Interviews ...

“My primary goal is to continue growing as a musician” – Arjuna Harjai

As a composer Arjuna Harjai has had a wonderful run in the advertising industry so far. His inventive songs in films like ‘Lucknow Central’ and ‘Judgementall Hai Kya’, too, earned him a good amount of recognition. With several years of training behind him, Arjuna has tried his hand at a variety of musical genres and excelled in each of them. The last few years have been quite interesting for the young composer. He shifted his base from Mumbai to England and even fulfilled his dream of opening a music institute in India.

In this interview, Arjuna talks about his journey as a composer, moving to England, the issues and restrictions involved in composing music for films, importance of formal training, the thought behind starting a music school, plans for the future and more.

You were working as a music composer in Mumbai. What made you shift base to England?

Since 2008, my life, due to my work commitments in the music industry, has been nothing short of a whirlwind. I was engrossed in a routine that entailed spending 18-20 hours a day in the studio, and as much as I loved creating music, it left little room for personal life or introspection about my lifestyle. Even after getting married, my hectic schedule barely left any time for my family.

Over time, I started to question if there was a better balance to be struck. I had a team of twelve working under me and tried to manage my work schedule more effectively, but I still found myself working excessively. On top of this, I realised I had developed a sort of fear of leaving Mumbai, worrying about losing work opportunities.

However, the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic brought about a paradigm shift, enabling remote work and breaking the traditional confines of location-based jobs. This transition made me realise that I didn’t necessarily enjoy the lifestyle Mumbai offered on a personal level. Simultaneously, it presented an opportunity for my wife, Divya, to pursue her second Master’s in Digital Marketing in the UK, and for me to capitalise on the freedom offered by remote work. What initially started as a temporary move for Divya’s course eventually led to a longer stay due to some promising work opportunities that arose for me.

Living in the UK was not without its struggles. In Mumbai, I had the luxury of an army of assistants and my family handling everything from my food, travel, finances, and schedules. My brother Aditya Harjai was heading the creative team while my wife Divya Harjai was handling social media marketing for me. Moving to a new country meant managing all these aspects myself, including taking care of our 1.5-year-old toddler whenever Divya was at the university for extended hours.

These challenges were steep but valuable. They honed not only my personal skills but also contributed to my growth as a musician. Being away from the studio provided me with the space and time to think about music from a different perspective.

I believe life often has its own plan for us, and I’m embracing the path it has charted. I continue to explore this new phase, enjoying the balance it brings to my personal and professional life, and looking forward to what the future holds.

Apart from recreating the popular folk song ‘Kaavaan Kaavaan’, you composed two original tracks (‘Rangdaari and ‘Teen Kabootar’) and did the background score for ‘Lucknow Central’. ‘Rangdaari’ had become quite popular back then. How was it working with Arijit Singh on the track?

Although I try to stay away from recreations, but it was quite a unique experience to recreate the popular folk song ‘Kaavaan Kaavaan’ for ‘Lucknow Central’. The challenging aspect was in the scenario where we had to mimic the sounds of a jail sequence using only body percussions and basic elements like a trash can or other items found in a prison. This presented a distinct, engaging challenge that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Working on ‘Rangdaari’ was another remarkable experience. Arijit Singh, with his unparalleled musicianship and expertise, always brings a distinct vibe to any track he works on. In fact, after hearing the first draft he shared, I requested him to re-sing it with a more earthy vibe. I deeply appreciate that he respected my creative supervision and musicality and agreed to re-record the song. His willingness to experiment and go the extra mile for the perfect output truly sets him apart and makes collaborating with him a rewarding experience.

I also had the opportunity to work with Arijit on other memorable tracks like ‘O Soniye’ and ‘Kyu Hua’ from ‘Titoo MBA’. Both of these songs were special in their own ways. ‘Kyu Hua’ was a deeply emotional song and required a careful balance between lyrics and melody to truly bring out the essence of the sentiment. On the other hand, ‘O Soniye’ was a vibrant and lively track that required a completely different energy and approach. Both songs were received well and added diverse dimensions to the film’s soundtrack.

It’s always a rewarding process to see a song evolve from a simple melody in your head to a complete piece of music that people can connect with, and these songs were no exception. It was an enriching experience to work on these diverse tracks and contribute to the soundscapes of ‘Titoo MBA’.

After ‘Lucknow Central’, one expected you to do a lot of work in the Hindi film industry but that didn’t really happen back then. Why?

After ‘Lucknow Central’, I was involved in a number of projects in the Hindi film industry, including ‘Judgementall Hai Kya’, ‘Motichoor Chaknachoor’, and ‘Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare’. However, my focus shifted more towards advertising due to a high demand in that sector.

