India, besides its catchy film songs, is known to have a strong classical music heritage. Indian musicians have performed on so many platforms, locally and globally bringing immense love for Indian music. Most musicians in India have a grasp on classical music which gives them the impetus to perform and collaborate with different genres of music. Most Indians living outside the country learn classical music, be it Carnatic or Hindustani to stay connected with their roots. Apart from staying connected, it has helped them delve into various other forms of music with ease thus making a tremendous mark in their countries, whilst spreading far and wide the cultural heritage.
One such sensational singer from Canada brought to the world 73 Ragas with Vogue and mesmerised the globe. Recently, he was on the New York Times Square Billboard alongside Veteran singer Smt Lata Mangeshkar. CSP was in conversation with Abby V, a Canadian singer of Indian origin who spoke to us about his journey and the Indian music scenario in Canada.
When did you first start singing and what inspired you to sing?
Well, it was a very natural progression and not a lot of thought was put into it because my dad sings, not professionally but out of passion. I grew up in Toronto and singing was a way with which he could stay connected to his roots. He would perform with his friends during the weekends and was very involved with the music scene here. I picked up from him and started to sing and accompany him on stage.
I started learning at a very young age and I simultaneously learnt classical music. Like all Non-residential Indians who have this need to stay connected to their roots, my parents exposed me to music and I was lucky enough to be part of the music scene. Initially, I wasn’t interested in classical music as I was into pop, R&B and Bollywood. I used to perform as a child and it was much later that I took to learning classical music seriously. I wouldn't really practice and would find excuses to not attend classes. Carnatic and Hindustani music lessons start slow and it takes so long to understand where it leads to. I had completely left it at one point. I still kept singing but not classical. But I came back after listening to my Guru’s Smt Ranjani and Smt Gayatri’s music performance on television and thought to myself ‘wow, I’ve never heard anything like this - can Classical music really sound this beautiful?’ and that's when I started learning it more seriously.
When did you realise that music is what you want to pursue?
It was always there at the back of my mind and my parents were always very supportive. It was more their dream and they were living their dream through me. My musical pursuits were never dismissed as a part-time activity. I gave it my all whether I was performing, learning or just listening. However, I did end up doing a Bachelor’s degree in business from the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. During your high school / college years, you start to think a bit practical and maybe do music on the side. But things fell into place and music took over. My final exam was in April and in February I was called for a reality show and in May, I was touring and doing the show.
Tell us about your experience with the 73 Ragas with Vogue?
It was incredible. I was visiting India during the summer of 2019 when I came up with the idea. When I got back to Canada, I told my friend and video director, Karandeep Sheemar and my parents the idea. This video was my breakthrough in the digital space. It was one of my first projects. I had been touring and performing a lot, but I was a little insecure about putting myself out there on the internet. When you perform, you have that energy and once it is over, it is done. When you curate content for YouTube, the video is there for life so you’re all the more conscious. . This idea was very clear and strong in my head. A Lot of people were sceptical though. Usually with the 73 questions with Vogue, celebrities are asked questions to which they give answers that connect with the listeners, but if you are doing this with ragas, especially with 73 ragas, which would take a minimum of 10 minutes, it’s natural to wonder if people are really going to watch and relate to it. But I was quite convinced with my idea, and when people talk about the one thing that changed their life, for me it was this. It went viral in ways that I didn't expect it would. People were commenting and sharing and I could connect with so many wonderful people around the world. It truly changed my life.
Can you tell us about the role your Gurus have played up until now in your career?
My Gurus, Smt. Ranjani and Smt. Gayatri (Ranjani-Gayatri duo) and Smt. Raji Gopalakrishnan are a huge influence and it was because of them that I understood what Carnatic music is. Well of course, first is my father because he understood the value of music and he introduced me to the concept of ragas. Even when we listened to Bollywood music, he would talk me through the notes and the ragas of the song. I am very grateful to him for sparking that fascination. Growing up here, I didn't have the chance to learn continuously from my gurus. But those two months I would visit India, I would learn under them. More than the training, the inspiration from them is what I am immensely grateful for.
