“People think a sarangi is only good for a raag yaman or for playing ragas and tukdas but why can’t it play Star Wars?” argued Tushar Lall, the mastermind behind The Indian Jam Project, a platform that brings together Indian classical musicians to recreate iconic film and television scores.
Upon returning to his hometown Mumbai from New York in 2014, where he studied music production, Lall got down to putting his plan of adapting Indian classical music to perform contemporary tunes into fruition.
Without having watched Game of Thrones, Lall’s ears picked up the HBO show’s opening theme. He got hold of a flautist and a tabla player and recreated Ramin Djwadi’s now iconic composition, shot a video in his room with a DSLR camera in a single take, and created an overnight YouTube hit.
“Buzzfeed and MTV Indies picked it up and it blew up from there,” Lall said. “I was the first mover in the concept of Indian classical covers in the market so we were fresh. From the second video onwards, we got serious.”
In three years, The Indian Jam Project has released 13 videos and has performed across Indian colleges. In 2016, the group performed at a YouTube fanfest in Mumbai which brought together other fellow viral wunderkinds like All India Bakchod, East India Comedy, Shirley Setia and Lily Singh under the same roof. The Indian Jam Project’s work has been praised by Emmy award-winning composer Michael Price, actor, screenwriter and novelist Mark Gatiss and Hollywood film score composer Clint Mansell, among others.
“When all of this started, my parents didn’t know how to react,” said Lall, who will turn 23 in December. “I am not blaming them. They obviously come from a very different background.” Coming from a family of bureaucrats, Lall has no musical connection, except for his great grandfather, who was a multi-instrumentalist. Not formally trained in music, Lall took to the piano from the age of four.
“It’s weird to explain,” he said. “I play by ear. If a pianist asks me to play a C#7 chord, I will look at him all puzzled. But when I hear a melody, I can see the notes, and then I copy them down on my keyboards.”
The idea of creating fusion music came to Lall while spending time around classical musicians at Mumbai’s Jai Hind College. After getting a diploma in music production from a Mumbai institute, Lall went to Dubspot in New York at the age of 17 to study sound design, mixing and mastering.
On returning, the first video that Lall and his friends put up on his YouTube channel was the Game of Thrones cover.
“At the time, we did not have any name,” Lall said. “The Indian Jam Project name came up when Michael Price, the composer of BBC’s Sherlock theme, shared our cover video as Indian Jam on Sherlock.” Lall does not think that The Indian Jam Project is the best name in the world and that bothered him for a while: “I could come up with something better… but a name really sorts out your life.”
The Sherlock video, followed by the video of their cover of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme, pushed the musicians into the limelight. For the Sherlock video, Lall got professional help for the shoot. While Lall followed Price and David Arnold’s original melody to a T with some flourishes of his own, his real talent came through in the flute piece that he wrote by himself.
In fact, all of Lall’s covers contains nuggets of original compositions that are played by the collaborating musicians on instruments, ranging from the flute to the sarangi. “Of course, they can improvise as long as the core melody remains unchanged,” Lall said.
Not just Price, but Mark Gatiss, the co-creator of Sherlock, too appreciated the project’s cover. When Gatiss travelled to Mumbai Comic Con in 2014, Lall met him. Gatiss suggested a couple of themes to cover, including Dr Who.
Is Dr Who happening soon? “It’s definitely on my list. For now, I am going for more cult scores like Star Wars and Harry Potter,” Lall said.
Lall’s song arrangements and video production got more ambitious with each subsequent video. He kept rotating musicians and bringing in new ones and even adding vocal parts. For instance, the project’s cover of Coldplay’s Fix You has an alaap plus a choir section. The video of the Star Wars theme, which clubs together six different John Williams compositions from the Star Wars series, is shot under different lights to correspond with change moods. When the group starts playing Darth Vader’s iconic Imperial March theme, red lights come into play. A kathak dancer joins them to add to the menace.
The video of the cover of Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight (2008) score includes footage of the Joker along with his dialogue from the film and other fan art spliced within the frames. One of the group’s most unique videos is the cover of Lux Aeterna, Mansell’s famous composition from Requiem for a Dream (2000), where Lall, on piano and the other musicians play their instruments real fast to keep up with the Apple OS assistant Siri’s 10-to-the-power beat made famous by beatboxer Marcus Perez.
Their latest video is a medley of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On from Titanic (1997) and Toss the Feathers by The Corrs, which begins as a tribute to the eight musicians who died performing as the ship sank into the North Atlantic.
Lall recalled the time when a fan, on hearing the project’s cover of the Harry Potter score, took down his address and sent him a hardbound copy of an illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. “Creative people are most scared of hearing and reading hurtful things on the internet,” Lall said. “But my experience has been entirely positive, I guess, because people can see that Indian classical culture is coming across in a positive light.”
As expected for the viral music sensation, Bollywood has come knocking on his door. But his experience so far has been confusing. “There is a part of Bollywood that I would like to work for, definitely, but then there’s a part that I just don’t understand,” Lall said. “It’s so commercial as an art form it goes over my head. There’s something like Rahman’s Delhi 6 on one hand which is great, and then there’s an item song which is just po po po.”
Lall remembered a time when a “very notable music director” and a film producer approached him to compose the background score for a feature film. Instead of asking him to do something original, they asked him to rework the songs for the film into a score to specific cues, such as when the hero spread his arms. “In Bollywood, if you are lucky, you get to do original stuff, otherwise, they will ask you to just orchestrate the hooklines of already existing songs,” he said.
He added: “Or maybe, I am doing something wrong. I might have to learn this.”
Lall spends half the year touring, and the rest of the year, he shoots his videos. He is presently working on his solo compositions. And his folks are at peace too.
“My parents are now proud,” Lall said. “They see I am travelling a lot for my concerts and making money. They understand success on the basis of something tangible like money. So now that I am earning, they know that their son is doing something reputable with which he can sustain his life.”