The advertising circuit was offering me at least one project a day and I enjoyed the continuous creative challenges it presented. In contrast, the film industry at the time was somewhat fickle, with a lot of power shifts and lack of organisation. I found myself creating songs and pitching them endlessly, which felt less productive due to the decision-making process often resting in the hands of producers or music labels, rather than the directors. This shift in dynamics made me feel as though there was less scope for creativity.

On the other hand, the advertising industry offered a more organised structure and consistent opportunities to flex my creative muscles. Each day brought a new project and a new challenge, making it an exhilarating space to work in. That being said, I still have a deep affection for film music and am always open to projects that offer interesting and creative opportunities.

You started learning music from your parents Madhusudan Harjai and Lakshmi Madhusudan when you were just two and a half years old. What is the kind of musical training you had after that?

I was indeed fortunate to be born into a family with such rich musical heritage, and my early training was primarily in Indian classical music under the guidance of my parents, Madhusudan Harjai and Lakshmi Madhusudan. They provided me with a solid foundation and instilled in me a deep love and respect for music from a very young age.

After this initial training, I continued my musical education in several other directions. I trained in Western classical piano and also studied sound engineering. These diverse areas of study helped me gain a comprehensive understanding of music in its various forms, from the traditional to the modern, from the acoustic to the digital.

To further refine my skills and expand my knowledge, I also learned about composition, arrangements, programming, and counterpoint. This extensive, multi-faceted musical education not only equipped me with a wide range of skills, but it also helped me develop a flexible and adaptive approach to music. I believe that the ability to understand and work within different musical genres and styles is a crucial asset in my profession, and I owe that largely to the comprehensive training I received.

Moreover, having a strong grounding in classical music, both Indian and Western, provides a base from which to draw inspiration and informs my work across all genres, from composing for films and advertisements to working on my independent music projects.

You started our journey in the music industry by assisting veteran composer Lalit Pandit. How was the experience of working with him?

Working with Lalit Pandit was an invaluable experience for me at the beginning of my career. Lalit Pandit, being one half of the iconic music duo Jatin-Lalit, has contributed immensely to the Indian film industry, and having the chance to learn from him directly was a privilege.

While assisting him, I had the opportunity to observe first-hand how he creates his compositions, his work process, and how he adapts his music to different scenarios in films. I also got to understand the nuances of working in a high-pressure, creative industry.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this period was learning about the level of dedication and commitment that is needed to excel in this industry. The work ethic, discipline, and creativity that I observed in Lalit Pandit were inspiring and they set the bar high for what I aimed to achieve in my own career.

This experience gave me the perfect launch pad into the industry, and I still carry the lessons I learned during that time with me today. Working with Lalit Pandit was a critical stepping stone in my journey and it helped shape me into the musician and composer I am today.

You stated in an interview that you faced a lot of challenges on account of being a young composer. Can you elaborate on that?

Being young and entering the music industry, especially starting at the tender age of 16, came with its unique set of challenges. My age and youthful appearance often led people to underestimate my capabilities. I was commonly advised to focus on my studies or suggested to assist someone more experienced. There were times when I felt dismissed purely based on my physical appearance, even before I had the chance to showcase my abilities.

However, the moment I was given an opportunity to demonstrate my music, perceptions would change. I faced these challenges head-on with my compositions, allowing my music to speak for itself. I used these experiences as stepping stones to prove my worth and break through the preconceptions about age and experience in the industry.

Each hurdle taught me invaluable lessons about resilience and perseverance in the face of skepticism and doubt. These challenges did not deter me; instead, they fuelled my determination to grow as a composer and establish my place in the music industry. I firmly believe that it’s the talent, dedication, and the ability to innovate that truly matters, not your age or how you look. And it’s these qualities that I’ve always strived to bring to the forefront in my career.

One of your most interesting collaborations in the recent past has been with Jonita Gandhi on the single ‘Main Janu Na’. How did that come about?

Jonita Gandhi and I have had a mutual admiration for each other’s work, and have previously collaborated on various projects. The creation of the single ‘Main Janu Na’ was indeed one of our most interesting collaborations to date.

The song was initially composed way back in 2015. I was immersed in creating new songs during this period and ‘Main Janu Na’ was one of the outputs. Surabhi Dashputra penned down the beautiful lyrics and Jonita was my choice to breathe life into it with her vocals. In fact, I had composed the song keeping her unique voice in mind. She graciously came over to my home studio and we recorded the track. What emerged was an exquisite piece that resonated with both of us. Initially, it was conceptualised as an acoustic song, but over time, it evolved.

