Written by Krishnan Sivaramakrishnan on 13 March 2020
Two weeks ago I read a post on Facebook from the Shankar Mahadevan Academy. It asked me to watch out for a box of surprise on March 3rd – the date the Academy was born, nine years ago. The box of surprise, said the teaser, is a new musical series named SMA Playhouse.
The box arrived on that date. What lay inside was out-of-the-box. It was the first edition of SMA Playhouse, featuring a song-in-a-video called "Jog Melange”.
Melange is French for "mix” – in this case, a mix of a film song and a Hindustani raga. The song is “Koi Kahe Kehta Rahe” from the 2001 film “Dil Chahta Hai”, a bouncy track originally sung by Shankar Mahadevan, Shaan and KK, its music composed by Shankar-Ehsan-Loy. The Hindustani raga is Jog.
A study published in “Frontiers in Psychology”, an open-access journal, mentions Jog as one among a kind of ragas that make listeners feel calm when they hear it at a slow tempo, and feel happy when they hear it at a fast tempo.
But Jog Melange aims to create more than a mood for the listener. For Deepa Sridhar, Trustee, Shankar Mahadevan Academy, it is a fun way to broaden the appeal of classical music. She says, “Today’s piece brought a popular number and Hindustani music in a melange that shows classical can be made fun and popular too for listeners. It is a way forward to make classical music appeal to more people – the children of today, the masses”.
When people come together, fun shows up too. And wherever fun goes creativity follows.
Like it did when the young artists for this musical project sat together in search of an idea. The group included seven students of Hindustani Vocal Music at the Academy (Anushka Prabhu, Bhuvi Dange, Dhruti Hegde, Hiyya Pati, Kushala Prasad, Saania Vinod Kaushik and Vidhi Baheti) and their two musical guides (Chaitra Sontakke and Dr Prakash Sontakke, Advisor to the Academy).
Their search led them to an idea of blending a popular film song with a traditional Tarana in the Hindustani classical raga Jog. “A fusion of classical and disco theme” as Anushka Prabhu, 7th-grade high schooler, put it.
Fusion is nothing new. What’s new is how the group chose to do it. Kushala Prasad, 20 years old, a third-year law student, shares how, “My partner in crime Vidhi Baheti and I, along with Prakashji and Chaitra madam, came up with the idea of mixing a Tarana with a Bollywood song. Till date, we've witnessed fusion music within the music produced by the industry. But with changing times, adding traditional concepts such as Tarana bol, Sargams or even just Raag Alaap makes a difference”.
Every artist leaves her individual signature even in a group project. In this project, Kushala and Vidhi created the Tarana chorus and wrote the musical harmonies. Hiyya contributed her ideas for the musical harmonies. Dhruti added a happy and melodious edge to the song. Saania strived to maintain her individual style even as she blended with ease in singing in the group. Bhuvi breathed life into the rehearsals and the recording sessions.
All the seven sang. Some did special parts too. The harmonies in the song were sung by Kushala, Vidhi and Prakash, and the Sargam (musical notes) in the Tarana by Prakash and Chaitra.
The music guides made sure the final composition was an aesthetic, coherent blend. “Their ideas blended with our experience”, says Chaitra Sontakke, Curriculum Coordinator for Hindustani Vocal Music at the Shankar Mahadevan Academy. The artists were accompanied on tabla by Karthik Bhat, an eminent young tabla artist in Bengaluru.
The melange got a thumbs-up from Shankar Mahadevan, Deepa Sridhar and Arathi Murthy (Trainer – Voice Gym, a course offered by the Academy). Arathi named the song Jog Melange. And a first cut of the song was recorded and shared with Sridhar Ranganathan, the Academy’s co-founder. He asked the team to sing swaras (musical notes) for a small segment of the film song. And it makes the blend thicker.
You don’t take just one thing away from the Playhouse. You get a whole treasure chest of learning. The seven artists did.
Some took away the art of presenting music in new ways. “I learnt a creative way of presenting music with great teamwork,” says Anushka. The experience has left her inspired to become a full-time musician and “a music teacher at Shankar Mahadevan Academy like Chaitra madam”.
“I learnt that different genres of music can be combined to create an interesting effect. Different styles of music can be given a classical touch through Aalaps, Taans, Tarana, Harmonies, etc,” says Hiyya Pati, a 7th-grade high schooler whose interests include reading, writing stories and poems, and travelling.
