In today’s showbiz scenario, if you really want to make it big as a musician, you need to ensure two things. First, that you are versatile enough to be able to comfortably juggle between multiple genres. And second, that your résumé carries at least one mention of Coke Studio, which today is considered, for all the good reasons, one the most important platforms to showcase musical talent in India.
It’s no surprise, then, that some of the biggest names in Indian music, like A.R. Rahman, Shankar Mahadevan and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan to name only a few, have already appeared on Coke Studio in recent years. And besides the big stars, there is this growing posse of multi-talented, independent composers — including struggling session musicians — whose success we can directly credit to some of the standout performances featured on Coke Studio in recent years.
The programme, when it was first screened in India in June 2011, has now become an established brand of sorts in the music industry — the kind of brand that has aspiratonal value attached to it. The celebrated rapper and composer Dilin Nair, popularly known by his stage name Raftaar, is himself a Coke Studio veteran. “I believe it is not just a platform but more like an achievement for musicians,” he tells Guardian 20. “Every singer, and believe me when I say this, every singer today wants to be on Coke Studio and the reason is simple. Coke Studio is like a badge of honour. If you are a good musician then you will definitely be invited. It was a dream come true for me when I performed here.”
So what is it about this programme that musicians — let alone the audiences — find so appealing? It may be the format, to begin with. What we see on our TV screens during an average Coke Studio performance is effectively a live set (though broadcast at a later date) being played by musicians in real time, without any edits or jump cuts. But the setting is that of a genuine studio: there’s no audience to be seen, recording equipment is scattered everywhere, the musicians are wearing headphone monitors, and so on. What we get, then, is a one-take run of a well-rehearsed song, or a series of songs, played by a set of excellent musicians, in a well-equipped studio. It’s a brilliantly simple concept, and it seems to have clicked big time with performers and audiences alike.
The other great thing about the show is the equal emphasis laid on a variety of musical genres. The creators and promoters of Coke Studio have made sure not to cater to popular demand and, at the same time, not to restrict the format to this or that cultural niche. That’s why musicians representing different styles, ranging from Bollywood pop, sufi, rock and hip-hop, all the way to Hindustani classical and Carnatic traditions, have performed here. As have musicians from different parts of the country, representing different languages.
Benny Dayal, the acclaimed singer from Kerala, who has given his voice to numerous Bollywood hits, made his appearance on the show’s second and third seasons in 2012 and 2013. “I think India dishes out great talent by the day,” Dayal says. “If you have noticed, there are newer singers taking Bollywood by storm, and running rings around the older lot. We need more platforms like Coke Studio which can give talented musicians an opportunity to showcase their art and reach out to a wider audience. And the thing about the show is that someone who is 20 and someone who is 50 both like watching it. ”
The popularity of the show is not by any means restricted to India. The concept was originally created in 2007, in Brazil. And after the show’s success there, several other countries, across South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, followed suit.
In Pakistan, for instance, Coke Studio remains one of the most popular TV shows of all time, as well as a great support system for local musicians.
Regional musicians in India have always struggled for recognition. And giving airtime to regional talent has always been the norm on this programme. Sachin Sanghvi and Jigar Saraiya, together part of the musician duo Sachin-Jigar, have composed music for numerous Bollywood and Gujarati films. “Coke Studio is a fast emerging independent platform, something much awaited by musicians in India. I feel great about that, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that this becomes a route to Bollywood. Bollywood needs “Bolly tadka”. And Coke Studio doesn’t. Coke studio thrives on folksy, pure, raw sort of talent. But for many unrecognised musicians, it remains a great platform to showcase their raw, unadulterated talent,” Sachin says.
His colleague Jigar Saraiya, though, believes Coke Studio can indeed become a launching pad, or breeding ground, for Bollywood musicians. “Bollywood is always hungry for fresh talent,” Jigar says. “Be it composers, singers or musicians. Coke studio puts the spotlight on all of these when they are very raw. So if something really good comes along, Bollywood immediately grabs it. It's the perfect platform to showcase talent. Coke studio is a platform to create original music, or reinvent folk melodies. We get here real and honest music.”
