Nestled in one corner of the crowded online world of Indian classical music tutorials is Out of the Shruti Box, a YouTube channel that features this clear and polite disclaimer: “The following episodes do not aim to teach the viewer how to sing/perform Indian classical music… The viewer is suggested to take guidance of a guru or music teacher in case he/she is interested to sing/perform Indian classical music.” What the channel, and its 24-year-old creator, Anuja Kamat, want to do instead is tutor the listener of Indian classical music.
Since she set up Out of the Shruti Box three years ago, Kamat, who is trained in Hindustani classical and light music, has recorded 55 videos for the novice enthusiast. In these, she explains the basics of Indian classical music – from addressing rudimentary questions such as what a swara or taal is, to identifying Hindustani ragas, even in Bollywood songs.
The idea of creating a video explainer series came to Kamat while she was enrolled in a music diploma course at Mumbai University while still an undergraduate student at St Xavier’s College. “We the millennials watch a lot of YouTube videos on a daily basis and rely on Google for most of our information,” Kamat told Scroll.in. “Even I’ve accessed information related to Indian classical music online but it is all just text. I didn’t come across anything that uses the audio-visual format to explain the basics of our music. And I wondered, why not?”
After earning her Bachelors in Arts, she decided to earn her Master’s in music from Mumbai University and also started a little experiment at home, recording a string of videos explaining the fundamentals of a genre of music that is often considered incomprehensible and elitist. “I had a degree in music by now [apart from learning sugam sangeet from Uttara Kelkar and classical music from Shuchita Athalekar, Shashwati Mandal, Chetna Banawat and thumri from Dhanashree Pandit Rai] and I felt I could begin by sharing what I know,” said Kamat. “I knew students of music could benefit from it. So, I made the videos with the intention of addressing them. The series was also aimed at listeners who are clueless about Indian classical music and [want] to get initiated. I had no expectations out of it.”
It has been a one-woman-show for three years: Kamat conceptualises, scripts, records, performs and edits the videos all by herself. Typically, after gathering and structuring material for an episode, Kamat sets up her bridge camera and a USB condenser microphone to record the video and audio simultaneously. While editing, she merges the two.
“I was worried about what my teachers and peers would say [when I started],” Kamat said. “Some of my friends suggested that if I’m starting a YouTube channel, I might as well do something that is trendy – featuring cover songs, for instance. They said the topic I had chosen was a bit dry. But I wasn’t doing this for fame. I wanted to make these videos because I really believe this series could be useful. Many of them even said I may not get more than 100 subscribers or viewers. But I stuck to it and I’m so glad. So many youngsters, and not just from India, have written to me saying they’ve always liked classical music and my videos have given them a lot of clarity.”
It was her teacher Lydia at Convent Girls High School in Mumbai who first discovered Kamat’s talent as a singer. “I’m not from a musical family but my family likes listening to music a lot,” said Kamat. “My mother tried enrolling me in a classical music class because you know, there’s always this thing that you have to learn classical music to be able to grow as a musician. But I was too young to understand the abstract aspects of classical music, so I continued with light music and enjoyed it.”
In 2008, at the age of 15, Kamat participated in the Marathi television reality show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Little Champions (she went up to the third episode of the competition ). It was also the age at which she began to understand classical music. “My teacher [Uttara Kelkar] felt that I was possibly more mature now to appreciate it,” recalled Kamat. “She wanted me to learn classical music so that it can help my light music. In the years after that, I really began to love the nuances of it – it was a whole new world for me musically.”
Classical music, she feels, is a “developed taste” and is indeed a bit too abstract at times. “In Hindustani music, even a bandish is not considered a composition,” explained Kamat. “It is considered very free flowing and everyone can interpret it in their manner. All of it this becomes very confusing for a lay person. It is necessary to break down what goes on in a concert for close to two hours into smaller elements: a piece begins with the aalap, the words come in only when the bandish begins, then you are just following the cycle of beats that go hand in hand with it, then you move to a faster composition and so on. When you explain this, then people can begin appreciating music. I’m still saying that maybe classical music is not everybody’s cup of tea but if you don’t expose them to it, how will they explore it?”
Slow and steady
Kamat’s introductory lesson explained why music cultures are different even when they have the same basic notes. In the first episode, she explained amplitude, frequency and other physical aspects of music. “I even thought of redoing the first episode because I wondered if I was good enough,” said Kamat. “But it was my mother’s birthday and she just urged me to put it up online as her birthday gift and that was that.”
In the week after June 16, 2014, when her first episode went online, she got a message from Abhay Nayampally, a Carnatic guitarist. “He posted a message saying his uncle came across my video and told me that I was doing a wonderful thing,” said a still-thrilled Kamat. “He really appreciated the fact that the series talks about basics and said he was looking forward to more episodes.”
Kamat feels an affinity for teaching, inspired by her parents, she said. “My mother runs a playschool and my father is a dental surgeon and they’ve always been wonderful teachers to me. Maybe that’s also why I like the idea of simplifying things to their core.”
After the fourth episode, Kamat realised that some of the videos had begun to go viral. “I couldn’t believe the channel had started to get so many subscribers,” she said. “What I was shy about though, was replying to comments that were posted under the videos. I’d generally stay online for an hour and try to reply to videos and after that never look at the video again.”
The comments have generally been supportive, added Kamat. “There’s no-one asking me to shut it down and all that. What I did notice though was that the audience viewing the videos is largely male and between the age group of 18 and 30. I was initially a bit taken aback by this but then I asked my other YouTuber friends and said that that’s the Indian crowd that’s online in general and shows up on viewership statistics across genres.”
These days, Kamat regularly performs at Sugam Sangeet concerts in Mumbai and teaches music at her house. Her larger aim is to become a professional classical musician. She only posts new videos when she feels she has enough material for another episode and does not tie herself down to posting regularly.
Kamat also views her channel as an attempt to create what she describes as the patrons of classical music in today’s times. “There is no rich king who will offer patronage anymore,” she said. “Musicians have come out in the economy and it is up to the audience to appreciate it. At least for the sake of preserving a culture and that too, such an intricate and deep culture.”
Does she feel the competition in the world of YouTubers?
“Everyone wants chamatkarik music – music that stuns or some phrase or refrain that is dramatic,” Kamat said. “They are all behind grabbing eyeballs. But I’ve always been someone who is fond of simplicity.”
The success of the channel though has brought with it invitations for musical lecture demonstrations from across the country. In these sessions, Kamat recreates a part of what she does in her episodes but also interacts with her audience about what they have wondered about classical music. She has also been invited to be a music consultant for web series (Kamat says she is not at liberty to reveal more about them). This month, she is also is conducting a radio series called The World of the Seven Swaras for All India Radio that threshes out several intricate concepts of world music. “I never expected all of this,” said Kamat. “This is all very overwhelming and wonderful.”