Half an hour before the biggest show of his life, at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender music festival in Pune, Ritviz Srivastava found himself wondering if he could just call off the whole thing. Just 12 days earlier, in late November 2017, the Pune-based producer had become an unexpected viral sensation. The then massively popular All India Bakchod (AIB) YouTube account had pushed out the music video for his single Udd Gaye as part of its new talent-hunt initiative called the Bacardi House Party Sessions. With its incredibly catchy synth hook and lyrics that evoked bittersweet memories of teenage love, the song had become a surprise hit.

Within a week, the video had racked up almost a million views.

Srivastava should have been euphoric. But happiness had escaped him the night before, when he played a club gig in Hyderabad, his first since the song’s release. Not a single person showed up. It was a disaster. So, instead of being excited at playing in front of a 3,000-strong crowd in his hometown, he was terrified.

Ritviz Srivastava at a live show in Vadodara in September.
Ritviz Srivastava at a live show in Vadodara in September. (Photo Courtesy Eric D’souza)

“I was convinced that I was going to tank the set," laughs the 23-year-old when we meet for lunch at O Pedro in Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex. “But I played the show, and it was crazy. That show really changed a lot of things for me."

Two years—and seven singles—later, Srivastava has become one of the biggest names on the indie electronica scene. Along with Nucleya, he’s at the forefront of an emerging desi EDM scene that has tasted success, blending Indian folk and classical sounds with global dance music. It’s not a particularly innovative approach, first pioneered in the 1990s by Asian Underground artists like Karsh Kale and Midival Punditz, but few artists have been able to meld these disparate elements in a way that is so instantly accessible to a mass audience. In Srivastava’s case, he had the advantage of growing up in a household steeped in Hindustani classical music.

“For as long as I can remember, I would wake up on the weekends to my mom’s alaap," he recalls. His mother, a singer who trained under the late Girija Devi, is now the head of the music department at the Delhi Public School in Pune. His father is an investment banker, but he too plays the tabla on the side. “So dad would join mom, and then I would join in, and it would just become a family session. It was just a natural thing."

At the age of 10, Srivastava started learning dhrupad under Pandit Uday Bhawalkar, but soon found that the classical music tradition wouldn’t allow him the space to compose his own music. Around then, he also discovered VH1, which introduced him to the global pop and rap sounds of artists like Lady Gaga, Limp Bizkit and Jay-Z. So, along with his formal classical training, he started spending free time writing rap songs and performing them at school events.

At 15, he was producing his own music. Soon Srivastava was spending 17 hours a day just working on music, so obsessed that his mother would often have to force him to eat. Academics took a back seat and at 17, he dropped out of school to focus on music. Surprisingly, his parents backed his decision.

“It’s really hard for me to believe how a schoolteacher dealt with her kid dropping out of school," he says. “It was amazing, I never felt any pressure from home."

At 17, he released his first EP on UK record label Relentik Records. Though it features only English vocals, you can already see him laying the foundations of his future sound on the record—bass music with a pop sensibility, and a dash of Indian classical. His next major release was 2016’s YUV, a dense, multilayered EP that was so packed with sounds that Srivastava decided to keep it instrumental. There just wasn’t any space to add vocals. Once the EP dropped in June, he went on a gruelling 15-city tour. A few months later, he did it again. Srivastava was slowly building a fanbase, but few in the music industry were taking note.

“I don’t think any other artist understood the EP, the promoters definitely didn’t," says his manager Rahul Sinha. “We had a social media following of 8,000, but they were all 14-year-old kids who couldn’t even come to our gigs. It was a very complex scenario, and just understanding how to take this to the next level was very hard."

So Srivastava and Sinha decided to take some time out to figure out their next steps. They sat down and picked six tracks from the many demos and scratches that Srivastava had written over the past few years, developing them into an album titled Ved. They envisioned the album as a collaboration between Ritviz the producer and Ritviz the classically trained vocalist. The end result was six well-crafted electronica tunes that blurred the lines between dance music, indie electronica and Hindi pop. Then they, in Sinha’s words, “started shopping the album around like a vegetable".

After six months, they got a chance to play the tracks to AIB’s Tanmay Bhat, who was looking for new artists for the Bacardi House Party Sessions. Two days later, he called them back, saying he couldn’t get Udd Gaye out of his head. Released on AIB’s YouTube channel, the track took on a life of its own.

“We weren’t planning for the song to take off like that," says Srivastava. “I wasn’t ready. It was emotionally and physically draining to suddenly be doing three shows a week. By the end of those six months, I was facing the biggest creative block of my life. But I was also a lot wiser after that."

Udd Gaye’s success also put a wrench in the duo’s release plans for Ved. Despite a couple of launch gigs for the album, they never really put it out as one. Instead, they ended up working with Bacardi to put the other five songs as stand-alone music videos. Eager to draw a line under the record, Srivastava is now focused on his next album, Dev, due to release this year. He is grateful for the success he has seen in the last two years but thinks that it has put him in a box, which he hopes to break out of with his new release.

“After a while, it felt like I was opening for Udd Gaye," he says. “I would play a 60-minute set, but the crowd was only there for Udd Gaye. So it’s really important for me to put out my new album this year, because it will finally showcase my talent. And with the next album, let’s just say I am flipping the script."

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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