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Sriram Emani is trying to change lives of new artists through his startup, IndianRaga
Sriram Emani is trying to change lives of new artists through his startup, IndianRaga

Giving the arts a startup push

Founders are using latest technology tools to not just give more exposure to new theatre artists, writers, musicians and singers, but also better income opportunities

Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." While it is true that many people give up their artistic pursuits to fulfil the hectic demands of their jobs, some startups are ensuring that accessibility is at least not the reason one has to give up on their dream.

From making people aware of various art forms and making art accessible through a basic internet connection to increasing chances of better revenue for artists, these startups, which have made performing arts their focus area, are reaching out to people across the country.

“It was in 2017 when I had cancelled my plans to watch a friend’s play due to some commitments, and realized that once you miss a play, you just miss it. There is no waiting for it to show in another theatre, or ordering it on TV or streaming. And I thought if people cannot come to the stage, let me bring the stage to them," says Harkirat Sandhu, 40, co-founder and managing director of PlayMyPlay, an online platform that streams plays.

Sandhu and his brother started PlayMyPlay with some challenges. Theatre directors were not ready to let them record live, nor were they sure about the production part. What helped the startup gain ground was patience to learn. The brothers started attending theatre rehearsals, and won the trust of the directors.

“In the beginning, we would edit the recorded plays a lot to make them crisper. But then we received feedback that this took away the authentic feeling of watching a play. Things like sounds from the audience, a random person walking across the aisle, added to the feeling of actually watching a play. We took the advice and started editing less," says Delhi-based Sandhu.

At present, PlayMyPlay has 300 plays in their library, with 75,000 subscribers on the app and many more on streaming sites such as the JioTV and Watcho app. Almost half of their subscribers are from outside India, but they have also seen a growing interest in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. “Many went to watch plays live in theatres, after having watched it online through us. They wanted to see how the real thing feels like," says Sandhu.

Establishing a new concept

Getting people to adopt any radically new concept is a challenge that takes time, creativity, perseverance and unshakeable belief from your team and community, believes Dhrupad Karwa, chief executive officer and co-founder of HaikuJAM, an online haiku-sharing startup. HaikuJAM is inspired by the traditional Japanese poetic form haiku, but it’s less about writing haiku and more about bringing people together.

One user writes the first line of haiku on the platform, the next line can be written by someone sitting miles away, and the third line by another person. “This way anyone who is able to write a few words, even those with little or no writing experience, can express themselves and, in the process, make meaningful friendships with people around the world through their thoughts and emotions. So, in the context of bringing people together online, there is immense demand for creativity and poetry," says Mumbai-based Karwa, 27.

That online can never give the complete feeling of being there in person is a complaint even TheVerb Studio’s Bharat Kumar faces. The co-founder of the online dance instruction platform noticed that dance classes were in demand but good instructors were not accessible to all.

Introducing classes online meant that students would not get feedback. The team started using technology that recorded how the dance instructor moved. When a student danced in front of their chosen device, the same technology would compare the movements and point out if there were mistakes, lag in time or mismatch in rhythm.

“The instructors also stand to get more exposure through the platform. Our instructors are now regularly being called to judge dance contests at IIM (Indian Institute of Management), IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) and NIT (National Institute of Technology)," says Kumar, 26. TheVerb Studio is currently being incubated at IIM-Bangalore.

Corporate backing

Boston-based Sriram Emani is also trying to change lives of new artists through his startup and music venture, IndianRaga. An alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a passion for Carnatic music, Emani co-founded IndianRaga in 2013 to help make collaborations possible between musicians, often from different genres. IndianRaga’s music has often become viral on social media, leading to organizers reaching out for live performances. “Indirectly too, we have been working to make classical music more accessible and liked by the younger generation. Our research showed the age group we wanted to speak to was interested in short videos with high quality production. But just reaching out to the audience and them watching the video would not mean success in the digital age. Till they tag their friends or share it in their network, the algorithm also doesn’t pick up the video," explains Emani.

IndianRaga seems to have found the formula, though. Their YouTube channel boasts of 334,000 subscribers. One of their videos, an Indian mix of Shape Of You, has over eight million views. This also means more singers want to reach out to them for music.

IndianRaga has now launched a fellowship in six cities—Houston, Boston, Chicago, San Diego, London and Bengaluru—that helps those interested to participate in collaborations and get hands-on experience in music production. The really talented ones go on to do live concerts with the established IndianRaga talent in various platforms, from TEDx to Chicago Cultural Center and United Nations General Assembly.

HaikuJAM, which has over one million users in 163 countries, has helped people get exposure for their poetry, taking their online talent to offline spaces. HaikuJAM also offers their office-cum-events space for free to anyone wishing to run open mics, gigs and workshops, and hosted 200 creative events in 2019 alone.

“Exposure is one thing, but fresh talents, both in music and dance, get an idea about how to do unique collaborations, how to use the production space, how to produce and shoot the videos professionally. We have also partnered with YouTube and through them give advice to content creators in dance and music, on how to use SEO (search engine optimization) for social media and have seen a lot more classical artists warming up to it," says Emani.

Whether it is more exposure, learning or better income, these startups are ensuring that performing arts are also seen as a serious professional choice, and not just a hobby.

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