Raag Abheri, a late afternoon raga which remains one of the most popular ragas in Carnatic classical music and comes closest to modern-day Bhimpalasi in Hindustani classical system, is predominantly remembered for Nagumomu Ganaleni, a krithi by iconic scholar and musician Thyagaraja. But no one would have imagined that British popstar Ed Sheeran’s chart-busting Shape of You would come so close to the raag, so much so that the ascends and descends would begin to sound similar.
Sheeran possibly had no idea that the note patterns matched that of the permutations and combinations that can be created with Abheri. But Minneapolis-based software engineer Vinod Krishnan did. He suggested a cover be done and decided to work with Indian Raga, a music education start-up founded at MIT.
“Sheeran’s song, since it came out in January 2017, has become extremely popular. Upon multiple hearings, I realised it’s one of those compositions that lends itself to other forms of music in a way that it can be superimposed,” says Krishnan in a phone conversation from Minneapolis. In his video, which has already garnered over four million views, Krishnan can be seen crooning bol taans and mridangam bols along with singer Aditya Rao. US-based composer, digital artiste and tech enthusiast, Mahesh Raghvan, has included interludes in the piece by playing an Ipad like a continuum fingerboard and created musical slides, which are so pertinent to Carnatic classical music.
There have been other spinoffs. In March, five Odissi dancers donned traditional costumes and danced to Sheeran’s song, promoting tourism in Odisha for a travel company. Then came a tabla version from Toronto-based Shobhit Banwait or “internet’s hot tabla player” as he is called. Soon we saw Susmita Sen grooving to the song with her daughter. Then there was Mumbai-based Kathak dancer Kumar Sharma, who merged contemporary styles with kathak in a group performance where the dancers presented a series of fast-paced twirls by juxtaposing tabla bols on the original Sheeran piece. The most endearing attempt at Shape of You perhaps was by Toronto’s Maritime Bhangra Group. The two Sikh men added tabla, dholak and a tumbi to the original song and danced dressed in black overalls and yellow turbans to raise money for multiple sclerosis.
Call it a coincidence or a careful strategy, Sheeran’s visiting India in November and tickets for the Mumbai concert are eagerly awaited.
In creating a song that certainly wasn’t written for the critics — the guitar loops and fusion of sounds reek of a clear marketing strategy from a musician whose lyrics in the piece are not even close to striking — Sheeran has unknowingly given the world a composition that’s catchy and has the world bonding over it in dance clubs and on the internet alike. It’s a generic hook all right, but for now, the refrain is allowing many to lend a desi touch to the tune, and happiness to their hearts. We are happy to tune in.