Tete-a-Tete with : Balaji Vijayaraghavan, Founder of Carnatic Network – An ode to the Capital of Carnatic Music – Chennai!

Filter coffee, open page of the newspaper, Raga Kapi on the radio followed by a carnival of Sabha hopping. A stand-alone fixture in Chennai’s Calendar – December is always synonymous with the Kutcheri (concert) seasons.

The pulse of Chennai vibrates and throbs in Carnatic music. Sabhas attract the connoisseurs of Carnatic talent across the world, including a significant NRI population looking to stay connected to their roots and soak in the intricacies of the art form. Analysis of ragas and nuances in gamakas and of course, the criticisms that follow from the elitist quadrangles are some of the infamous and common visual retreats after a concert. As Balaji sat through one such concert after a hectic day’s work in December, he was grieved to see an artist under-perform on stage and happened to witness a dramatic discussion of the artist’s performance from the audience. When he also heard that many budding artists are sometimes denied a platform, he decided to build a stage which would be open to experimentation, learning and mutual appreciation of the art. And that is how the idea of Carnatic Network popped up for Balaji. From a humble beginning with open -mics to rewarding the best picks from open-mics with recordings and concerts, Carnatic Network has grown into a bigger and inclusive community of budding artists today.

You may be at either end of the spectrum – an A-Grade artist or an artist with no stage experience. You may slip a few notes, you may not be able to reach a pitch. All in all, you may falter yet get better. And this is a net practice. There are no rules or constraints, you only huddle and learn. Democratic and meritorious are the two words that we swear by.

A marketing professional by day, a stand-up comedian by night and a Carnatic Music enthusiast forever. Juggling multiple roles, Balaji sure has many strings in his armour.

In a free wheeling conversation with Chennai Insider, he shares a lot more about his new venture – Carnatic Network.

Sabhas vs Carnatic Network platform. What difference does it make to an artist?

Sabha organisers are gatekeepers but sometimes the purpose is commercial viability; Moreover the musicians are set to stage in an environment where they are judged and graded. People are extremely critical and any amateur artist would boggle down to acceptance of mediocrity on lack of much-needed validation to build their talent. In the formative years of an artist, the dependence on appreciation gradient is high and it can make or break a path forward. Being a stand-up comedian myself, I have experienced the best of both worlds and hence the concept of Open-mics. In the recent times, we have Open-mics for almost every platform  in order to experiment, unlearn, learn and receive constructive criticism to perfect the art. So why not a similar stage for Carnatic Music as well?

When did Carnatic Network set the stage and what were your expectations?

The idea of beginning a network was sowed sometime in December of 2018 when I was discussing the idea with my wife. We conducted our first open-mic on 7th of April 2019 . We honestly did not expect a huge response. We planned to accommodate 30-40 people and invited registrations. We were fixated to call it a success if it were to reach a double digit turnout. To our surprise, the audience as well as performing artists who showed up were akin to 100. Overwhelming is the word.

Tell us about your team. How did you quickly put together a team with a shared vision to pursue something new?

I am not a trained vocalist or instrumentalist. I am only a Fanboy of Carnatic Music who grew up at the periphery of an ecosystem that knew the artist as an ardent onlooker but did not actually know them personally. I wanted to connect with people of a similar wavelength to kickstart the venture. You may call it divine intervention or something magical of sorts depending on whether you are religious or agnostic. But it just happened. People reached out to me at the right time and the dots connected well. Thankful and grateful to the team who voluntarily applauded the idea and helped me execute the goal with zeal.

Meet the Team of Carnatic Network, the chords who help run the show!

Team (Left to Right) – Prithvi Kannan (Co-producer), Balaji (Founder), Parijat Rao (Design and Operations) and Vaishnavi (Curator)

Apart from the above, the Governing Council constitutes Shivaram and Akash Hariharan (artist co-ordinators) and Vignesh (Artist Collaborations Manager).

How do you go about selecting artists to perform for an open-mic?

The only information we seek from a person is whether they are a vocalist or instrumentalist. We strictly do not want to know the Gurus they learnt from or their grade or experience. The objective is to make the platform equally accessible to all irrespective of their background and stature. Neither am I a professional musician to make a decision based on their background nor do I personally know any of the performers or their Gurus. There is no room for any sort of “influence”. Open-mics are open to all and based on the venue, we decide the artists who can be accommodated on a single day.

Open-Mic at BackYard, Adyar

Carnatic Network has now grown to have its own YouTube channel as well. How did this transition happen?

We discovered some great talents from open-mics. They were very regular, consistent in attending all open-mic sessions and they kept improving with each session. So now what? We wanted to provide some sort of gratification. As I said earlier, ever since we began, things fell in place and people reached out to us and that is how we have grown organically with an audience who genuinely appreciated the tangible efforts to create a credible platform for artists. YouTube content developer reached out to us and helped us curate the recordings and guided us with the set-up for the recording. We decided to reward the hand-picked talents from open-mics with a private jam-session recording on the next day and we upload them on YouTube every Wednesday.

What is the one thing that you would say is a moment where you felt re-assured about your venture?

During one of the open-mics that we held at a flat in Nanganallur, a grandfather of a child came up to me in curiosity to know more about this venture and he asked “For all this, you would need a lot of money, right? Who is funding this?” It is all the investment of our day job’s income that holds the Carnatic Network uptight. He held my hands and thanked me profusely with his eyes beaming with a confluence of tears of gratitude and hope.

Open-Mics to YouTube Channel to Carnatic Network Concert Series. All in 3 months. Too far, too soon?

It does seem like a dream that took its evangelic course. But one thing we were very clear right from when we started out is that we would not profit a penny out of this. All the recordings and the YouTube content is sponsored by us for the artists. For the Carnatic Network Concerts, we are charging a fee purely to meet the costs and to be able to invest in the recording sessions in case of any small surplus. We are setting this up as a Non-profit organisation and we are in the process of publishing a constitution that caters to every stakeholder who would be involved with Carnatic Network in any way.

Any plans of bringing Carnatic Network to the fore outside the realms of Chennai?

It is heartening to receive a lot of requests to take the stage to newer cities and cater to a larger audience. Bangalore and Coimbatore are on the cards. We will wait and see how things unfold.

Kudos Balaji for orchestrating a medium that truly transcends boundaries. From one Fan of Carnatic Music to another, let the rhythm percolate!

Their very first Carnatic Concert Series is being held on 30th of June, 6 PM at Lakshmi Giri Convention Hall, North Mada Street, Mylapore!

Link to purchase tickets : https://www.townscript.com/e/carnatic-network-concert-series-1

Bonus : Here is Balaji humbly requesting you in person to be there for the Opening of Carnatic Concert Series!

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