Now, the American search for the Carnatic Music Idol.

When students and aficionados of Carnatic music in America heard that Jaya TV and Maximum Media in association with the Cleveland Aradhana Committee were hosting Carnatic Music Idol in the United States in September, local organisers at the four semifinalist centers – Atlanta on September 9, Chicago on September 11, New Jersey on September 17 and San Francisco on September 18 – went into a tizzy.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where the finals were held on September 24, the organisers’ phones began quaking in response to the seismic event. They began fielding inane questions and comments from fans as well as parents of potential idols. “Will there be food at intermission?” “Do I need to pay to attend the show?” “Where are the judges staying?” “Will my contribution be tax deductible?” The questions poured in. The donations trickled in.

With less than two weeks preparation time, organisers managed to find a venue, host half a dozen crewmembers and three judges, arrange hotel accommodation for visiting participants and set up orientation times and organise food arrangements for visitors and the general public. The Shirdi Sai Center of Milpitas, known for its meditation room, agitated with the ruminations over Carnatic stardom. Where people went to find peace and solace, they found, instead, anxiety and nerves.

Making it work

Subhasree Thanikachalam, the producer of Carnatic Idol, tugged at mikes, cords, dais boards and camera lights. Between performances, she hustled performers and their parents into speaking for cameras about their “Carnatic Idol” experience. “No, no, speak in Tamil, please,” she cajoled, not knowing that most of the children and their parents couldn't begin one word of Tamil without lapsing into ten words in English. The air that morning was electric.

Over 400 of the Bay Area’s Carnatic rasikas watched the finals under the warm lights as Pradeepa Hari, the master of ceremonies, reminded everyone again and again, that the Carnatic Idol is “not just a concert, it’s a career.” The irony of the moment teased the senses.

When over 300 children across the country ventured to participate in the Idol, they didn’t imagine that the judges at Carnatic Idol would be kind to them. These teachers and performers were known for their scholarship, their musicianship and their tendency for snide wit and snarky quips when the occasion demanded it. But as one teacher pointed out, Carnatic artistes of the highest caliber have little time or tolerance for dullness of mind and sub-par delivery.

“Carnatic music demands sharpness from its practitioners all the time,” she says. And so, one of the biggest things plaguing U.S.-based organisers, including the Cleveland Aradhana committee, was, how polite these judges would actually be to children groomed on American soil.

A participant from New Jersey, Shyamala Ramakrishna, felt that in the initial rounds, the judges were more gentle with the US kids. “They might not have been sure of our skill levels or how much criticism we are accustomed to. However, by the final round, they picked up the pace and the competition became as intense as the Indian CM Idol. The questions asked ranged from simple in the first round to extremely challenging by the end.” The final round resulted in one winner each for the Junior and Senior categories.

Enabling careers

The judges illuminated many techniques in raga and bhava and the composition and hence the contestants and the rasikas learned a lot, as participant Ananya Ashok points out. “They are all established artistes and it was a pretty amazing experience interacting with them and my peers.”

Yet, what baffled some of the viewers and participants was that the testing was, on occasion, uneven; it was a comparison, it seemed, of apples to oranges, especially when five children were pitted against one another during the weeding process for the finals. For the final round, the forty contestants had been asked prepare at least one ata tala varnam, two other varnams, a main kriti, a sub-main kriti, a tillana and a tukkada.The Carnatic Music Idol will go a long way in instilling the kind of a confidence needed to get on to the stage, Shashikiran, one of the three judges of the contest said, reflecting on the calibre of the contestants across the United States. “I don't think there's any dearth of talent here,” he observed. He said that Carnatic Idol was looking for talented musicians who were opting for music as a full-time career and wanting get into the mainstream in the Chennai music scene without the brand name of an “NRI artiste”.

Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Chitravina N. Ravikiran were the special guests for the finals.

Jaya TV began the telecast of the show for five weeks from Monday-Friday on November 7, at 7.30 a.m. with repeats at 5 p.m. each day.

The author, a resident of California, enjoys writing about parenting, ethnic issues and lifestyle. She can be contacted at mohan.kalpana@gmail.com.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012