In 2017, Sony Music India acquired the song. However, it wasn’t until a few years later that we decided to release it as an independent track. We took the opportunity to rework the arrangement, steering it towards a more synth-wave, pop genre. The whole process was a thrill and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

We had initially planned for Jonita to feature in the music video along with me, but due to the restrictions and challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and our conflicting schedules, it unfortunately did not come to fruition. Regardless, our musical partnership remains strong and we are both looking forward to collaborating on more intriguing projects as soon as our schedules permit.

You have composed for more than 500 projects till date. How has been your experience of working in the advertising industry? Out of all the jingles you have composed so far, which has been your favourite?

It’s been an extraordinary journey composing for over 500 projects in the advertising industry. The advertising world has its unique charm and dynamism which I find fascinating. The best part about creating music for advertisements is the diversity in briefs, which keeps me on my toes creatively. Each project offers a fresh challenge, whether it’s to evoke a certain emotion, match the tone of a brand, or simply to create something catchy and memorable. I thrive on these challenges and they allow me to constantly grow as a musician and composer.

The advertising industry also operates in a highly organised and efficient manner which aligns well with my own work ethic. Here, deadlines are tight, and the work is fast-paced which enables me to keep my creative juices flowing and to be more productive.

Selecting a favourite from the many jingles I have composed is akin to choosing a favourite child! Each one holds a special place for me, as they all come with their own unique set of challenges and rewards. However, if I had to pick, one that stands out in particular is the jingle I composed for Ambuja Cement, Chatein campaign with Gulzar saheb. It was a creatively stimulating project, and the jingle’s widespread popularity and resonance with the audience made it exceptionally rewarding.

My journey in the advertising industry continues to be a thrilling one and I’m excited for all the future projects that are yet to come. The experience has also broadened my perspective, reinforcing my belief in the importance of versatility and adaptability as a composer. This, I believe, has been instrumental in my endeavours in the film and independent music spaces as well.

You are involved with a music school based in Mumbai. Tell us something about that.

I co-founded the Aesthetics of Sound & Music Institute, also known as ASM, in Mumbai along with the gifted singer and lyricist, Surabhi Dashputra. The idea behind establishing this school was driven by our collective vision to pass on our rich musical experiences and knowledge to the next generation of musicians.

At ASM, we provide a comprehensive musical curriculum. Students are given the opportunity to learn Indian classical music to establish a strong musical foundation. Additionally, they are trained in contemporary music styles, playback singing, music production, and composition. This combination ensures our students gain a well-rounded musical education and exposure to the diverse facets of the industry.

Another aspect that makes ASM unique is the practical work experience we offer our students. Many of our talented students have had the chance to work with me closely in my studio sessions, enabling them to gain invaluable real-world experience and insight into the workings of the music industry.

What I’m particularly proud of is that many of our students and assistants are now making a name for themselves in the industry, thriving in their independent music careers as singers, composers, and music producers. It’s incredibly rewarding to see them find their own musical path and contribute to the rich tapestry of music in our country.

Lastly, an integral part of our mission at ASM is to give back to the community. We organise free music sessions for underprivileged children and arrange educationally entertaining shows for orphanages and old age homes. The funds generated from our paid classes go towards these initiatives. This is our way of ensuring that the joy and power of music can reach all, regardless of their circumstances. In essence, the school plays a significant role in my life, career, and, above all, my mission to help shape the future of music in India.

What are you doing next?

I have a lot of exciting projects lined up for the near future. First and foremost, I’m thrilled about releasing a Punjabi single that we’re planning to unveil by the end of July or early August. I’m also ecstatic about having composed for a Marathi film, which is a new and exhilarating venture for me. These projects are a testament to my goal of exploring diverse music genres and breaking down barriers in the music industry.

Beyond these immediate plans, I’m continually working on new compositions and finding innovative ways to connect with my audience. For instance, my YouTube channel, which started as a platform for interactive music sessions, has now evolved into a space where I share my life’s experiences with my viewers, interspersed with music-related content. I plan to keep this interaction alive and continue sharing my journey, my struggles, and my achievements with my audience.

Finally, I am deeply invested in the work we do at Aesthetics of Sound & Music Institute. We have some new initiatives lined up for our students that will help them gain more industry exposure and hands-on experience. I firmly believe in the mission of ASM, and I am looking forward to nurturing the next generation of musicians.

As always, my primary goal is to continue growing as a musician and a person, pushing boundaries, and creating music that touches people’s hearts. Whether it’s through my compositions, my school, or my personal journey, I’m excited to see where the road leads me next.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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