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Inside one of India’s best known music show Coke Studio @MTV



“We had very low budgets,”

– Lesle Lewis, mentor/technical director Coke Studio @MTV.

In its debut season, Coke Studio @MTV did live up to the hype. Artists like Sunidhi Chauhan, Shankar Mahadevan, Harshdeep Kaur, Sabri Brothers, Shafqat Amanat Ali teamed with upcoming talents like Akriti Kakkar, Shruti Pathak, Parthiv Gohil and non-main stream artists like Bombay Jayshree, Mame Khan etc. to present before the Indian audience a never heard before fusion of Indian classical genres with western as well as Bollywood influences.

Coke Studio Pakistan was already a huge success and was into its 5th season by the time Coke decided to produce its Indian counterpart. In 2011, one of India’s leading music television channel MTV launched Coke Studio @MTV amidst much hype and fanfare. The show featured a musical amalgamation of Hindustani, Carnatic, folk with contemporary genres like hip hop, rock and pop was set to be the soul of the show.

This was the time when Indi pop had shut down and Bollywood item numbers had taken over the T.V space. The audience was not exposed to any other music except Bollywood.

The advent of Coke Studio in India

Coke studio @MTV was a breath of fresh air as it was experimental and the sound was brand new.

Big names from the industry were hired to ensure highest level of production and quality programming. Coca Cola India, the owners of the Coke Studio brand, roped in Red Chillies Entertainment for the production. Veteran musician Lesle Lewis was appointed the mentor/technical director.

“The brief from Coca Cola was to take music from 2 separate genres and create a new one,” said Lewis.

coke studio

While the show was targeted at the purist music fans, it aimed to maintain an equilibrium vis a vis the T.V ratings and scout for an audience that would want to explore music apart from Bollywood. In any performing art, there is a need and a want. Coke Studio @MTV was created to fulfil that need.

Experimental season to start off

The responsibility of ensuring the show looks grand while maintaining its ‘youth first’ appeal was handed to director Supavitra Babul, an established name in the television show industry.

“The 1st season was more like an experiment. The idea was to include 1-2 Bollywood songs, in each episode, which are recreated. The rest would be a fusion with folk, classical or other genres. This experiment was partially successful,” said Babul.

Adding to his thoughts, Lewis asserted,

“I was given the responsibility to create Coke Studio @MTV. For the 1st season we recorded 51 songs in just 40 days. Because of my seniority and respect in the industry, I was able to pull it off with so many different artists and individuals. The artists agreed to experiment because they knew I won’t let the music suffer.”

The first season was experimental and with limited budget, the show produced an album ‘Coke Studio @MTV Season 1’ which went platinum. It seemed that the void in the non-film segment would be finally fulfilled. The show hit the bull’s eye with the target audience. The youth took a shining to it and even the artists were keen to get involved in what wasn’t a run of the mill project. The show was breaking the regular Bollywood song norms which got artists of all genres excited. The intent was to create good music.

Various unknown acts were been unearthed by the show. Songs like ‘Badri Badariya’ and ‘Chaudhary’ made Mame Khan a household name and also established Amit Trivedi as one of the most versatile composers in the country.

“Coke Studio @MTV was surely one of the important milestones in my musical career. Not only did I get a chance to sing these amazing songs but also the mass reach of this program is more than a single independent artists can achieve on his own,” said Mame Khan.

Comparison with Coke Studio Pakistan

One of the most difficult challenge Coke Studio @MTV faced was to avoid comparisons with its hugely successful Pakistani counterpart, Coke Studio Pakistan.

Coke Studio Pakistan had captivated the audience by semi classical, folk, qawali and other forms of south Asian music which were tastefully fused with western harmonies. People heard a different sound. Traditional poetries and music got mainstream recognition. Their re-invention was targeted at the younger generation and they discovered a heritage of sub continental music which otherwise would have remained unknown. The fusion was not complex but easy on the ears yet upholding a class.

To draw comparison between the Pakistani and Indian Coke Studios is a hell of a task. Though Pakistan’s Coke Studio is more multi-dimensional as the number of languages and genres are far lesser than its Indian version. Both have not confined themselves to one language or influence.

