Indian Classical music, whether Carnatic or Hindustani, is deeply rooted in tradition, restricted to a niche audience who understand its nuances, complexities and cultural heritage ! But its about time that the rest of the world appreciates this genre of music for what it truly reflects.
Aravind Iyer, our next pathbreaker, Partner & Music Technologist at Sadharani Music Works, builds technology to make Indian Classical music more accessible, more transparent and less mysterious to a larger audience.
Aravind talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his interest in mathematical modeling and music, which led him to a PhD (Electrical Engineering) at Purdue, followed by stints in GM and Samsung, and then deciding to combine his two interests in music and technology through Sadharani Music Works.
For students, the post-covid world is filled with uncertainties which require you to introspect and understand how you can combine your interests and strengths in unique ways. Read on …
Aravind, tell us about Your background?
I grew up in Dombivli, a suburb of Mumbai. My father was a central government employee, my mother is a homemaker, and my brother is several years younger than myself. It is a bustling place filled with people from all parts of India. At school, I became quite interested in Maths and Physics. In my teenage years, I was also interested in music, mainly rock, but I did not mind listening to other styles including ghazals, Carnatic or Bollywood music. Thanks to my open-minded parents, kind teachers and some very smart classmates, I was able to develop a curious and questioning attitude.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
Being academically inclined, I prepared for the IIT-JEE and secured a seat at IIT Bombay. I enrolled in the 5 year dual degree (B.Tech + M.Tech) program in Electrical Engineering. At IIT, I was interested in most courses, but more so in the ones which were more mathematically oriented. The teaching faculty were excellent and the students quite competitive, an environment which I mostly enjoyed. Thanks to a wonderful community of fellow students, I became exposed to a very wide array of musical works. I also learned to play the drums and jammed occasionally with other students.
Not being satisfied with the kinds of things companies were saying at pre-placement talks, I applied for higher studies. I enrolled at Purdue for a PhD. At IIT, I lived in a hostel. But at Purdue, having to live on my own as a grown-up, I learned a lot – negotiating rentals, filing taxes, shopping, cooking, cleaning as well as working on my research (which is why I was there in the first place)!
I worked on the modeling and performance analysis of wireless communication networks. The general idea was to use mathematical models which captured how wireless links operated and then simulate or mathematically analyze how a network of many such links would perform.
Despite being on a student stipend, the purchasing power of the dollar made it possible for me to buy a drum set of my own and countless music CDs, mainly jazz which I had really begun to like. We had a band, and we played some rock-style numbers from Indian films.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
A career is an on-going personal journey – an individual’s path through the professional world. I embarked on my journey taking small steps each time based on my understanding at that time. There were many influences and guiding hands: wise words from professors, seniors and peers.
The first conscious career decision I took was to not apply for jobs, but rather to apply for a PhD, at the end of my stint at IIT Bombay. This was based on my lack of excitement at the job descriptions during campus placements. My next conscious decision was to return to India right after my PhD. This was motivated partly by the desire to stay close to family and friends. But I had scouted the professional scene in India during my visits by talking casually and formally to friends and companies, and I had been enthused by the opportunities.
Another time I took a conscious career decision was when I quit my job to take a sabbatical. I had worked in the industry for several years after my PhD and I had been fortunate enough to have been a part of many projects in different roles. But it was not clear to me where I was going. My daughter was 4 years old at the time and my wife worked too. There was way too much activity but little sense of direction which led me to this decision.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
My first job was as a Researcher at the India Science Lab at General Motors in Bengaluru. I had interviewed with them during a visit to India and they were kind enough to make an offer. At GM, I worked on Vehicle-to-vehicle communications (5.9 GHz DSRC) and security protocols for authentic message exchange in a broadcast setting. It was quite exciting to be able to do research, write papers, participate in standardization bodies and live in the hope that it would all be commercialized one day. At GM, I learned what multi-disciplinary engineering really meant. Every time I drive a car (or use a smartphone, as another example), I marvel at how many different pieces of technology, each requiring a different kind of expertise, have all gone into the thing. While at GM too, a few colleagues and I were in a band and we performed during some social events.
I joined Samsung R&D at Bengaluru, after 5 years at GM. From a research job in an industry with multi-year product development cycles, to an engineering job at a smartphone maker was a serious change. But once I got clarity on my role, I thoroughly relished the change of pace. At Samsung, we designed a communications protocol and framework to enable the smartphone, smart watch, televisions and other accessories to talk to each other. My prior experience dealing with protocols and standardization was helpful, as we defined protocols which made sure different teams writing different pieces of software for different devices could ultimately make everything work together correctly. I feel proud and lucky that our work has been commercialized in several Samsung devices.
After 4 years at Samsung, I took a sabbatical to pursue my own interests. I spent nearly 2 years doing everyday things, running, writing, coding, spending more time with my family and getting various pieces of my life in order. I became convinced that I wanted to have more control over my time and workload as I became more active professionally. With that in mind, I started collaborating with Modelicon Infotech, as a consultant on a couple of projects they were working on. Meanwhile, I also started working with S Balachander on what has eventually become Sadharani Music Works.
