ARTIST SESSION #13: Arjuna Harjai’s journey from Bollywood to independent and his One Minute Composer Series

Since Arjuna's return, he has started a series on his YouTube vlog channel and Instagram called “One Minute Composer,” which has been the origin of many of his new singles, including Mangoge Na and Winter Ayun Waliye. Both featured on the Top 50 Viral charts on Spotify in Pakistan and India

ARTIST SESSION #13: Arjuna Harjai’s journey from Bollywood to independent and his One Minute Composer Series

By Shashwat Hota & Srishti Das

Arjuna Harjai is a composer, singer, and musician based in the UK. Originally from Delhi with a family background in music, Arjuna made a name for himself with his work in Bollywood with songs like O Soniye from the movie Titoo MBA. He has also worked as a composer for the advertising industry. Soon after, he moved to The UK with his wife and took a hiatus for a couple of years where he evolved into a vlogger with his family. Arjuna returned last year as an independent artist and record label owner. 

Since his return, he has started a series on his YouTube vlog channel and Instagram called “One Minute Composer,” which has been the origin of many of his new singles, including Mangoge Na and Winter Ayun Waliye. Both featured on the Top 50 Viral charts on Spotify in Pakistan, and Winter Ayun Waliye featured on the Top 50 in India for a few weeks as well.

Arjuna shared with us his goals of blending cultures across South Asia both at home and in the UK.

Shashwat Hota: Can you briefly talk about your journey in music and how being from a Gharana shaped your music career? What is an early memory of music that you can share with us?

Arjuna Harjai: Having a deep-rooted understanding of classical music has most definitely influenced my compositions. Learning under a Gharana familiarises you with the rules and disciplines of that style. When you start at a young age, you tend to question everything, which makes the learning process fun and allows you to understand how to mould or even break these rules. These classical roots made me a strong composer, as my mind instinctively chooses a Raag based on a given situation, allowing the composition to reflect the nuances and emotions of the script precisely. This foundation, combined with my knowledge of Western Classical, Jazz, sound design, and engineering, has created my unique sonic DNA. 

My journey probably began in the womb. I was probably surrounded by the echoes of my mother's musical presence and my father's earthy voice. Basically, I can't recall a time when I wasn't associated with music—it felt and still feels very engraved into my system. My father was my first teacher, and I remember my parents sitting at home after work, my dad playing the harmonium and singing a Ghazal, discussing the style, composition, and arrangement with my mother, and then both of them singing together. My brother and I would sit and experience these musical evenings almost daily. I was around 2 - 3 years old when my father started teaching me complicated Ghazals, and I tried to sing those heavy Urdu words before I could even talk properly. These are unforgettable memories. As I grew, my mother began imparting formal classical and Gharana-style training. My appetite for music grew, and I would ask my dad to teach me more Ghazals—this was all in fun, a competition with myself. Being born in a household where music was in the air is a blessing. Training under the Gharana style brings a lot of discipline and strengthens our musical roots, setting a reference point that helps you understand any kind of music.

Shashwat: Your work spans Bollywood and the advertising world, and recently, you have branched into independent music. How has the transition from Bollywood to independent music been? What are some of your greatest learnings from the commercial and mainstream side of music?

Arjuna: The transition from Bollywood and advertising to independent music has been both challenging and liberating. In Bollywood and advertising, there are specific demands and constraints that shape the creative process. Particular themes, narratives, and client briefs can limit artistic freedom. However, this has honed my ability to compose music that is both effective and appealing within the given parameters that I study and set when I am not creatively working on making music.

Branching into independent music has instead allowed me to explore my creativity without these constraints. I have the freedom to express my personal vision and experiment with different sounds and styles. This transition has been a refreshing change, offering me the opportunity to connect with my audience on a more personal level and explore themes that resonate deeply with me.

Working in the commercial and mainstream side of music has taught me several valuable lessons. Firstly, I’ve learned the importance of versatility. Each project, whether it’s a Bollywood film or an advertisement, has its unique requirements, and being able to adapt my style to suit different needs is crucial.

