EXCLUSIVE: Thirteen years ago, a young Sidharth Sriram promised himself that the first time he would attend Coachella would be the first time he performed.

Last weekend, that dream came true. Sriram, who has sung more than 250 songs on Indian productions, is now 33 and has in the past few days become the first South Indian artist to perform at the world-renowned festival, which takes place across two weekends in the Colorado Desert. He played his second set yesterday and is featuring on a bill with Lana Del Rey, Doja Cat and Tyler the Creator.

“I’ve described it as a beautiful blur,” Sriram tells Deadline over Zoom in the days after his first performance. “It felt like it just came and went.”

His performance came just a year after Punjabi singer and actor Diljit Dosanjh became the first Indian to take the Coachella stage. Showcasing the diversity of the musical offering from the world’s most populous country, Sriram is this year bringing Carnatic-inspired music to the festival, tunes that have emerged from the classical music tradition of South India but blend modern influences like R&B, jazz and indie rock.

“I try not to think about [being the first] because it can get in your head and your ego can get inflated,” says Sriram. “In that moment when I’m on stage, people don’t really care about the fact that I’m the first South Indian to play or whatever, they’re just there to experience the music.”

Sriram counters that he doesn’t “wear that responsibility lightly,” adding: “Carnatic music is very deep in the roots of being South Indian, and I am honored to be able to showcase my perspective and version of what being South Indian means.”

Sriram has had a hectic couple of months. Along with his Coachella bow, he has spent the past few weeks playing packed shows in San Francisco and Seattle as part of his Sidharth world tour, and was getting ready to fly back to California for the second Coachella weekend the day after his Deadline interview. 

“I had my eyes closed for most of the [first] Coachella set,” he reminisces. “But looking out at the audience and seeing a truly diverse group of people packing that space out, that was exhilarating.”

Working with A.R. Rahman

A.R. Rahman. Image: Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Born in Chennai in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Sriram moved to California’s Bay Area when he was young. He started singing Carnatic music – one of two main subgenres of Indian classical music – when he was three. Contrary to many Indian families at the time, his parents were and continue to be hugely supportive of his career path, with his mother and grandfather acting as his music gurus. His father is now his manager.

Sriram’s first big break came in 2013, when Oscar, Grammy, and Golden Globe-winning musician A.R. Rahman asked him to sing in Tamil film Kadal. Although the film was critically panned, the movie catapulted Sriram into the limelight. Since then, he has mostly sung on productions from the booming Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam film industries. 

“Singing for film really taught me to emote vocally and not just rely on this ‘inspiration’ thing, which I think is somewhat of an overrated concept,” says Sriram. “I think there’s a rigor that comes to artistry and the beautiful thing is when that rigor allows you to output a vocal performance that still feels deeply emotional and personal.” 

Although he has prioritized his own music for the past year and a half, Sriram has no plans to retire from singing for film just yet. “My mentor is still A.R. [Rahman] Sir, and there’s so much that I still have to learn from and give to that industry,” he says. “It was never in my plans to be a playback singer but I’m grateful now that that happened first, and that my relationship to celebrity formed within that industry.”

He hints at more playback projects in the works and says he would “love to work on Hollywood soundtracks” or “maybe scoring films.” “I have a gut feeling that something will come together this year.”

‘Sidharth’

Coachella / Pooneh Ghana

After contributing hundreds of songs to movies, it took 10 years for Sriram to release his first all-English album under Universal Music Group’s label Def Jam with producer Ryan Olson. Titled Sidharth, the album is his most personal work yet, and seamlessly blends R&B, jazz and indie with Carnatic influences.

Until Sidharth, Sriram had avoided blending his Carnatic and Western musical influences. But the North American leg of his tour and his Coachella booking have seen him embrace what his father calls “hybridism.” “We just thought, ‘Let’s not fragment myself anymore, let’s explore the entirety of it.’ And it was really scary,” he adds.

Sriram’s current setlist – including at Coachella – is therefore an intentionally curated mix of his film discography, songs from the album and other Carnatic interpretations. “This tour has been the first time I’ve felt a flow between all the different aspects of who I am, and it’s been so much fun.”

Packed audiences have comprised both people of Indian origin and otherwise, he says, which Sriram takes as a hopeful sign for Indian music as a whole. 

“Do audiences want it? Hell yeah,” he adds.

“Carnatic music has, for whatever reason, been relegated to this niche thing, but I guess I’m living proof against that,” he continues. “My biggest takeaway from weekend one [of Coachella] was that regardless of background, people react the exact same way to the same moments. I truly believe that music is a universal sonic form, and it transcends while still paying respect to cultural spaces.”

Also playing Coachella this year is Punjabi-Canadian singer A.P. Dhillon, whose experience has been somewhat different to Sriram’s after he faced a backlash for smashing his guitar on stage on weekend one and has not returned this weekend (Coachella put this down to a scheduling conflict).

Dhillon, who was the subject of a recent Amazon doc, has a contrasting musical style to Sriram’s despite both being from Indian backgrounds.

“India is such a diverse place, there’s such a wealth of music from all corners of the country,” Sriram explains. “I really don’t think the gaze on the West is important anymore. It’s just another part of the world.”

He adds: “Once this door is knocked down – and I feel like we’re very close to knocking it down – for Indian-based music to break out globally, there’s going to be such an incredible market for it.”

“We’re only at the beginning,” he finishes. “I’m just honored to be on this side in the history of music.”



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