How did you get your first break?
As I mentioned earlier, during my visits to India, I made it a point to understand the professional scene and talk to people as and when possible. I had read about General Motors R&D and even visited their booth at a campus event at Purdue. When I got to know they had a lab in India, I obtained the contact of a manager at the lab (from a friend) and wrote to him.
Similarly, other career transitions happened through the help of friends and professional acquaintances.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Professional life is often not very predictable and can result in different kinds of challenges. I feel that the hardest challenges are situations where you are unable to articulate clearly what is holding you back. Once the nature of the challenge has been articulated, it becomes much easier to address it.
At General Motors, my biggest challenge was that I did not know much about Security and Cryptography. But we were supposed to do research on message authentication for Vehicle-to-vehicle broadcast communications. Once this was clear, the remedy was also clear – that I needed to study technical books and literature so that I was up to speed and able to make a meaningful contribution.
At Samsung, the biggest challenge was the change of pace (automotive vs mobiles, research vs engineering). Again, once this was clear, the remedy was also clear. While earlier I would have preferred a well-researched, general solution to a problem, here I had to keep coming up with pragmatic, specific solutions which could be constantly corrected or updated as we went along.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your work
I take care of technology at Sadharani Music Works (https://www.sadharani.com). My partner, S Balachander, is an expert Indian Classical musician and an inventor and performing artist of Chandraveena. I really like his music and through many discussions with him I have found the musical rules, the philosophy and the ecosystem of Indian Classical music to be very intriguing. We both felt that many fans of Indian Classical music think of it in terms of just the musical performances. But there is a whole ecosystem of artists, students, instrument makers, recording engineers, event managers and so on, without which the music would not reach its maturity and appear in front of the fans. As real fans, we need put in the work to nurture this ecosystem.
At Sadharani, we are working on several things. But I would like to talk about two of those: Chandraveena and PureTones.
Chandraveena (https://www.chandraveena.com) aims to create and promote musical works and musical commentary by S Balachander, on his instrument, Chandraveena. We have created a brand identity around Chandraveena, a website to publish his musical commentary, a YouTube channel and a Bandcamp page to sell high fidelity musical works. We have established standards and processes for high fidelity home recording, for post-production of audio and video and for drafting and publishing text articles.
PureTones (https://puretones.sadharani.com) is dedicated towards understanding Indian music scales and tuning systems, emulation of the Tanpura, sequencing Raga based signature tunes, and so on. Creating software instruments makes it possible for an expert musician to operate them in a manner akin to how they would operate a real instrument. But being software instruments, this makes the result of those operations transparently documented and repeatable. In Indian Classical music, there is a mixture of Lakshya and Lakshana (subjective and objective) aspects at play when an expert operates an instrument. So, it can often be difficult to separate the rules from the creative interpretations. However, the use of software brings Indian Classical music to a platform of objective inspection, including self-inspection by the expert artist.
We have created a digital tanpura and a tune composer/sequencer. We have already published recordings based on these tools. Once the tools are mature, we plan to release the core models and algorithms in the public domain as open source software.
As far as the skills go, there are a variety of elements needed to make these things work. So, starting from visual design tools, tools for mathematical analysis of tones and signals, to different types of programming and development tools, it has been a fascinating and challenging journey. Our skills include audio and video production, technical writing, visual design, mathematical modeling and analysis, web development, digital signal processing and a deep understanding of Indian Classical music (which S Balachander brings in).
How does your work benefit the society?
A necessary characteristic of professional endeavours is that they should create human value. The value of music in general, and specifically that of Indian Classical music, is beyond dispute. But even in this space, we believe in making Indian Classical music more accessible, more transparent and less mysterious. Sadharani is supported by our patrons and close friends and family who share these values with us. We hope that we can grow the community of people who are engaged with our work and through them demonstrate how our work benefits society.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
This is probably the “recency bias” at play, but I feel that the work we have done in building the PureTones tools (digital Tanpura, musical scale and sequencer) has been a memorable piece of work and has exceeded my expectations. The fact that a piece of computer code can produce musical tones and motifs which are beautiful and valid pieces of Indian Classical music is quite amazing, and it shows the depth of logical principles behind India’s music.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Learning and working are two sides of the same coin. You cannot work if you have not learned the skills necessary to do the job. At the same time, learning is not complete unless you work and figure out how to put your skills to use. This is an important perspective to have.
It is easy to switch between a purely academic mindset to a purely practitioner’s perspective. It is important to retain a balance. So, my advice would be that when you learn (whether in a university course or online course) take the time to connect your subject to the life you see and to unusual places it could be applicable to. Then try and work on those applications. On the other hand, when you work (whether in an internship, job or venture) take the time to think about what skills and technology you need to make it better. Then try and learn those things.
It is difficult to predict the immediate future. Our “future plans” of 10 months back have been scuttled thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Right now, there is lots more to do in terms of our ideas and work at Sadharani. So, that is what the future holds.