Aditya Shah ’15 breaks barriers with Indian classical music video

by Arunav Jain | 1/6/17 2:00am

Aditya Shah ’15, now professionally working as an inbound sales consultant for HubSpot in Cambridge, Massachusetts, still finds time to make waves in the music world.

This past June, Shah released a music video to accompany his song “Pilgrims (Kabir),” one of several Indian classical songs recorded as part of a project Shah started at Dartmouth as an undergrad. The video is sponsored by the Hopkins Center’s Class of 1961 Arts Initiative Fund, a grant meant to help talented undergraduate students start special projects in the arts.

Shah said he harbors a very deep respect for the genre and aims to reflect that in his music. Since 2006, Shah has trained in north Indian classical vocal music.

In the song “Pilgrims (Kabir)”, Shah sets the couplets of famous 15th century Indian poet Kabir to a raga, a component of Indian classical music which uses various frameworks that are improvised upon by each musician.

Shah initiated the project under the supervision of professor of music Theodore Levin, who said that he later became involved in the music’s creation.

“[Shah’s] project was of great interest – something radical in the world of Indian classical music,” said Levin, a specialist in the musical ethnography of Central Asia.

Furthermore, Shah said that the project is also the first Indian classical music video to be funded by any Dartmouth grant. Conceived during a history Foreign Study Program in London, the video is meant to foster a sense of intercultural harmony and sympathy, a concept Shah summarizes as “cross-cultural partnership.”

This idea is mirrored in the cast and production team of the project, in which, Shah said, features the voices and acting of himself and the Italian-American vocalist Christine Ghezzo. The project was also produced in collaboration with the African-American videographer Antoine Douglas.

Shah’s aim of building amity among people of different traditions and cultures can also be traced back to Kabir’s composition of the song. The poet’s work is remembered in Indian history for its ability to appeal to members of both Hindu and Muslim faiths, something unheard of during that time. Shah said that the message of the song is not bound in any one particular religion.

“You’ve got this poet [Kabir] who is Hindu, Muslim or neither – the message in the song is universal, but the way the message is conveyed is essentially Indian classical,” Shah said.

In regards to the language barrier that could potentially be a hurdle for people engaging in his music, which is sung in vernacular Hindi, Shah believes that it should not completely discourage anyone from enjoying his work, a sentiment which Levin shares as well.

While Levin does not subscribe to what he calls a “cliché that music is an international language,” he said that listeners can respond to certain aspects of the music regardless of their fluency in the language in which it is written.

“What I am responding to when I listen to the song are the melody, the harmony and the structure,” Levin said. “I like all of the things I can respond to through all of my musical knowledge.”

Shah was inspired to undertake the musical endeavor, which he said is “solidly and proudly rooted in Indian classical music,” as a response to what he observed to be an underrepresentation of South Asian musical traditions at Dartmouth. Through his project, Shah said he aimed to contribute to the student body’s attempts to promote more diversity in the College’s sociocultural narrative.

“I completely support Dartmouth in changing the hegemonic Eurocentric narrative to include different world nations, but not only what lies at the peripheral but at the metropole too,” he said. “I encourage everyone to always bring out the perspective that has not been championed.”

Amy Zhang ’20, who intends to pursue a minor in music, connected with Shah’s mission.

“Being able to access such extraordinary examples of music can inspire both students already interested in the subject and those unfamiliar with it,” Zhang said.

Working closely with his family, Shah is currently in the process of adding subtitles containing translations to the video in order to minimize the language barrier. Making other cultures accessible to all may seem daunting, but, as Shah exemplifies, definitely not impossible.