In your opinion, how important is it to understand the technicalities of Indian music to appreciate it?
I honestly don't know how to answer this question because I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by the musical environment. My father and I used to analyse and understand why certain music sounds a particular way. In that sense, it has been very rewarding to look at a whole new dimension of music. Like when you listen to pop or ghazal, music is obviously beautiful, but if you understand the lyrics, it is a whole new experience and whole new dimension of connection. Understanding the ragas is similar. There is a new depth of experience. But of course, there are so many languages and I wouldn’t understand what the lyrics mean and I still have a good experience. It's not mandatory to grasp the technicalities like the ragas, but if you do have the knowledge it only enhances the experience.
Have you taken part in competitions in and out India?
Yes, but not too many. It was a short one called International Superstar which is a worldwide singing reality show. They recruit people from different countries and I represented Canada. It was a great platform and I did end up winning which felt great. It was the first time I was singing Indian film music professionally. It was a great way to do that on a professional stage. It was a three week reality show. I used to feel like I missed out on a lot of these reality shows like Indian Idol especially when I look at my contemporaries and how they built their following through reality shows or appearances. This is a great way to start in India because Television is a prime outlet in India. I did feel like I missed out on that until I did 73 ragas. I was fortunate to have that viral experience. I know a lot of incredible people who struggle and they need these reality shows to come into the scene.
How did you master at Metalworks help shape your career?
The institute gives out a full scholarship to one Canadian every year covering full tuition at Metalworks. I was lucky enough to receive the scholarship and I’m very grateful for the experience. I was now studying what I really wanted to study and I made full use of it. I learnt so much from it because they cover a lot of aspects- like music production, music management, sound technology. I was very fortunate to have this experience.
How important is creating music videos at times like this?
During times like these, tapping into the online space is a great way for artists to continue expressing their art. The online platform is a wonderful way to stay connected with your audiences and I am glad to have the resources and skills to do it. It was a great lesson and eye opener for many artists to embrace digital space and technology and embrace their online following. It was the only way to express my art. The pandemic happened two weeks after I released 73 ragas. I had meetings and tours set up and I had to cancel all of them due to the lockdown. It was disheartening because I finally got all the courage to upload the video and this happened. But thanks to the immense support of people around me and the positivity in the world at the time, things helped me push through. There were times I couldn't make myself create content. This was my 9-5 job and we artists have such a multitude of work. We are either performing or at the studio recording or collaborating with other artists, creating content. So many spaces that the pandemic took away. So once I embraced the digital space, I was fine. I was happy I could pull through.
Are there fusion artists in Canada that you follow and would like to work with?
I am not sure of fusion in terms of classical music. There is a phenomenal drummer Sarah Thawer and she does a lot of Indian music, R&B, Rock and lots of different music. Jonita is a very popular singer and she is from Canada who has made it big in India. A lot of the talented musicians who focus on South Asian music end up moving to India to make a career for themselves. With respect to collaborations, I would love to visit India and collaborate with the artists that I have connected with over the past few months. With the digital space, it has been so easy to connect with them.
Among the various collaborations, are there any memorable collaborations you would like to share with us?
It’s very hard to pick favourites. I love this acapella I started during the lockdown. I collaborated with such wonderful singers like Sivaangi, Aishwarya, and Antara where we recreated iconic classical songs into an acapella version with a pop style. I love mixing elements of pop music with classical; which is another reason why 73 ragas happened - it was a great meeting point for classical music and pop culture coming together.
Are there artists from other genres who learn Indian classical music?
Surprisingly not as much as there should be. No one has touched upon this dialogue and it is so relevant because we hear of many South-Asian musicians who learn the fundamentals of Western music to enhance our technique. But I have never heard of performing Western musicians who learn South Asian classical music to enhance their craft. . Of course you have the scholarly and the academicians, the people who want to study it but performing musicians learning it to enhance their own craft, is not as common. And that bothers me a bit because there is so much value in Indian classical music and even with ghazals, Sufi music in south Asia. Quick e.g.- the concept of sargam in Carnatic music is an incredible asset and skill. If I am able to shift between so many ragas it is because I have a good grasp over the skeleton concept of sargam. And this concept of ragas which is a whole new dimension should travel globally, and it hasn’t yet.. In fact, guitarists learning Latin techniques and with the Korean wave, Indian classical music doesn’t have that much representation it should have and I hope my generation will change that and bring it to the forefront.
