What does Taj Mahal Tea’s Megh Santoor billboard really sound like?

Like me, I am reasonably sure you would have received at least 4-5 WhatsApp forwards about Brooke Bond Taj Mahal tea’s environmentally interactive santoor billboard in Vijayawada that plays raag Megh Malhar when it rains.

If not WhatsApp forwards, you may have seen the video on assorted platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter/X, Facebook, or Instagram. The video of the billboard went massively viral, by any estimation.

This one:

I saw the video last week and really loved the almost-poetic idea. Crafting a giant santoor-like contraption that can play a specific raaga using only rainwater is truly an inspired idea. Not just that – the idea connects rain and a rain-related classical raaga so intricately and imaginatively. The interesting part is that Raag Megh Malhar is said to have powers to bring rain when it is sung, but in this idea, it is the reverse – it is rain that brings out of the sounds of Raag Megh Malhar!

The whole thing, from concept to execution, is an outstanding example of creative imagination.

But, I have some questions about this idea under two premises – operational, and within the context of advertising.

Let me start with the operational questions first.

The brand and the agency’s (Ogilvy India) media release, which is reproduced verbatim in most publications (examples: Financial Express, Campaign Brief Asia), as well as the WhatsApp forwards, notes that it won a Guinness World Record for being the largest environmentally interactive billboard in the world (at 2,250 square feet) on September 10, 2023, when Swapnil Dangarikar, Official Adjudicator, Guinness World Records, India, and Asia Pacific, visited and observed it officially, in Vijayawada.

Considering everyone has a smartphone these days, with a camera, I find it odd that there is not a single shot or video of this giant billboard anywhere online – not on Twitter/X (where it is most likely), Instagram, or Facebook. The only version that I find everywhere is the advertisement video (running for one-and-a-half minutes) or screenshots from the video. Even half-decent billboards get tons of user-shot videos and photos these days and go viral. A mighty innovative billboard like this should have a lot more user-shot videos and photos, if not at least one.

The billboard outside Vijayawada Railway Station will supposedly be up till 16th October 2023. Can someone in Vijayawada, now, please head to the railway station while praying that it rains as you reach the venue, take a picture and video of the billboard (while it is playing the music), and share it online? Pretty Please?

No, I’m not questioning the very existence of the billboard at all. There is a Guinness record behind it, so it absolutely exists – no doubt at all.

But I’m more keen to know how it actually sounds. Why, you may wonder since it seems quite obvious if you see the video anyway, right? Wrong. For starters, for a billboard right opposite Vijayawada Railway Station, there is a conspicuous lack of any train sounds!

And, here’s another reason: Prashant Salil, a professional santoor player, recorded santoor music for the ad, in a studio.

And no, Prashant Salil is not credited in the list of people mentioned officially for the effort, even though it is his Santoor we hear in the ad!

So, while renowned classical music artist Taufiq Qureshi played the role of classical music consultant for the billboard effort (given the complexity of the idea), another young Santoor artiste Shantanu Gokhale conceived the notes for the billboard to play within the confines of raag Megh Malhar, Prashant Salil played the actual santoor notes that we hear in the advertising video.

We do not hear what the actual Santoor billboard sounds like at all.

That means the few people in the video—the lady with flowers in her hair, holding an umbrella and watching the billboard in action; the raincoat-wearing biker; and the little girl seeing the billboard from a taxi window—do not hear what we hear in the video. We only hear what Prashant Salil recorded in his studio, after watching the fully-shot advertising video, much like how voice is dubbed over actors acting in a studio (if the dialogs are not recorded with sync sound on the spot).

On a related note, I also wonder what Guinness’ Official Adjudicator, Swapnil Dangarikar, heard when he was taken to inspect the billboard in Vijayawada on September 10, 2023. More importantly, did it rain enough in Vijayawada, in that part of the town, to ensure that the billboard got activated?

A more nuanced reason for this question stems from a fundamental doubt. A raaga is a set of notes played in a particular order. Change the order, the melody itself may change to some other raaga. But given the scant details in the video, I would love to understand how exactly the mechanism operates.

It looks like, from the limited shots in the video, rainwater accumulates in a cup-like contraption built at the non-playing end (above the billboard) of each mallet-like element that produces sound. The weight of that water takes the cup down even as the filled water pours out of the cup because it is in a slanting position. Because of the movement of the cup up and down, the mallet-like element hits the appropriate surface/strings on the board and produces sound.

So far, so good.

