14 Nov 2017 19:09 IST

Using social media to demystify classical music

Technology is indeed a leveller, as Anuja Kamat explains different raagas on YouTube

Every Indian is fed a healthy diet of film songs every day. We listen to film music on the radio, on TV and while watching clips forwarded by friends and family. Add filmi dance to this diet, and Indians may well be the population most exposed to artistic talents in the world.

But for all of our abilities to instantly recollect a Bollywood number and describe its metadata — the singers, the actors, the film title, perhaps even the music director — most of us are fundamentally unable to map a song to its classical roots. Consider this popular clip from the film Pukaar:

Pyaar zindagi, pyaar har khushi,

Pyaar jisne paaya hai

Vohi dil phool jaisa khilaa

While we might gleefully sing along (perhaps, even dance a few steps to go one up on Madhuri Dixit and Prabhudeva), a majority would probably not know that the tune is based on Raag Yaman.

Is this a problem?

Not really. Many of those who are eminently gifted in music — such as Kishore Kumar and SPB — never trained in classical music but still attained enormous fame. After all, children learn to speak their mother tongue long before they learn to read and write its alphabet.

Not knowing the technical structure of a language but still being able to communicate with mere vocabulary is what makes the human species so different from others in the animal kingdom. But getting to be good at syntax, grammar and context allows us to write and read — competencies that are at the core of human knowledge. These skills have helped humans communicate with complete strangers, across geographies and generations, and are foundational to development.

In the world of music, there are only seven core ‘alphabets’. Various permutations and combinations of these seven have given us hundreds of raagas, each of which have a defined and unique set of notes, syntax and grammar. There are probably over two lakh film songs, so how can we identify each song’s lineage with its parent raaga?

Enter: the internet

A young woman by the name of Anuja Kamat has begun to explore this very question. Using a dedicated Youtube channel , she takes one raaga at a time — Yaman and Bhimpalas are already up — and digs into their basics: What are the alphabets? What is the grammar (the rise and fall of the notes, the arohan and avarohan)? And which popular Bollywood numbers were based on this construct?

This kind of education is extremely powerful — and fun. We are good at making associations. Repeated associations of popular numbers back to a core raaga could help us become more literate in the astounding world of Indian classical music. It allows us to appreciate our heritage better. It is like finally learning the theory behind the daily chemistry experiment we all perform — of stirring a teaspoon of sugar into the cup before savouring our morning coffee.

Well, how many of us really want to know all the intricate nuts and bolts of music? Can’t we simply enjoy music as we listen to it? Of course we can.

Demand for learning

But there’s a better way. Anuja’s YouTube channel already has more than 40,000 subscribers. Her Facebook page says that her Yaman video (below) got 100,000 views in just a month. This shows that ordinary individuals are tuning in because they want to learn. Anuja’s genius is that as a classically trained singer, she is taking the mystery out of classical music through her mapping effort.

To be sure, there are other websites that map film songs to raagas and vice-versa. Some even include clips of the original song after identifying the raaga. But Anuja Kamat takes the time to teach her audience, one syllable at a time. The number of frequent cuts, spliced and edited to make the entire clip look like one seamless piece of video, shows the amount of effort that has gone into the exercise. And all of this is delivered in a pleasing, smiling manner, which instantly binds the viewer to the clip. The only way to appreciate what she is doing is to watch her work.

The great leveller

It was Salman Khan ( not the Bollywood actor) who first used dull chalkboard YouTube video clips to teach math to the world. Anyone with access to YouTube and a doubt about how to solve a quadratic equation could instantly get answers by watching ‘Sal’.

Today, Khan Academy is one of the most visited sites in the world and receives funding from the likes of the Gates Foundation. There is nothing more democratic than bringing the power of knowledge to the masses for free. As Bill Gates rightly said, technology indeed is the greatest leveller.

Anuja Kamat could well be on her way towards creating a Kamat Academy — one that preserves the legacy of Indian classical music by imparting its fundamentals to the masses. She deserves all the support that she can get.