The Carnatic Franchise

    A couple of aficionados turn an ancient tradition into a mainline business opportunity. But can a business model really be based on a society’s love for the classical?

    In the mental landscape of a middle-class Tamil parent of a teenager, the sequence of words maths-Brilliant Tutorials-IIT-financial aid-H1B visa-you yess (that’s US pronounced the Tamil way)-Microsoft, is like carefully arranged furniture. Adequate care is taken not to clutter it with ‘worthless’ things like literature or arts. The only exception being the ragas and talas of Carnatic music, which keeps the child away from the film-going, rock-loving infidels. Besides, it is also a sign of flawless upbringing. So, the search for a Paattu mami (the venerable aunty who teaches Carnatic music), whether in the crammed Carnatic heartland of Chennai’s Mylapore or San Francisco’s Bay Area, begins in right earnert very early.

    But for people like Ramakrishna Piyush, 15, picking up Carnatic notes for the last eight years, the problem starts when passion steps in. To his desire to build a career in classical music, his father, a government servant, has just one retort: “Carnatic music provides succour for the soul, but it won’t fill your stomach”.

    Fortunately, for the likes of Piyush that logic seems to be on its way out. Representing a new breed of musicpreneurs, K N Shashikiran, 31, a wiry musician-Carnatic evangelist, and his friend and popular vocalist S Sowmya, are changing the way classical music is being taught, and in the process creating new career avenues for people like Piyush.

    Shashikiran is the Founder Director of Chennai-based Srishti’s Carnatica Private Limited, which plans to popularise Carnatic music through multimedia, including tutorial VCDs and the portal And late last year, he introduced his Carnatica music-learning centre. Sowmya, once hailed as the musical heir to the legendary M S Subbulakshmi, is a gold medallist-post graduate in chemistry from IIT Madras, who chose to take up music full-time.

    Replicating the NIIT model of building expert content and reaching out through franchisees, the two cater to nearly 170 students. Shashikiran and Sowmya, got together in 1997 with a capital of just Rs. 2500, and at present, after, four years, they claim to be worth Rs. 2.9 crore in terms of the content they have generated (though they refuse to divulge their turnover).

    Located in T Nagar, Chennai’s bustling commercial area, the 6000 square feet Carnatica centre is equipped with a well-stocked library, a state-of-the-art mini recording studio, and an auditorium. As of now, the centre has four franchisee centres in Chennai and Coimbatore.

    Typically, a Carnatica franchisee has to bring in an investment of Rs 2-5 lakhs and some space. Shashikiran provides the equipment and the faculty, and most importantly, he offers the franchise an exit option where he gets 60% of his investment back two or three years down the line, if the business seems unviable.

    Shashikiran’s next target is taking music centres global, for which he requires close to 3.5 crores in the next two years – it could come through joint ventures, VCs, or a sizeable community of NRI Carnatic do-gooders. Also, the doubts over the viabilty of chic Carnatic schools are being quickly dispelled. No longer is the traditional gurukulam way the only means to learn classical music. Says renowned musician-guru Neyveli R Santanagopalan who has signed up with to teach music through the internet: “By using multimedia, I can reach out to a wider group of students, unlike the traditional system.” Now, Paattu mami, beware of the computer in your student’s house!

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