens to the haunting gypsy violin or Hawaiian guitar of Van Shipley, the mesmerizing piano of Brian Silas, or the sonorous saxophone of Manohari-da, one realizes that these musicians must have been the keenest listeners of the original melodies, understanding and absorbing not only the tunes but the intent of the creation before reproducing it in the chosen medium. This is the greatest tribute one can pay to the original.

In this sense, Arun’s MukhVenu renditions are a profound and heartfelt tribute to the legend that is Lata Mangeshkar.


Chetan Vinchhi is a tech entrepreneur based out of Bangalore. He is keenly interested in Indian classical and old film music, is active in music appreciation groups, and occasionally writes about music.