Here's why Ed Shreeran's 'Shape of You' got an Indian classical twist

By  Benita Fernando | Mumbai | Posted  07-May-2017

Ed Sheeran with taanam, Sia with thani avarthanam and Ellie Goudling with sankarabharanam - here's why artistes across continents are doing Carnatic covers of Billboard chart toppers

The artiste group from Indian Raga that performed Cheap Thrills’ Carnatic version. Pic/Saru JanahanThe artiste group from Indian Raga that performed Cheap Thrills' Carnatic version. Pic/Saru Janahan

When we listened to the Carnatic mix of Shape of You last week, we have to admit that there was some getting used to. Instead of Ed Sheeran's voice, singers Aditya Rao and Vinod Krishnan unleashed a steady stream of swaram, while Mahesh Raghvan worked magic with music production apps on his iPad Pro. We heard it once, thought it was a strange new experience, and then played it at least 15 more times over the weekend.

"When I visited Mumbai two months ago, everyone seemed to be humming Shape of You. It was even my treadmill mix," says Sriram Emani, the CEO of arts education start-up Indian Raga that produced the Carnatic cover. Sheeran's original, which stayed at No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for more than 10 weeks, has proven addictive earworm qualities. It was but natural that Emani and the artistes brainstormed to create a cover.

Waghesan Sivanathan. Pic/Saru Janahan
Wageshan Sivanathan. Pic/Saru Janahan

The Carnatic mix is the latest of the covers of Sheeran's song on YouTube. It has met with a similar fate in the hands of Toronto-based sister duo, Veena Thambaps, who regularly upload Carnatic mixes of English, Hindi and Tamil pop songs. The sisters Aathy and Aara Thambiappah also covered Party Monster by The Weeknd. It is an experiment in East meets West, infusing top charting Billboard numbers with Indian classical, be it in the form of vocals or instruments.

Emani, who was in town last week to kick-start the Mumbai premiere of Indian Raga, which he co-founded in 2011, says there is a renaissance taking place within the Indian classical arts. The IIT-Bombay graduate, who has worked with Mumbai's National Centre for Performing Arts and New York's Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts, says that world-over there is an attempt by cultural institutions to engage with audiences and especially appeal to the younger lot.

The Thambiappahs write to us over email, "We were always inspired by the stalwarts of the veena (S. Balachandar, for example), but when we saw live concerts of our favourite film songs by artistes like Rajesh Vaidhya, and Punya Srinivas play incredible western numbers, we were inspired to bring that kind of awareness to the younger generation."

This is also among the reasons why Indian Raga launched a Carnatic interpretation of Sia's Cheap Thrills last August. The cover, set by Raghvan, features young Carnatic artistes playing the ghatam, mridangam and violin with the original's English vocals. "Hours before our mix went live, we had butterflies in our stomachs. It was the first time that we were doing something of this kind. We told ourselves that if audience sensibilities were offended by this mix, we would take down the video," recalls Emani. The song, which has a face-off between the mridangam and the ghatam, records 3.75 lakh views on Indian Raga's YouTube channel till date.

Mahesh Raghvan and Sriram Emani of Indian Raga. Pic/Sameer MarkandeMahesh Raghvan and Sriram Emani of Indian Raga. Pic/Sameer Markande

Wooing the youth
The Cheap Thrills' remix's lead vocalist, Neha Pullela, learned Carnatic until she was 14, later moving on to the piano. The 20-year-old Oklahoma City resident, who works with the Emergency Medical Services, says that one of the thrills of doing the video was wearing traditional South Indian attire, something that pleased her mum to no end. Her 12-year-old brother, Naren, who plays the mridangam in the remix, started training on the instrument and the tabla since he was under five. He is mentored over Skype, and has had four gurus based out of both the USA and India.

For the siblings, this fusion of music styles is a way of connecting to their roots. "If you don't get to go to India, this is a fairly accessible path to one's culture. It opens up Carnatic music to listeners, especially those who are young," she says.

That this nascent movement is being driven by the NRI community is not surprising as they are forced to straddle two different worlds and must find a way to reconcile them. The Thambiappahs state that, for a while, they refrained from even talking about Indian music with their friends because it was considered "uncool". "We were scared of not fitting in. However, we think now, more than ever, North Americans of Indian heritage really want to embrace their music," they say.
What's purist, really?

Neha PullelaNeha Pullela

Over in Colombo, Waghesan Sivanathan delivered a veena rendition of Ellie Goulding's Love Me Like You Do last year, a composition that has 8.44 lakh views so far. "I was in the UK back in December 2015 and heard it nearly everywhere I went. When I came back home, my friend suggested I give it a shot," he says. Having trained in percussion in his childhood and later in the veena in Chennai, Sivanathan grew up in a family involved in the classical arts. His father played devotional songs in temples, while his sister is a trained Bharatnatyam dancer. However, after his Carnatic mix took over his listeners' playlists, there were those who objected. The veena is an instrument regarded with great sanctity among musicians, an instrument of the gods, no less. Waghesan's remix was of a song that became the soundtrack for the film Fifty Shades of Grey, a matter that was met with criticism. "The veena may be a divine instrument but, more importantly, if an instrumental piece of music can make you feel the melody, isn't that divine?" he says.

Emani is unfazed. "We are not sensationalising Carnatic music. Out of all the compositions on Indian Raga, only two are covers of English pop songs. Carnatic music allows artistes to improvise and, even if you were to do a pure Carnatic piece, then too there are debates and discussions around it," he says.

Then there are the purists on the other end of the spectrum, the hardcore pop fans, who find the trend discomforting. Raghvan says that when he recreated the FRIENDS theme song, ardent followers of the sitcom were miffed.

There are limits to this musical cross-cultural pollination though. Raghvan both yearns and dreads attempting Bohemian Rhapsody, a song that he says would be utterly impossible in Carnatic. Those Queen fans who would not appreciate such a take on the classic rock opera can therefore rest easy.

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