AT A Café Coffee Day outlet in Chennai, Shankar Tucker’s hands fidget as he talks. He pauses, taps the wood on the wall and contemplates the hollow sound. “I could use this as an instrument in my videos,” he quips. The 24-year-old clarine t player from Massachusetts, US, is the newest piper in the city’s legendary classical music circles. In April last year, between lessons from Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia in Mumbai, Tucker decided to launch his own music channel on YouTube called TheShrutibox, where he posts his surprisingly professional- looking videos of ‘acoustic fusion’ of Hindustani music and jazz, as well as covers of popular Hindi and Tamil film tunes.
Unlike so many You Tube viral videos, Tucker has not been a one-song phenomenon — the 14 songs he’s posted so far have garnered over two million hits so far, enough to catapult his rendition of the ghazal Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo, in Rohini Ravada’s husky voice, onto Indian news channels. With his fame resting entirely on his massive online presence, Tucker has unexpectedly found himself to be that elusive thing — a crossover across boundaries of genres and mediums. His music has proved to be a welcome respite from the proliferating remixes and perplexing musical experiments online. This one-man show has eased into online playlists alongside professionally produced tracks of Imogen Heap, Zeb and Haniya and Kolaveri Di. Tucker sees it all not just as a medium for popularity but also as an opportunity to monetise his music — through online ad revenues.
The young musician is casually aware of his burgeoning popularity but prefers to talk about other musicians — such as that other hit online viral video Kolaveri Di. “The best thing is that it is the first time a music video went viral in India. The online platform now has potential for musicians,” he says, adding, “I liked the nadaswaram in the song,” and mimics the “pa pa pa pam” sound.
So why exactly is Tucker in Chennai? He frowns in guilt: “I’m not really supposed to talk about it. I am the music director for an upcoming Tamil film by a new director.”
Tucker has no problem reeling off readymade- formedia trivia about his unusual provenance — his years growing up in Massachussetts, how his musician grandfather was his first teacher, how he was given the name Shankar by Mata Amritanandamayi (his family are devotees) and how he’s been learning the clarinet since he was eight.
At 15, at a public library, Tucker chanced upon the CD of Remember Shakti, which featured Zakir Hussain and Pandit Chaurasia. Though he’d finished training in western classical music from the New England Conservatory in Boston, his awe for Indian classical music drove him to apply for a Beebe Foundation grant to study music under Chaurasia for a year in 2010. “The only reprove that Guruji would give us was: ‘tuning, tuning’. Things are different in America where musical training is rather job-oriented,” he says with a cringe. He’s never warmed to the idea of strict orchestra regimes.
It’s evident Tucker is not a conversationalist, but he gradually opens up once the discussion steers away from him and towards his music. “In March, when work for the movie will be done, I have plans to renew the [online] channel with a couple of songs every week,” he says. That is something else that is keeping him busy in Chennai — his quest for singers to feature in new videos. His discoveries so far — such as the US-based Indian classical musicians Iyer sisters and Aditya Rao, who now have fan pages of their own on social media sites — were either acquaintances or enthusiastic singers who’d emailed him song samples.
Tucker’s love for Indian classical music is not the usual indiscriminate western obsession for everything eastern, but an appreciation of its complexities. As he compares jazz’s unlimited freedom with Hindustani’s inspiring restrictions, it is clear he wants the clarinet to illustrate the music’s exciting possibilities. “The two genres are culturally similar. They are symbols of elitism,” he says. And it is this symbol of elitism that is absent in his interpretations of Indian classical music.
Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.