Please tell us about yourself
He is all of 25 and an Internet sensation in his own right. Yet, the first thing you are likely to notice about Mahesh Raghvan are the colourful socks he wears. No classic blacks, whites, greys or blues for him, the young Carnatic musician is happy flaunting flamboyant prints, such as laughing monkeys on yellow hues. “It started when I was working in radio. I saw colourful socks one day and wore them to work. Suddenly, everyone’s attention was directed at my feet. I told myself, ‘This is one way of being interesting’.”
The idea of being ‘interesting’ informs his work as well. This year, you may have chanced upon a series of popular Western themes that have been getting Carnatic ‘makeover’ – from Adele’s Hello, the original soundtrack of Pirates of the Caribbean to those of popular shows such as Friends, Game of Thrones and Sherlock. Each of these spin-offs, played on iPad using an app called GeoShred, have not only gone viral, but are increasingly commanding a following of their own.
We meet Mahesh at his Al Barsha residence where he lives with his chartered accountant father and mother who was formerly an Economics teacher. They may not be active participants in his music, but they live each note he plays. We are guided to a small room populated by speakers, consoles and an iPad. It is a studio where dreams are born. Mahesh may have realised some of them, but he is gradually learning the ways of viral stardom. “I don’t know what happens to me when I am making music. I am in this trance-like state. But the thing with viral content is that people remember you for two days. Once I switch off my phone, everything is gone. So the process repeats itself,” he says.
What inspired you to take the path of recreating the international and electronic music into your own version of Carnatic music?
I have been training in Carnatic music since a very young age. I’ve seen many instances where students stop studying Carnatic Music because they find the pure form really boring and it doesn’t interest them so much. Sadly, a lot of my friends avoid going to pure classical concerts for the same reason. I’ve always wanted to prove the fact that ‘Carnatic Music is very cool!’. Hence, I’ve been presenting popular Carnatic repertoire in forms that the young audiences of today can relate to. It is surely one way of including Carnatic music on a typical millennial’s playlist!
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
The pop culture rulebook would have you believe that the story of a typical 25-year-old, who is reinventing classical music, would comprise drama. But Mahesh’s story is as simple as it gets. As a four-year-old, he started learning Carnatic music from his aunt. Soon after, he began picking tunes on his own on the keyboard. Even as he got more passionate about his music, studies never took a backseat. “I was academically brilliant. I come from a family of smart people. So it’s in the genes,” he grins.
Having completed his bachelor’s in audio production from Dubai’s SAE Institute, Mahesh went on to pursue his MSc in Digital Composition and Performance from the University of Edinburg. Scotland went on to open a world of possibilities. As his radio colleague and former collaborator Dev J Haldar recalls, “In one of the projects he was doing in Edinburgh, he wanted to show Buddha’s learning through the distortion of music. Imagine you are not using words but only sound to denote that pure sound equals pure thought. That is the kind of thinking process he has. He not only understands the nuances of music but also the science behind it. I’ve always wanted to play Carnatic music on an instrument and I was never satisfied with my efforts on a keyboard/guitar. I discovered a few iPad music apps (GeoSynth, GeoShred) a few years ago. After playing with them for a few months, I developed a technique to play Carnatic gamakas (ornamentations/bends), and since then, there was no turning back. I still practice the iPad instruments everyday to find new techniques and methods to get better at what I do.
Tell us about your work
As he carefully spreads talcum powder on his iPad (it is meant to smoothen the movement of his fingers over the app), Mahesh recalls another incident that eventually inspired him to adapt Western music in classical Carnatic style. “Once I was asked to present my music in a club. That was pretty weird for me as I was used to playing classical music. How was I to play in front of an essentially young, culturally diverse crowd and engage them at the same time?” The dilemma gave birth to his YouTube project FLAIR: Carnatic Music 2.0. “It was around this time I discovered the app GeoSynthesiser and later GeoShred. It is designed like a guitar fretboard and you can replicate a lot of string instrument sounds on it. The sound that I eventually created is called XITAR, it’s my unique sound,” he says with a hint of pride.
Marrying technology with classical music was a risk that paid off rather well. Some of his early compositions were Indian classical fusion, but he realised the need to reach out to a wider audience. It was one of his friends (Mahesh claims he doesn’t have too many of them) who had challenged him to Carnatic-ise a popular Western song. “At that time, Adele’s Hello was trending. I realised the way I play music, it could go well with Western songs.” He released his version of Hello on his YouTube channel and within a few days received more than 100,000 views. The litmus test of social media had been passed. “People were tagging each other, saying, ‘You need to watch this.’ When I upload a video, I make a funny thumbnail graphic. So, I put a bindi on Adele’s forehead.”
And that’s how Adele became Adeleshwari!
Mahesh followed the success of the video, which has had nearly a million views on YouTube, with similar spin-offs on the soundtracks of Game of Thrones, Sherlock and Friends. Each of them went on to become social media hits. “After watching my videos, a lot of people downloaded GeoShred. As a result, the company that owns this app began to support me. It’s been created by one of the best keyboardists in the world, Jordan Rudess.” Gregory Pat Scandalis, the chief technology officer of moForte, the company behind GeoShred, admits the app’s popularity has reached another level altogether ever since Mahesh’s videos went viral on YouTube. “The current version of GeoShred has direct support for modelling the sitar bridge and the tambura jiva bridge and it’s possible to perform it with some degree of microtonality. Based on Mahesh’s wonderful performances, other players have realised this potential as well. Every week, I hear a new arrangement using GeoShred that is a fusion of classical Indian and contemporary music.”
It is not uncommon for exponents of classical art forms to make a case against fusion. Though he says he has faced criticism from certain quarters for mixing two diverse musical genres, Mahesh argues, “Carnatic music has rigid rules. If there is a raaga, you cannot really play off note. I use my creative liberty only up to a certain point. Technically, it’s Carnatic music. The only thing I do is present it in a way that is engaging to youngsters. Some purists don’t like anything new being done to the form. But the new generation does not listen to that form as much. My music acts as a starting point for them.” In six months, he hopes to launch another project under the aegis of FLAIR and start performing in live shows.
Social media is a level-playing field. Artistes - established as well as amateur – can showcase their work and hope for it to reach out to a wider audience. However, it can also be a fickle world that constantly demands ‘unique-ness’ from content for it to stand out. Does that bother him? “I don’t want to do what everyone is doing. So being unique is part of the plan.” An evening with him proves just as much!
Through your work, you have made classical music reach out to a wider and larger international audience base. What were the challenges you faced while doing so?
In almost all my music productions, the main challenge I face is keeping a listener engaged. In this day and age when social media users skip videos and posts at the blink of an eyelid, there has to be a lot of thought put into engagement. The other challenge is that there are only 24 hours in a day. On almost all my projects, I take care of everything myself at all stages from recording and arrangement to video editing. I had to learn a lot of new skills myself that were unrelated to music, some of which included video editing, social media skills, colour correction, graphic design, motion graphics, lighting, cinematography etc. I learnt everything through online courses. Because of this, it takes me a lot of sleepless nights, time and effort for each production. It does get tiring and sometimes even affects my health, but at the end of the day I really enjoy what I do!
Any upcoming music we can look forward to?
I have quite a few pieces that I’ve done along as part of the IndianRaga 2017 US Fellowship. Plus, I have a few original pieces and a few collaborations that I have been working on; which I plan to release on my YouTube Channel.
Your message to independent artists like you who are just starting out.
To all those who are just starting out, my advice to them would be to keep doing what they love without giving up. Patience and persistence is the key to success. Nothing happens overnight. Also, practicing and learning new things to improve is a must!