Can you comment on the audience for Indian classical musicians when they perform in Canada?
They are mostly Indians, unlike in Europe , especially in the UK where you do see native European audiences. This is mostly due to the number of Indians living here and there are so many organisations like the sabhas in India. The Sabhas have the same artists every year and I feel it should be a bit more inclusive of other upcoming artists too. In every major city in North America, the Sabhas cater to the same community, for example if there is a concert coming up, promotions would take place only in Indian stores or Indian Radio Channels. It must go beyond and that will bring recognition. Creating new content with local artists can bridge those two things and not just relying on artists in India. I would long for chances to perform here and there weren’t many. The sabhas would bring artists from India and people would attend to listen to the top 10, so where do we get the chance? Things are improving a little but concert promotions is what we need to work on a bit more.
What is the importance of sound technology in recording music?
I feel it’s very important to know the basics in today’s world of music. So much of our work is digitized and archived on the internet, it’s important for us artists to be able to execute our work the way we’d like to. In the last 2 years, things have become so much easier to create content even with their phones, there are tons of apps on your phone and with a decent mic and a quiet place, there are enhancing options on your phone that can add effects, add music and produce a good track on your phone. It never hurts to learn the tricks of the trade and learn how technology can help with music and in so many ways that's not just limited to recording, but with editing your videos, how to upload, what platforms to upload onto. Within the past year, you can see how technology can help artists with visibility. It can also hinder an artist if they don't execute their content like how they envisioned it and that is painful. So, yes, learning these technicalities is very relevant and helpful especially at a time like this.
Have you performed in India before? How different is the experience in India and Canada?
I have performed in Chennai and in Bombay. I have also been part of the December festival and I have performed at the Music Academy too, it was one of those venues on my bucket list!. Last year I was supposed to come to India, but couldn’t do so because of the pandemic. Hopefully soon! . The experience is pretty much the same. The listeners are just as sharp and I have listened to kutcheries of the same musician here and in India and the audience are quite sharp and are in tune with knowledge of the music. Since the families here try to stay really connected to the roots, they are as much involved and can be more critical of the performances. Concerts can go on for three hours maximum and Hindustani concerts can go up to 2 or 3 full rags, an interval and then one more. They do run for a longer time here.
How does the future look for you? Is there any different you want to do?
I have grown up embracing so many ethnicities and that translates into my art. I try to do things different every day- like Carnatic one day, a ghazal the other day. I want to be versatile and I love all these different styles. Strategically it would be clever if I did one style, like if one Tamil song gained a hit, it would make more sense to do Tamil songs. But the artist in me keeps switching it up and that keeps me going because my audience enjoys it too; and this way I am able to cater to a lot of people. There are so many musicians like Bombay Jayashree and Unnikrishnan who have done such incredible work in the film industry too and stalwarts like Kaushiki Ji have conquered different styles. The future for me is to create music of all kinds, my original music and to keep creating content. I want to have a mixed bag, not restrict myself and perform different styles because I get bored easily!
If not for music, what would you have done?
I would say if I wasn't a performing artist, I would still be a part of the music industry, maybe along the lines of music management. But if I had to do anything besides music, well I do have a degree in business and I would put that to use. Maybe join the Finance team in a record label. But definitely something with music.
Also maybe acting! I have done theatre and at home, I would act out scenes and characters. But I always had this passion and acting is such a celebrated profession in India and there's so many things that mask the actual art of acting like the fanfare, brand endorsements, looks, modelling and lifestyle. I am very passionate about the method of acting and I analyse these when I watch a film. There were times when I would act out different things and I would maybe want to explore that.