Anahad Foundation: taking folk music from India's hinterlands to the internet

Charukesi Ramadurai speaks to Abhinav Agrawal, founder of the Anahad Foundation, about how he's giving folk artists a platform to be heard globally

Abhinav Agrawal, centre, during sound check for the recording of one of the folk musicians. Agrawal, who founded the Anahad Foundation, will put the work of local musicians in India in the spotlight. 
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Abhinav Agrawal first came across Dapu Khan at the Jaisalmer Fort in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The old-time musician was performing on an obscure string instrument called kamaicha for tourists. Agrawal knew immediately that the music – and the musician – deserved wider attention. One way to do this was to showcase Khan's talent to a larger audience who could then contact the musician directly, and so Agrawal set him up with digitally recorded CDs and business cards.

Soon after, Khan was discovered online and consequently invited to perform at an international music festival in Germany. He also made money by selling his CDs to tourists, and performing at weddings and other ceremonies locally.

From left to right, Ajam Khan, Arshdeep, Inderjeet Singh, Maninderpal Singh, Jaskarn Singh form Rang le Sardaar. The group is one of the many folk music groups that is supported by the Anahad Foundation. 

As word spread about Khan’s newfound fame, more musicians from the region reached out to Agrawal, who ended up creating the Anahad Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that offers a free platform for folk musicians to be heard. The question that Anahad Foundation started out to answer was: can technology empower folk music? And as thousands of examples such as Khan’s have proved, the answer is a resounding yes. To date, the Anahad Foundation has helped build a digital presence for more than 6,000 folk artists – who were performing in near obscurity – across five Indian states.

Folk music, not just in India, does not often have the kind of support and platform it needs to be disseminated to a large audience

Growing up learning and listening to classical music from a young age, Agrawal is determined to preserve musical traditions and instruments that are slowly dying, and create better livelihoods for the artists.

“I grew up surrounded by so many talented musicians in my community,” he says, “and many of them were looking for some way to record their work, not so much for money, but for the sake of immortalising their work, and passing it down the generations.”

Anahad Foundation officially launched in 2017, soon after Agrawal graduated with a management degree in music business from Berklee College of Music. Initially, he found that musicians, while interested in the idea, were unwilling to spend time and money travelling to the recording studio in Delhi. So, in 2019, Agrawal and his team started travelling to the artists instead – making trips to different regions of India with their small, dustproof, long-lasting “backpack studio” to record with folk artists in or near their own homes.

The foundation was initially self-funded, followed by incubation funds for start-ups and corporate social responsibility kitties. Agrawal also roped in experts such as Grammy-winner Gael Hedding, director of Berklee Abu Dhabi, to help him in his work. Hedding says it has been rewarding to connect interior India with a global audience.

Gael Hedding, left, setting up the BackPack Studio for Dholru folk performers.

“Folk music, not just in India, does not often have the kind of support and platform it needs to be disseminated to a large audience, and I was happy to help with setting up the right equipment to record in remote situations,” he says.

Anahad claims that on average, the monthly income of the artists increased sevenfold through the project. The team know this because of their detailed impact analysis programme, called Samlaap, via which they hold discussions and surveys among what Agrawal calls his “huge musical family”, for honest feedback.

He explains that the overall idea is to empower enterprising musicians. “We tell them clearly that we are not going to get you new shows, but we can give you the tools that will help you get income sources.”

Abhinav Agrawal with artists during a microphone set up.

Apart from the project’s economic benefits, Hedding commends the prestige the musicians earn within their own communities because “suddenly they are not just local musicians but artists on the internet”. It means a great deal for the musicians to be able to hear themselves for the first time in their lives, he says.

“When we play their recordings back to them, they are filled with wonder: ‘Wow, that is me?’ And that is a powerful motivator,” he says.

The foundation’s work came to a halt last year when the pandemic hit India, and the country went into a sudden and strict lockdown. The situation continues with the second wave of the pandemic. The Anahad team is unable to travel to towns and villages across the country like before, but have found innovative ways to help artists find a footing.

A partner at Anahad and Agrawal’s wife, Shuchi Roy, is encouraging artists to collaborate within their own groups and create short recordings on their phones. When they sent in these pieces, and as a way to support them, they were each paid 1,000 Indian rupees ($13) and sent a grocery kit sufficient for a family of five for a month. Roy says that starting with an initial target of 1,200, Anahad ended up helping more than 8,000 artists in a few months, because “artists kept sending us videos, which we could not refuse”.

Anahad has also been partnering – especially during the pandemic – with mainstream musicians to throw the spotlight on folk artists. A few of these artists have found minor work opportunities, such as a chance to perform on the India’s Got Talent television show, and to conduct music classes online.

Roy says all the artists are eagerly waiting for things to get back to normal, so they can start performing again. And when that happens, Anahad will be there, ready to support them once more.