But, given the need for a raaga to follow at least some semblance of structure in the notes, for it to become a predictable and familiar melody (that we identify as a particular raaga), how does the billboard handle something as unpredictable as rainwater that naturally falls on the cups at the end of each mallet-like (the santoor player hits the strings with small wooden mallets, in the actual santoor) structure on the front? What happens if water accumulates only in 2 or 3 of the cups instead of all 21? And this is completely possible.

I would have loved to see a behind-the-scenes video of how the billboard really works, because what we see seems like the intended version of how it should work with the sound appropriately evoking raag Megh Malhar’s notes because it was recorded inside a studio.

Let me be very clear again: the idea is stupendously imaginative. It is the execution, that too seen only through a beautifully produced advertising video, seems a bit too clinically accurate, particularly for a contraption that depends on something as natural and fickle as rainwater.

I would assume that not all the mallets would hit the board on the front as predictably as the video showcases. After all, the cups on the other side are quite small, to perfectly (and sequentially) gather rainwater, that too in quick succession, repeatedly enough, to produce music instead of just random sounds!

The other question from my side is within the context of the brand’s (Taj Mahal Tea) advertising itself.

There is absolutely no doubt that Brooke Bond’s Taj Mahal team, as a brand, has very strongly associated itself with Hindustani classical music over the years. The mere mention of ‘Taj Mahal tea’ would have many people reacting with, ‘Wah Ustad, Wah!’ and Table Maestro Ustad Zakir Husain exclaiming, ‘Arey Huzoor, Wah Taj Boliye’!

But beyond Zakir Hussain, Taj Mahal Tea has also used Sitar artist Niladri Kumar and Santoor artist Rahul Sharma in its ads earlier.

The brand also made an odd digression by featuring film stars like Saif Ali Khan and Madhuri Dixit briefly with no connection with classical music!

Thankfully, it got the musical connection back in 2019 by roping in, for the first time, a woman artist (after picking only male classical musicians) – Maati Baani’s Nirali Kartik. That campaign did not focus as much on the music but on a more impactful feeling of me-time. It was a lovely thought and was brilliantly put together with a truly gifted artist like Nirali.

But, as I wrote about that campaign earlier, the idea missed utilizing Nirali’s dual identity as a pop music artist as well as a classical musician under the Mewati Gharana. That was a failure of imagination.

The larger point however is that Taj Mahal Tea’s association with Hindustani classical music had a context that lent relevance to tea. In the case of the campaign featuring Ustad Zakir Hussain, the context was that the rigor that goes into picking the right tea leaves and tasting them endlessly could be equated to the rigor that goes into mastering the tabla (research = riyaz).

In the case of the campaign featuring Niladri Kumar, he was playing the sitar in a Darjeeling tea garden and the context was a new Taj Mahal Darjeeling pack variant.

In the case of Rahul Sharma, the campaign was rooted in Kashmir since Santoor is associated with that place. The context was the famous Kashmiri Noon/Nun chai tradition, even though, within the Taj Mahal universe, it replaced the traditional tea – understandably 🙂

In the case of Nirali Kartik, tea was positioned as an item that helps with me-time, and rightly so. In fact, there is a similar line of thought around cigarettes too; about how smoking helps smokers with me-time for a few minutes as they are deeply immersed in their own thoughts while also, of course, smoking a part of their lives out.

Now, even though a billboard doesn’t have the storytelling scope to make meaningful connections, this Megh Santoor billboard feels, to me, like a great idea that was retrospectively sold to the Taj Mahal Tea brand because of the classical music connection built over the years. It feels right in hindsight but this is not the best use of a billboard, in my view, that usually gets to pitch a product or a service/feature directly instead of pitching a theme associated with the product, indirectly.

Of course, this is no ordinary billboard that can make do with a crackling one-liner with just 6-7 words. This is a mighty unique, active billboard!

But even such unique, active billboards need not be about incidental brand associations and can be about the product directly. One of the best examples, in recent times, is from Havells, installed for Ganesh Chaturthi 2023.

The Havells billboard was about fans while also being about Lord Ganesha.

But the Brooke Bond Taj Mahal Tea billboard is not about tea at all. And considering we are oblivious about how it really sounds in the wild, far removed from the sanitized video version, I suspect it is about music either (that is, till we see a version of the video where we actually hear the sounds produced from the billboard).

In terms of intent, the magnificent idea behind this billboard is about both tea and music, of course.

PS: Given the sheer effort that has gone into mounting this billboard, I hope it is not junked after October 16th. I hope the brand and the agency make the effort to dismantle it carefully and re-assemble it at the Indian Music Experience Museum in JP Nagar, Bengaluru. Not only would this billboard fit the museum perfectly, but the brand would also have a permanently branded billboard at a music-appropriate place!