Secondly, I’ve gained a deep understanding of music that connects with a wide audience. Commercial projects aim for mass appeal, and through this, I’ve learned how to craft melodies and arrangements that are both catchy and emotionally resonant.

Additionally, working with tight deadlines and specific client briefs has taught me discipline and efficiency. The ability to deliver high-quality work within a limited timeframe is an essential skill in the industry.

Finally, I’ve learned the value of collaboration. Working with stakeholders and other artists has shown me how different perspectives can enrich a project. The collaborations in commercial music have expanded my creative horizons and improved my ability to communicate and work effectively with others.

These experiences have not only refined my technical skills but also shaped my approach to music, blending creativity with practicality.

Shashwat: How has your move to the UK widened your musical horizons? Do you have new perspectives on making music now? 

Arjuna: Definitely! A new cultural environment has exposed me to diverse musical influences and genres that I hadn't fully explored before. The UK's vibrant and diverse music scene, with its rich history in genres like rock, electronic, and indie, has been incredibly inspiring.

Living here has allowed me to collaborate with musicians who bring their unique styles and perspectives. This exchange of ideas has enriched my compositions, adding new dimensions to my music. I've had the opportunity to experiment with different sounds, instruments, and production techniques, which has been both challenging and rewarding.

In the future, I plan to establish studios in the Midlands and create more opportunities for these amazing diaspora musicians like myself. The multicultural atmosphere in the UK has given me a fresh perspective on blending different musical traditions, and I'm more inclined to fuse Indian classical elements with Western genres, creating a more global sound that resonates with a wider audience.

Shashwat: Tell us a little about Zikar hai and how that came to be. This is your first cross-border collaboration. How was the process and what was it like working with Natasha?

Arjuna: Zikar Hai is the 6th episode from the One Minute Composer Series. As usual, I was given a situation and three random words around which I had to create the song. I was actually vibing on Amapiano, which was introduced to me by my friend and Hivewire’s founder Srishti Das, and it influenced my production decisions for Zikar Hai. I felt tempted to use the log drums as the bass but in a different style, mixed with Synth-wave, on a Hindi-Punjabi track. I ended up creating something I never imagined I would. Once the track was ready, I felt I needed a unique voice texture for the female parts and finally ended up working with Natasha Noorani. Her amazing voice gave a new dimension to the song. We worked on the track remotely; She recorded her vocals from her studio, and when I heard her voice, I was mesmerized. Working with great artists like Natasha is one of the perks of pursuing independent music. This cross-border collaboration was a seamless and enriching experience, showcasing how music can bridge distances and create something truly special.

Shashwat: Talking about your One Minute Composer series, it has taken off on Instagram. How did you and your wife come to fruition? What can we expect next in this series? 

Arjuna: The One Minute Composer series came to life after years of experimenting with different types of content. Having spent three years daily vlogging and creating various content pieces, I was searching for a concept that balanced great content, entertainment, and manageable video production. Before this, I had created a cinematic video about getting a call from Ed Sheeran and tried making music using suggestions from fans and followers, but something was still missing. One day, I thought, why not try something as simple as sitting down and making a vlog-style challenge video? I wasn't expecting it to blow up because I usually chase perfection and aim for high-quality video concepts, like the Ed Sheeran video. However, this simple concept took off, and we finally hit the balance of vlog, content, value, entertainment, and education. A crucial aspect of this series is the role my wife plays. She suggests words and themes, and I come up with a song based on her prompts. Her input brings a certain rawness to the process, with her non-musical background and an amazing ear for music and new sounds. This collaboration adds a unique and authentic touch to each episode. As for what's next in the series, you can expect more cross-genre experiments and collaborations with talented artists from around the world. We’re always looking for new themes, instruments, and musical styles to incorporate. The goal is to keep pushing boundaries and surprising our audience with each episode. 

Shashwat: As a musician just out of school, I wanted to know how you would describe the independent music ecosystem in India compared to the UK. 