Manjeet Singh Ral, another young musician who goes by the stage name of Manj Musik, is a man of many talents. He sings, writes lyrics and composes songs. He performed in the fourth season of Coke Studio last year, and found the experience unlike any other.
“Coke Studio has a different aura altogether, it brings an element of surprise to the stage,” he says. “I feel this show, compared to all the others, provides an opportunity to the musician to experiement with beats and genres like never before. You can introduce new elements to your music, take it in new directions — like hip-hop fusion, sufi fusion. This mix of sound is what makes Coke Studio one the most watched shows. It presents a blend of different musical backgrounds and cultures. You can’t do this on any other platform.”
In other words, this forum opens up the space for experiment and collaboration that even established musicians sometimes seem to be pining for.
Angaraag Mahanta, known by his nickname Papon, is an award-winning composer and producer from Assam. He tells Guardian 20: “I am really happy about how the show has picked up over the last four years, how it started and just grew year by year, naturally. It has not only given so much to new singers, but also to established musicians, by presenting an opportunity to sing something different each time, and to reach the masses. Sometimes, you do experiments with music, but it all remains inside the studio or is limited to your living room. Also, it’s good that young musicians do not anymore have to depend on only one medium, the industry called Bollywood, to have their music reach more people. So, I am super happy to have been a part of this programme so far.”
“I am really happy about how the show has picked up over the last four years, how it started and just grew year by year, naturally. It has not only given so much to new singers, but also to established musicians, by presenting an opportunity to sing something different each time, and to reach the masses. Sometimes, you do experiments with music, but it all remains inside the studio or is limited to your living room. Also, it’s good that young musicians do not anymore have to depend on only one medium, the industry called Bollywood, to have their music reach more people. So, I am super happy to have been a part of this programme so far.”
We have, of course, had music shows on Indian TV before. Many of those work as per the typical reality-TV format — inspired by American Idol — where participants compete with each other through the season for top honours. Coke Studio changed that, by taking out the competitive spirit from this context and by replacing it with what we might call the collaborative spirit.
Anindo Bose, the keyboard player of Delhi-based independent band Advaita, believes that collaborative effort, and not just independent genius, is what makes a piece of music memorable. “The best thing about Coke Studio is that it is not a talent hunt, where singers are competing with each other to defeat their rivals. It is a space meant more for natural performances. The best part is that it does not only focus on vocalists, but the spotlight is equally on the musicians. Here, everyone’s potential is noticed and collaboration with different musicians makes it ever greater. Sharing the stage with an artist as great as Shafqat Amanat Ali was a wonderful experience for me.”
Ferzad Palia, Business Head English and Youth Entertainment, at MTV, which produces Coke Studio in India — (the show is titled Coke Studio@MTV here) — echoed the point made earlier about “musical convergence” being the USP of this show.
“Coke Studio@MTV,” Palia says, “has carved a niche for itself in an attempt to unite our country’s myriad musical disciplines to create exceptional musical convergence. The show has enabled the audience of today to embrace diverse musical experiences and influences. And we at MTV have successfully satiated their thirst for good music by bringing to them various artists across every possible genre. The audience’s response to the show’s previous seasons has been extremely encouraging and has helped Coke Studio@MTV become a part of India’s popular culture.”
Palia adds: “MTV has a huge legacy of music and we are the hub of creating the most enviable music content in the country. We understand youth like no other brand and realise that music pumps out of each one of their hearts. Coke Studio is a worldwide platform initiated by Coca Cola which is dynamic and a true celebration of world music existing in the Middle East as well as Asia. To host Coke Studio in India partnering with MTV was like finding your better half only to further multiply and amplify it. We get some of the most acclaimed artists along with some of the rare finds of the nation via this platform. Coke Studio@MTV is experimentation in its finest form and it’s literally like music to the ears.”