How music quartet, The Thayir Sadam Project is making classical numbers cool for the younger generation
Music is not just an intermingling of different sounds or rhythms, it’s a wonderful play of emotions.
This was evident when I watched The Thayir Sadam Project – a group of young musicians in action at the Bangalore LitFest held recently.
The four musicians were clearly enjoying themselves as they smiled constantly at each other, perhaps sharing an inside joke or two with their eyes as they went about their music with a passion that the audience enjoyed and also participated in.
Bindu Subramaniam, Ambi Subramaniam, Mahesh Raghvan, and Akshay Anantapadmanabhan form The Thayir Sadam Project – a quartet of talented musicians whose music also aims to create a social impact by working closely to promote the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
The four are well-known musicians individually – Mahesh Raghvan is a Carnatic whiz with the iPad; Bindu, a vocalist and Ambi a violinist are children of violin virtuoso Dr L Subramanian and Akshay is a mrindagist and konnakol artiste who collaborates with musicians at New York University on projects.
Together, they are a “fun” group who are also teaching young people with The Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts (SaPa) led by the Subramaniams.
Over a conversation at the SaPa Academy in Rajajinagar, Bengaluru, Bindu, Ambi and Mahesh (with Akshay on call from Chennai) shared what music means to them, the Thayir Sadam Project and why it must consistently transcend boundaries to achieve its social goals.
Traditional is cool
Bindu and Ambi met Mahesh through a common friend and Akshay through Mahesh. The collaboration was impromptu, mostly often happening in the wee hours, but the four hit off and the rest, as they say, is history.
Thayir sadam means curd rice in Tamil, quite an odd name for a music band. I ask the band if they were all thayir sadam lovers.
Bindu laughs. “Actually, Akshay and I are the only one who like thayir sadam. Ambi is lactose-intolerant and Mahesh only eats curd rice if it’s made by his mother. We use thayir sadam more as a metaphor for traditional culture, as it is often underrated. While it may be a derogatory term for our community, we are not ashamed of it. We are all over-qualified nerds – we are thayir sadams – and we are proud of it.”
While Ambi, Mahesh and Akshay’s home style of music is Carnatic, Bindu says she is a “pop musician” at heart.
“Also, it’s about seeing how these different phases of our music overlap with Mahesh’s techno-electronic sounds,” says Ambi.
“Also, when we collaborated on our first piece together, we did not do it with the intention of performing live or as a band. We liked working with each other. It was nice because we were able to go into a slightly different space without consciously trying to do it,” he adds.
United in their goals
The Thayir Sadam Project works closely with the SaPa Academy conducting workshops for children in schools and providing a music learning curriculum for teachers. At the Rajajinagar Academy, the conversation is held in the backdrop of a melodious violin recital.
“Classical is always cool. But we needed to present it in such a way that it attracted a younger audience and we are doing that with SaPa as well,” says Mahesh.
Given the paucity of time, the four even manage to teach music to children. Mahesh proudly proclaims, “I have only one student.” The others chip with some light-hearted ribbing and say while there is a long queue for Mahesh’s lessons but he does not have the time.
“We all have the same goal of being able to relate to the younger generation with our kind of classical music. That’s one big common point among us,” says Akshay.
The four speak animatedly of their project, “A Million Dreams”, shot with students from SaPa and children from government schools in Bengaluru. “The song is from The Greatest Showman and is a message that we can make the world better if we take positive action in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. A child as young as three can pledge to turn off the tap while brushing her teeth. This is what we want to achieve,” says Bindu.
This overlap of The Thayir Sadam Project with SaPa’s music happened organically, with the quartet conducting workshops for children in different schools in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, West Bengal, Gujarat and Kerala.
“Children are very intuitive and questioning, and it’s wonderful to work with us. One of them asked me, ‘You call yourself Thayir Saadam, it means curd rice in my language.” The four chuckle at the memory.
Fun with music
Ambi says that the methodology and presentation are intrinsic to teaching music. “The idea is to make it interactive, we teach them songs, the konnkol and essentially, have a whole lot of fun.”
Is the aim also to make classical music interesting?
Bindu believes that classical music has always been interesting but their aim is to also make it more accessible. Which is why, as Akshay says, their audiences are a mix of the older and the younger generation because of the way they present it.
“We want to change the perception that Carnatic music is only for those who have knowledge of music. So, we are a gateway for them to go onto more traditional, serious music,” says Bindu.
Ambi says that one of the best parts of their music is that there is so much scope for improvisation and to experiment. “We are not doing the same thing somebody 50 years ago did and they didn’t do the same thing that their previous generation did. For Carnatic music to keep growing, it needs to be dynamic. It’s heartening to see a lot of artistes who want to try different things.”
So, they have their students wearing Dikshitar (a legendary composer of Carnatic music) T-shirts, as the group calls him “the original fusion musician as he was so open-minded even during his time”.
While the Thayir Sadam Project does have a particular structure for its music, it is also dynamic. All of them have similar but complementary skills. “When you hear a piece of music at the end of the day, there is a little of each one of us in the piece,” says Akshay.
The four musicians agree that music means learning for a lifetime and comprises multiple aspects like production, education, online efforts, and more.
“We pretend we are going to get together and play PS4 but it never happens,” says Bindu with a laugh, adding, “we are clearly having fun with our music and learning from each other, which is very important.”