Arjuna: In India, the independent music scene has been growing rapidly over the past few years. There’s a rich diversity of musical styles, from classical and folk to contemporary genres like Hip-hop, Electronic, and Indie-pop. The rise of digital platforms has given independent artists more visibility and opportunities to reach a global audience. Cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore have become hubs for indie music, with numerous festivals, live venues, and collaborative projects. However, the scene is still evolving, and many artists face challenges such as limited financial support, the need for better infrastructure, and the dominance of Bollywood music in the industry. Despite these challenges, the passion and creativity of Indian indie musicians continue to drive the scene forward.

In the UK, the independent music ecosystem is well-established and deeply rooted in a rich musical history. The UK has always been a melting pot for various music genres, and the indie scene benefits from a strong infrastructure that includes numerous live music venues, festivals, record labels, and media support. There’s a significant emphasis on originality and innovation, and artists often have more opportunities to experiment and push boundaries. The support from local communities and the presence of established indie music labels provide a solid foundation for emerging artists. Additionally, the UK's multicultural society brings diverse influences into the music scene, enriching it further.

Shashwat: You have studied music. Have you seen any shortcomings in the music education system in India? What changes do you want to see in music education through ASM Academy? 

Arjuna: My life's motto is to learn and learn until I die. My move to the UK is a testament to that. I left behind an established career and life just so I could push myself to learn more in an unfamiliar environment.

I have studied various facets of music, from Indian classical to Carnatic music, pursuing Trinity grades for Western classical piano, studying jazz music and sound engineering, and gaining hands-on industry training for over a decade. However, I still feel the need to learn more, and that's what ASM Academy is all about.

I have experienced some shortcomings in the music education system in India. One of the main issues is the lack of practical, hands-on training and real-world experience. Many music education institutions focus on theoretical knowledge without providing students with the necessary skills to succeed in the industry. Additionally, there is often a disconnect between traditional teaching methods and the rapidly evolving music industry.

Through ASM Academy, co-founded with Surabhi Dashputra for our Mumbai branch and with the guidance of Lakshmi Madhusudan, my mother, for our Delhi branch, I aim to address these shortcomings by offering a dynamic and comprehensive approach to music education. We don't just offer courses; we provide an ongoing quest for self-improvement. Students can start their foundation with Classical Music and gradually explore other styles, such as jazz, contemporary, and music production. Some of our students are pursuing master's degrees in music from our Academy, while others have developed a keen interest in music production.

The intention behind ASM Academy is to initiate the correct mindset and develop a hunger for knowledge. Learning should not be a process with an expiry date; it should be a lifelong journey of exploration and growth. I envision ASM Academy as a platform where aspiring musicians can unleash their creativity, hone their skills, and pursue their passion for music to the fullest.

Shashwat: What next can we expect from you?

Arjuna: Following "Zikar Hai," I'm gearing up to release my first-ever EP, which will feature previous tracks like "Challeya Ve" alongside 3 to 4 new songs collaborating with renowned artists. I'm also planning an intriguing series focused on global collaborations. This phase of independent music has reshaped my approach and consumption of music, inspiring me to create experimental soundscapes that are more inclusive and diverse. 

With gratitude for the support of over 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube and over 350k followers on Instagram, I'm humbly aiming to extend my reach to uplift fellow musicians. Through my UK-based indie label, Aart Sense Studios Limited, I hope to provide a platform for artists to release their music. Additionally, I'm excited about collaborating with street musicians and local talents in the UK, as I believe in supporting the growth of our musical community. In Leamington Spa, recognized as the gaming capital, I'm working on a space where musicians can contribute to the gaming industry. Furthermore, utilising my network and background in Bollywood, I intend to create opportunities for Western musicians to explore Indian films, fostering cross-cultural collaborations in the world's second-largest film industry.

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Hivewire is an independent music industry publication launched in June 2023 by Srishti Das. This dynamic newsletter offers a unique perspective on the music industry, focusing on emerging markets and the rapidly growing music cultures gradually making their mark globally.