How event organiser MadRasana migrated online to help Indian classical music thrive in lockdown

MadRasana was launched to take Carnatic music to a contemporary audience in novel ways, which have included organising concerts in cafes, theatres, and screening performances on YouTube that experiment with diverse formats

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe October 10, 2020 12:34:15 IST
How event organiser MadRasana migrated online to help Indian classical music thrive in lockdown

Anantha R Krishnan and Abhishek Raghuram in a mridangam duet. Screengrab from MadRasana's YouTube channel

When two musicians meet, what do they talk about? How do they debate over the different facets of one raga in various renditions? Which are the subjects that they discuss in-depth for hours on end?

More than six months ago, when the coronavirus lockdown pressed an indefinite pause on live performances and closed theatres and auditoriums to audiences, it ushered in a period during which artists and performers took to the screen to engage in discussions, discourses and even virtual concerts.

Mahesh Venkateswaran, founder of the music platform MadRasana, was among those select organisers who were quick to switch gears and cater to what is now a largely digital audience for the arts. So, when social distancing norms came into effect, MadRasana continued to release new episodes of its online series, 'MadRasana Conversations', albeit with a slight twist. Where once an artist and an interviewer would come together in a studio setting for an interview, now Venkateswaran had two artists talking on a video chat, with each of them recording their conversations on their respective phones.

In these talks, prolific artists like Sudha Ragunathan, Patri Satish Kumar, Sandeep Narayan and Ramakrishnan Murthy dove deep into subjects that ranged from sahitya (literature) in Carnatic music, to the influence of the guru on an artist’s journey, to nuances of a raga and playing antaakshari. The artistes discussed and dissected topics of their choice.

Venkateswaran elaborates that while the pair of artists featured in each episode was free to choose any topic for the conversation, the broader idea was to have musicians discuss each aspect of the subject in great detail, thus sharing with audiences a slice of their explorations as exponents of the art form.

After quitting his corporate job four years ago, the former Managing Director at Cognizant, who was also a connoisseur of Carnatic music, attended Chennai's December music festival for the first time — “one of the biggest music festivals in the world” celebrating the rich legacy of this Indian classical art. Soon after, Venkateswaran launched MadRasana to take Carnatic music to a contemporary audience in novel ways, which have included organising Carnatic concerts in cafes and theatres and screening performances on YouTube that experiment with diverse formats like virtual reality and 360 degree cameras.

A crisis should not be wasted, Venkateswaran says, “and this one has given so many great opportunities for people to experiment.” The entrepreneur is undeterred by the changing landscape of art and its consumption following the pandemic. In fact, he has been taking this time to change the way music is presented virtually. The content of MadRasana’s videos on YouTube has shifted its focus to “conversations, deep dives, longer formats,” where the “density of content has increased” manifold.

“So, though the frequency [of videos released] prior to the lockdown and after, is similar, the duration of each episode has increased tremendously. From five minutes that we released normally, now it is more than one hour per episode.”

For the venture, there is no dearth of new content or qualms about whether audiences will tire of their lengthy conversations. These episodes are, in fact, the first instances of their productions crossing the 10 minute-mark, featuring artists in discussions for as long as two hours. But Venkateswaran has also been breaking up the longer chats into smaller bits, further making 10 minute-long segments for each video in order to let his listeners easily access only those parts that they are most interested in.

“The reach of these videos typically starts after the third or fourth day,” he says, stating that the day a video is released, audiences usually browse and park it, but “then they come back to it and finish it off.”

“So in the analytics we get from YouTube and others, we clearly see that the average watch time of each video has increased tremendously for us.”

MadRasana’s flagship show during the lockdown has been its 'Gridlock series', which has featured Carnatic recitals performed by artists from across the world. From Amrit Ramnath performing Nithyakalyanim in raga Kalyani, to Jayanth and Abhishek Borkar presenting a Raga Relay, in which the former plays a raga on his flute in Carnatic style, following which he passes the baton to the latter who produces the same raga on the sarod in Hindustani classical. The virtual recitals in this series have been as diverse as they have been soulful and evocative.

The best part about the eight or nine episodes that have made up this series, Venkateswaran says, is that they got artists whom they normally wouldn’t have. "For example, for one of the videos, we got a sarangi player [Yuji Nakagawa] from Japan.”

In this too, Venkateswaran’s idea was to stage something audiences have seldom seen before. On 2 October, the Super Heavy Ultra Magic video that MadRasana released featured a mridangam recital by Anantha R Krishnan and Abhishek Raghuram. What is striking about this utterly invigorating duet is that Raghuram is often known to most Carnatic audiences as a vocalist, and seldom as a mridangam exponent, making the recital an “intriguing” one for viewers.

Speaking of the hours of camerawork and editing involved in producing the mridangam recital, Venkateswaran says: “It’s one of the toughest videos we have shot. It’s a very short six minute piece which Anantha had conceptualised.” This was a single take episode, he notes, and the tough bit was that cameras were placed all over: across, on the top, left and right, covering every possible angle.

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COVID-19 and the future of a virtual stage

If the coronavirus crisis is any indication, the virtual will be the future for art and entertainment and Venkateswaran already has a roadmap in place for this transition. Right from the beginning of the lockdown, the MadRasana team was firm on not using video conferencing platforms for their shows because there were too many “interesting things to embed in the programme, and [they] wanted the audio and video quality to be top class.”

MadRasana’s founder works with an extended consortium of collaborators. However, during the lockdown, these collaborations too were rendered difficult to achieve. Additionally, neither was his studio open nor could he send cameramen to artists’ homes.

Adapting to the new format meant his new workflow would involve a complicated network of artists, and Venkateswaran himself would have to get on a Zoom meeting, in which an episode would be recorded, along with individual phone cameras filming the entire sequence that he would then compile and edit.

“The thrill is to use whatever is available,” he says, adding that he would host extensive Zoom meetings to figure out what would work, and settle on one method after multiple trial and errors.

According to Venkateswaran, the virtual space is a brand new format to experience, and not a replacement for stage concerts. He says that nothing can take away the experience of a stage concert, but something magical can happen within the digital sphere which a stage cannot bring either.

There are several nuggets that can be shown in digital performances which the audiences cannot experience in a live one. For instance, in a virtual concert, every person sits in the front row.

“Can I go even further than the first row?” he asks, “What about the expression, the exchange of glances between artists? Can I see the hand movements of a violin player? I will miss that in an auditorium, whereas I can capture that in a virtual concert. So the way you shoot a virtual concert should not just be a camera in the front which covers everybody.”

As public spaces continue to remain shut to curb the spread of the virus; as audiences take to the screens more and more to immerse in art for leisure and entertainment, and as Chennai’s December music festival stands cancelled, Venkateswaran has laid down plans to feature a virtual experience of the musical carnival.

“One of the main things is that being in lockdown, everybody is so claustrophobic in their minds that we don’t want to have another online concert in a studio. So we are going outdoors and we are going to shoot six concerts in an open environment, not in a typical auditorium set up.”

Watch more of MadRasana’s virtual shows here

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