Every other day, we come across a new YouTube channel. New music providers are competing to enter the Indian market. It is hard to miss Carnatic music in a city like Chennai, where performances happen every other day. But at a time when alternate forms of music are winning over the youth, communicating in a language they understand, Carnatic music couldn’t have been far behind.
On his 48th birthday, Mahesh Venkateswaran took an important decision to quit his job as the managing director of Cognizant and pursue his long-time passions like photography, travelling and music. But he was specifically inclined towards doing something concrete in the space of classical arts. He became a regular at the December Music Festival and felt there was a need to improve the experience of the listener. “Except for the bigger sabhas, which had good seating and acoustics, I felt that there was a disconnect between the artiste and the listener in the rest of them. I felt the set-up had to be different,” says Mahesh, who began organising garden concerts in his own home. MadRasana was born.
The concerts would begin by 5pm and go on beyond sunset. “It was wonderful to sink in the music along with the ambient sounds. The birds would get active around sunset and the colours would change around and we would switch on the lights on the trees after the sunlight dimmed. We also removed the monitor speaker for the artiste as we felt that was a distraction in a concert in a regular hall. The audience alone heard from the speakers. As far as the artiste was concerned, it was organic sound on stage,” he says. But this format wasn’t scalable beyond a point.
Soon, MadRasana started organising concerts in unconventional spaces, where a new audience could be found. These weren’t heavily publicised events but the word soon spread. “We started posting about our events on social media as we wanted to reach out to youngsters. This became a success and we started getting requests from artistes to perform.” Soon, it became tough to accommodate several requests at once and a new solution had to be found.
For long. unplugged versions of film songs have been popular on social media. The MadRasana team decided to bring out unplugged versions of classical compositions on YouTube. Far from the set-up of a kutcheri, these videos only featured the artiste and a tambura for shruti. None of the songs exceeded five minutes. The Unplugged MadRasana videos became an instant hit and artistes queued up to be featured in this space.
“We had artistes travelling from different countries to be featured in this. This was new a platform for many young and senior artistes. Today, we have profiled more than 50 artistes in our Unplugged videos,” says Mahesh. The reach of the videos is palpable from the hundreds of comments from music lovers across the world, across nationalities. The video of Konnakol duet had more than 1,00,000 views. “Someone picked up that video and did a cover on that, which got over 1 million views and another person used that to make another cover, which fetched over 8 million views. We got enquiries from artistes across the world who were curious to know about Konnakol and wanted to learn it,” says Mahesh.
Carnatic vocalist Ramakrishnan Murthy, who was a part of the first concert organised by MadRasana, feels elated about the fact that the initiative has taken off well. “MadRasana has been liked by rasikas because it scores high on several factors – ambience, location, acoustics and listening experience among others,” says Ramakrishnan, who sang Vazhi Maraitirukkude from Gopalakrishna Bharathi’s magnum opus Nandanar Charithram for the Unplugged series.
The MadRasana team comprises of Mahesh, his wife Aruna Mahesh, who takes care of its operations and logistics, music director Sean Roldan and his wife Lalitha Sudha, who helps in curation process. The December season is utilised for scouting for talent, where Mahesh spends time looking for talented artistes in sabhas big and small. “Sean’s Carnatic base is very strong. He takes care of the content and helps me with the access to the industry,” says Mahesh.
Each time, they wanted a different look and feel and hence they decided to hire an art director for the videos. “Durbar, who have been doing a great job of curating classical music shows in the UK, was a major inspiration for me to start this initiative. Another inspiration for me was the Kolkata-based Friday Night Original (FNO), who release one original song every Friday evening and do it season-wise. I spoke to them also to understand this space,” says Mahesh.
There is a lot more that is being done to reach out to the first-time listeners. “We wanted to do a MadRasana festival during the music season. We partnered with Sathyam Cinemas and did a festival for five days in the mornings. We converted one hall into a kutcheri space. Everyday we assembled our equipment and by 12pm, it was all dismantled for the movie screenings in the later part of the day. Ranjini Gayathri also performed for it and it was completely packed. Since it was a theatre set-up, the new audience wasn’t intimidated. They posted this on Instagram and more first-time listeners showed-up for this event,” says Mahesh.
MadRasana has a lot of discussions with its listeners. “We take polls in our closed groups and gather a lot of feedback. We realised that many people listen to Carnatic music during workouts. So we got specific data about the kind of workouts, duration and the ragas they listen to. We can give content around what they need. One person said he listens to a raga for over 25 minutes when he paints. We can come up with music for that. We are trying to getting such specific content from the artistes for a specific audience,” signs off Mahesh.
This story was published in the 11th anniversary edition of The Times of India, Chennai