“The usage of different genres have added mesmerising flavour to Coke Studio Pakistan. But with all the praise attached to Coke Studio Pakistan, one critique I would add that Coke Studio Pakistan focuses more over cover songs, not giving ample time to produce original music. Coke Studio @MTV has been great in this regard focusing on original songs. ‘Bismillah’ by Salim-Sulieman is a prime example. Last but not the least, it is pertinent to mention regardless of which side of the border we live, music helps to bridge gaps in the time of turmoil,” said Muhammad Ishaq a.k.a Iyzak, Head audio engineer and line recordist, seasons 7-10 Coke Studio Pakistan.

One of the few Indian artists to perform in Coke Studio Pakistan is Sharmistha Chatterjee. As the lead vocalist of the Mekaal Hasan Band, she performed ‘Sayon’ written by Baba Bulle Shah and ‘Kinaray’ a bandish in Raag Yaman, in 2015. Sharmistha never got a chance to perform Coke Studio @MTV, as a solo vocalist. Although she did do a small stint of backing vocals with the band Orange Street in 2013 at Coke Studio @MTV.

“I am often asked why Coke Studio Pakistan is more popular than the Indian one. India with its great potential in music, skilled producers, diverse culture and its amazing artists unfortunately could not look beyond Bollywood. I guess production houses and corporates want to play a safe game by focussing on popular Bollywood figures. This can be a reason for Coke Studio Pakistan gaining more popularity worldwide than the Indian counterpart,” opined Sharmistha.

The essence of Coke Studio was the live studio recorded music. The format was to include one house band and various artists collaborating with that band. The Pakistani version has one of their best musician and producer Rohail Hyatt heading the show from its first season.

“Coke Studio Pakistan is musically superb but they produce 6-8 songs in a season. We had 51 songs in the 1st season. How can one compare the two? Their lifestyle varies from ours. They look at god as their escape route. That is why the Sufism in their music seems to work better. Whereas the Indian lifestyle is ‘band bajaa baraat.’ Our musical vocabulary is huge unlike theirs,” questioned Lewis.

The dis-similarities

Language is a major barrier in India. With scores of languages and multiple dialects, to find a common ground and appease the entire spectrum of audience is almost an impossible feat. One of the hindrances Coke Studio @MTV faced was by the purists. Fusing Indian classical music with other genres is frowned upon by artists as well as a wide audience. The Indian regional music industry is well developed and local artists do not really have to rely on a television show appearance to fuel their fire. Classical and folk music concerts and shows are held regularly through the nation and the audience, though minor in comparison, would not turn on MTV for its music.

Change is necessity and the producers felt the need for diversity. The Indian version, from season 2 onwards, featured a different music director and set of musicians in every episode. The music director added his own regional flavour to the music. Various regional, folk and classical musicians were signed on. What was supposed to be a rainbow of musical flavours ended up in confusion as with each episode the sound started changing.

“Due to the change in the format the show lost its essence. There can be only one captain on the ship and his vision needs to be followed,” feels Lewis.

India has a much more evolved T.V and music industry as compared to Pakistan. Here upcoming artists have various platforms to showcase their talent and burst into limelight. While in Pakistan, Coke Studio is taken as the ultimate destination. Various Pakistani T.V channels were ready to promote Coke Studio Pakistan for free and all artists wanted to be a part of it.

Onus on Coke

Coke, as a brand, tried to utilise the situation to the hilt and gain more ground than it had in the Pakistani soft drink market. The show was to build a connect between the cola brand and the youth. Coke was ready to splurge on this opportunity. While in India, Coke was already a dominant player in the soft drink market. It did not make business sense to spend beyond a certain limit to reassert their dominance. The brand had it priorities sorted and was only willing to experiment.

“After 5 seasons of Coke Studio Pakistan, we launched Coke Studio @MTV knowing fully well that in India for this platform we need to ensure it goes through various channels to the consumers. It did extremely well for 3 years but India is very diverse country and marketing of such programs requires very large commitment,” said Deepak Jolly, former Director for Public Affairs and Communications, Coke India.

Babul does not agree to this. He feels the Indian version had challenges that were different from its Pakistani counterpart. While the Indian version was looking to branch out, the Pakistani one had restrictive music preference and stuck to their roots.

“MTV never had the budget for it. Coke, being the sponsor, most of the responsibility was with them as it was their property. It is about building a brand over years. The onus lies with Coke,” asserted Babul.

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