Some were quite taken with how a song is made in a studio. “I learnt about how studio recordings and video shoots work,” shares Bhuvi. A 14-year old, Bhuvi’s attention is now on academics and music. She also dabbles with art, debate and poetry.
Dhruti Hegde, a 15-year old, 10th-grade student feels the same way. “I absolutely enjoyed the whole process of recording the audio and the shooting of the video. A great experience, it got me so much closer with the rest of the group.”
“Jog Melange gave me an opportunity to learn the process of recording in a studio and understand the creative process that goes behind the making of such a project,” says Vidhi Baheti, 27 years. Vidhi now pursues music and “explores opportunities that coincide with music”.
“I got to witness the production aspects of making a music video – from composing to recording the voices to the filming,” says Saania Vinod Kaushik, 14 years. What Saania enjoyed the most was collaborating with the other singers, and “most of all I loved watching the final video”.
What Kushala takes back from this experience is an insight into a sound engineer's work. “I learned that sound engineering requires a good sense of rhythm and a splendid sense of timing,” she says.
What others feel about something you did matters. How you feel about it matters even more. Because it’s only what you feel that can lead you to bigger things.
All of the seven artists expressed what they felt about SMA Playhouse. For Bhuvi “it was a zestful feeling, owing to the overall peppy and energetic atmosphere”. Saania felt “exhilarated and grateful”, Hiyya “excited, enthusiastic and happy”, Dhruti “absolute enjoyment”, Anushka “proud”, and Vidhi “fortunate to be part of an educative, creative and fun project”. In a nutshell it gave them joy, more joy, even more joy.
The Playhouse brought them closer to each other too. For Dhruti that feeling ranked foremost. Vidhi says she will “always cherish the memories of collaborating with such talented singers”. Kushala got her high from the chance she got to reconnect with fellow music enthusiasts and create something new. She says, “Recording is always a fun event and that’s one of the few times you really bond as a group. I got closer to both my gurus and the rest of the singers”. Creative collaborations never fail to form bonds.
Can experiences like the Playhouse make you more musical? Vidhi feels so. “I’m so thankful to Shankar Mahadevan and everyone who was behind the conception of SMA Playhouse. It gives us an opportunity to hone our musicality beyond the classroom learning,” she says. Creating something new is a sure way to put to good use all that you learn in the classroom. SMA Playhouse fits in right there.
I hear the final blend of the two pieces of the composition. The musical notes of the two pieces don’t feel the same. Yet, the blend works. That’s the musicians’ instinct at work. Instinct finds common ground between things that aren’t the same.
I ask Chaitra for her explanation. And she answers, “Even though the notes of the two pieces are not the same, the liveliness element in the two pieces match well. The difference between the two pieces contributes to the surprise element and excitement of their blend.” I get an idea of the many elements that can form a chemistry between two musical pieces.
The story of how the song was made appeals to my mind. On its way out the song broke walls – those between teacher and student and between genres of music – all by a search to find common ground. It’s only when you find common ground that people and things come together. And coming together is so hard to do these days. When you look at it that way, Jog Melange is a song of hope. Here it goes.
Inside many students who learn music at the Academy, there hides a performer. The Academy gives such students a platform to perform – a most logical way to draw out their talent.
Sangam is one such platform. It’s an annual meet-up for the Academy’s students, teachers, curriculum designers, think tank and business partners. And for students who make the grade, it’s a platform on which they can perform live in front of those connected to the Academy.
SMA Playhouse, an idea that struck Arathi Murthy, chooses to go farther. For SMA Playhouse, all the world’s a stage, which can be reached via social media. Arathi says, “I had been thinking of a way to showcase our students to a global audience – something which might help us reach out to people beyond borders or boundaries. And what better way than social media to share what students learn from Shankar Mahadevan Academy.”
SMA Playhouse gives students a platform to show their musical creativity through live, studio-recorded compositions on video. And audiences around the world can enjoy that music in its various genres.
It’s an idea that meets the Academy’s mission. Shankar Mahadevan brings that out at the start of the first-edition video, “SMA Playhouse is a platform on which our own homegrown students are going to create, innovate, and perform various genres of musical pieces, and put it out there. Isn’t this an amazing way to spread the joy of music, which is the mission of our Academy?”