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Seven non-musical notes from a music reality show

Indian Idol was about music not morals. It was not produced to teach but if we don’t learn, we would have missed the essence of a special series.

Vinati Sukhdev | MUMBAI |

For more than eight months now, it has held a nation in thrall, topped TRP ratings amongst NRIs all over the world. And after the marathon 12-hour long Grand Finale over Independence Day, there will be plenty of people like me looking for something else to do on weekend evenings. Indian Idol Season 12 which ended last Sunday with Pawandeep Rajan, a musical genius from Champawat village in remote Uttarakhand being crowned winner, was a stupendous success on all counts.
Six new musical talents discovered, high viewership numbers, beaming sponsors handing out cash prizes and car keys, Covid infections, a controversy, a romance, judges disappearing… Indian Idol had all the drama necessary to make a reality show a success.
What made it special for me though was the mirror it held to the youth of small-town India – an India I don’t profess to know but have come to admire and respect through the programme.
Note 1: There is an abundance of talent in India. The contestants were dubbed the greatest talent ever and honestly it was difficult to choose between them: each one blessed with a unique musical ability, honed by hours of training and riyaz. But Indian Idol has done this year after year, unearthed singers from remote parts of India – made them into household names and fed Bollywood’s insatiable appetite for singing stars. Salman Ali, Sunny Hindustani and Sreerama Chandra now all have recording contracts under their belt thanks to being crowned Indian Idol.
A side thought: I am pretty sure the talent is not limited to music alone. Might be worth considering a reality show to unearth future Olympians. Dangal Mein Mangal and Bhaag Alka Bhaag might be reality shows worth considering!
Note 2: Parents are nurturing and supportive. Pawandeep’s father taught him to play the tabla at age three. Shanmukha Priya’s mother silently mouthed the words to each of her songs as she sat in the audience. Many middle-class parents have had to make sacrifices to support their children’s dreams and do so happily. Sayali’s mother did not flinch as she told the audience that her husband was given a suit to wear to the finale by his boss. The sacrifices are appreciated by the children who are grateful and want to repay their parents by becoming rich and famous. This new India is a world where the family bond is strong, and the love is unconditional on both sides. A model that is in danger of disappearing in large metros as westernisation takes hold, but it is certainly joyous to see it alive and well and worth hanging on to. A family that sings together stays together.
Note 3: Indian traditions like marrying within one’s caste and community have reinforced genetic advantages and predispositions. One of the contestants, Sawai Bhatt came from a community of singers and puppeteers in Rajasthan. They wander through the streets entertaining crowds and collecting small change after each performance. His story touched hearts as did his singing. While he did not make the final six, he left an indelible mark on the programme. Even the winner Pawandeep comes from the Badgi community in Uttarakhand who traditionally entertain landlords in return for protection. Anjali Gaikwad’s guru in classical singing was her singer-father who was so strict he did not let her eat foods that might affect her voice.
Regardless of where they were from, many of the contestants came from families with a musical tradition. While marrying within the community is again being challenged in urban areas, there are some intrinsic genetic advantages that need to be preserved if even one of the parents comes from a musical background. This is true of the west as well – a lot of Jewish families have a tradition of music and tend to propagate it by training their children in music.
Note 4: Most of the young contestants, despite being in their early twenties, put career before romance and marriage. Maybe the hardships they had faced along the way, or the family making sacrifices for them spurred them on to be responsible. The rumour about Pawandeep and attractive contestant Arunita being romantically involved was always quashed by both saying we are just good friends. Romance seemed to be a luxury they could not afford. Good sense seemed to rule the day with these sensible young people. Again, I couldn’t help contrasting this behaviour with what one sees in Delhi and Mumbai’s elite high schools and colleges where they start having romantic partners young – often at the cost of grades and admissions to the next educational rung.
Note 5: As with political elections, the Indian voter is highly discerning. Pawandeep Rajan won the popular vote and the crown because his musical talent is unsurpassed. He can play the tabla, the dholak, the guitar, the keyboard and drums. And this is despite living in a remote Uttarakhand town without a music school! After winning the trophy, he said that he would like to start a music school in his hometown. Hard luck stories make the Indian voting public sympathise. Pawandeep contracted Covid during the filming of the show, missed a couple of episodes and came back with a rasping voice. The great Indian public empathised and sent him straight to the top of the voting charts. He never looked back.
Note 6: Secularism was on display right through the show and much appreciated by the audience. There was an Eid special where all the contestants sang qawwalis regardless of their faith and the only Muslim contestant sang a Ganesh Vandana song in another episode that brought the house down. In 2018, a Muslim contestant won the trophy by popular vote. Deeply ingrained in Indian tradition, secularism is the natural outcome of centuries of India being a melting pot. Indian Idol episodes gave more than a passing nod to secularism – it is truly a show for every Amar, Akbar and Anthony.
Note 7: Adherence to the Indian way of life is part of the DNA of the show and its contestants. Whether it is the guru-shishya tradition of music where the teacher is always obeyed or the reverence shown to visiting film star and music star guests by touching their feet, Indian Idol is unarguably desi. Then there is the food – contestants cooking food and bringing it to be shared, celebrity guests bringing home-cooked dishes for the contestants. How can anything be Indian without food being a part of it? And finally, the emotion: crying (lots), applauding (by standing on the table) and spontaneous dancing to catchy songs. Undeniably desi and flaunting it. Again, so different from the youth of cosmopolitan India who aspire to become the people they watch in American movies and series, flunk Hindi exams regularly, prefer pizza to pani puri and mousse to malpua. They are welcome to their choices I guess, but it was refreshing to see young people who look happy wearing Indian clothes and are perfecting their Urdu accents because they must get every inflection right.