Just a few weeks before her fellow musicians flew in from San Jose, Houston, and Chennai, Roopa Mahadevan had said, “I am trying to take more ownership of my musical journey: rather than simply saying “yes” to opportunities that come my way, I would like to pursue original projects that allow me to be more creative and deliberate in my growth. Time for me to start creating, not simply reacting. IndianRaga Fellowship will be the kickstarter.”
Soon, the team of four – Roopa Mahadevan, Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, Rishi Armstrong, and Harsha Nagarajan – were playing with fire, jamming late into the night over endless mugs of coffee, and trying to relate ragas with emotions to create “Sunsets” .
“It was the beginning of an epic week. When you bring together a set of talented musicians from different parts of the world in a New York City music studio with morning workshops, afternoon composition sessions and evening concerts, musical stimulus thrives. I was thinking about music as a live performer, a studio recorder, a colleague and a student of the arts — all within the span of a day.”, says Akshay.
Sunsets is part of a musical series by IndianRaga to create new-age compositions inspired by Indian classical music.The music is composed in traditional Indian classical style – incorporating elements of Carnatic and Hindustani forms — and presented in a music video format.
Check out the beautiful composition of Sunsets here:
Teamwork in Music Creation
Team Sunsets came together in one of the best examples of team work, camaraderie, innovation, and ambition that we had ever seen. As Akshay puts it,”The collaborative process with such a vast range of ages was my favorite part. Having Rishi (the youngest member in the fellowship) made us all feel more youthful at times — his curt and honest feedback throughout the process, simply cut any nonsense from our composition. It gave us the ability to be more honest with each other without worrying about our own musical egos. At the same time we had musical influences and direction from Sujata aunty (Rishi’s mother) who was the most senior amongst us. I realized the importance of this diversity in age coupled with geographical location because the abundance in perspectives, generates a plethora of ideas. It was then our job to carefully filter and weave the best elements as a team.”
But time was short. After a few not-so-productive exchanges online before the Fellowship week, the team almost started afresh once they met. Which meant they had less than 2 days to compose, rehearse and be production-ready! Harsha reminisces about him and Akshay sitting on a sidewalk in Manhattan at 2 am, making the final korvai –“We could not forget the excitement we had for hours after that,” he says. But then there was also this – “Getting frozen yogurt with Rishi and Harsha right before hopping into a cab to Brooklyn because we did not have time for dinner. The cab driver almost drove away with my mridangam that night because Harsha shut the back door before i took the instrument out of the trunk”, as Akshay recalls!
Watch a snippet from the jamming session by the team during the creation of Sunsets:
Story-telling through music
The Sunsets team was inspired by the thought of connecting ragas with complicated emotions from our daily lives,such as loss, separation, memory, and nostalgia. Using objects of sentiment — the baseball of a young boy, the necklace of a woman, and the tie of a professional — the video catches three individuals in the precious moment of catharsis, where they make the decision to move beyond their attachment to the past and embrace resolution.
As the three protagonists were picking their object, we were wondering what would be most suitable for Rishi,who was just 12. That’s when Rishi’s mom, Sujata ji, told us about how Rishi actually had to give up his love for baseball to devote more time to music. “Rishi was an all-star pitcher in various baseball teams. It was clear to his coaches that he would go a long way in this game. But he has also been training in Indian Classical vocal music from the tender age of 4 and listeners were moved to tears when Rishi rendered a bhajan or raag. There came a time to make a choice between the two talents. Rishi decided to step up to the plate. With the guidance of his parents, Rishi figured that music can open the doorway to the Infinite, and from there, the path was clear…”
On seeing the video it is quite clear that he was a natural at playing the role.
Musicians to Actors
Sunsets challenged our Fellows not only musically, but also theatrically! Roopa was excited to be able to use her dance training in some way, but also found herself becoming a make-up expert all of a sudden, applying foundation to squeamish men readying them for some intense shots with actual fire. The team remembers sleeping wherever we could find space as we took turns being in front of the camera one night, from 1:30 am – 3:00 am.
But it was worth the effort to work with our wonderful director Jesse Newman, who gave new life to the music through the visuals. In his words, “It was a great experience to work with such talented performers. In addition to their great musical abilities, they also were able to portray believable characters with deep underlying personal tension. Rishi, the youngest of them, was a complete natural. I would very lucky in the future to work with actors of his age who grasp directions so quickly and effortlessly.”
There was no shortage of bloopers though. As Roopa recalls some of them: ”Finding out my dress had a tear in a very obvious place minutes before my shoot, Rishi saying “you look weird” every time he saw me in fancy makeup or a dress, and most of all Sriram yelling at us to “look intense!!!” while our faces stayed the same, especially Harsha’s! Haha!”
Sunsets had multiple shoot locations (including my apartment in Manhattan), and multiple prop and costume requirements (including my suit). And there was fire. Harsha quips, “Sriram, though being very nice enough to lend me the suit, was obsessed with it so much that he was worried about every move I made during the video shoot.”
While music came naturally to our musicians, they sure were intrigued by the video shooting experience. Roopa did many takes just to hold a necklace the ‘right’ way, and had this very quizzical ‘Wait, this should be really simple’ look all through. In some cases, nature helped – The tear of sadness on Roopa’s face as she walked down the streets of Manhattan was actually due to the wind, and was not planned for. But in others, like the fire, things panned out differently. As Jesse concludes, “I’ll now always have a greater respect for films that involve raging fires. They’re not easy to maintain for the duration of a shoot, and present a host of other challenges as well. For some of our takes, we only had one shot– we toss a prop in the fire and either it works or it doesn’t, and we move on.”
At the end of the day, the team was delighted with both the journey and the end result. Sunsets got wonderful reviews by leading musicians and connoisseurs. Many viewers in their 20s and 30s appreciated the indie art feel coupled with the professional video quality and powerful depth of story and emotion.
Prof Emily McManus recently screened the video at the Texas A&M University during her class on ‘Music in World Cultures’, and says, ”Their favorite part of the lecture was watching “Sunsets by IndianRaga,” a beautiful vocal performance and evocative videography that depicted the coming together of Hindustani and Carnatic singing. My students have since asked for the youtube link and have told me that they would like to share the video with their friends.”
With more than 6500 views since its launch a few weeks ago, Sunsets has been a creatively challenging and fulfilling experience for all of us at IndianRaga. We are all energized to continue this idea further, and help rekindle a passion for ragas and classical music amongst our generation through this entrepreneurial endeavor.
As Akshay states, “To be an entrepreneur, one has to be willing to take risks. We wanted to display new-age compositions of traditional art forms. Certainly as classical musicians, this is a risk for us, but the outcome has made us believe that there is more to explore in such unique collaborations.”
You can purchase the audio track for Sunsets at: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/indianragafellows3
Sunsets was composed and performed by IndianRaga Fellows Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, Roopa Mahadevan,Rishi Armstrong and Harsha Nagarajan. Accompanied by Jay Gandhi (Flute) and Smitha Krishnan (Violin).
IndianRaga is raising sponsorship to create the next round of videos on these lines, and we would love to hear from you if you are interested in supporting us! Please write to [email protected] for more details.
For more details on IndianRaga, and the IndianRaga Fellowship, visit www.facebook.com/indianragaproject, or www.indianraga.com, or email [email protected]. Applications for the 2014 IndianRaga Fellowship for musicians in North America will open in December 2013.