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Instant raga for reality shows
Classical music teachers have found a new following: contestants at reality shows. A crash course at the feet of a master can help aspirants pull off vocal acrobatics and outlast untrained rivals. Ask the winners who scrubbed their notes and octaves in weeks and, sometimes, days.
The affable Chandramana Narayanan Namboodiripad has been teaching classical music for the last 32 years, anonymously slogging eight hours a day with his students at his Ernakulam home. But today the Carnatic guru is one of the most sought after music teachers in Kerala.
He managed to pull off a seemingly impossible feat on prime time reality TV recently: in the classical round, he got a laggard contestant in Asianet's Idea Star Singer to cram a complicated composition in Todi in four days flat. Not only did she pull it off brilliantly to the utter amazement of the judges but also went on to the finals. "You get one mark and the rest goes to your guru, " said the stunned judge and composer Sharath. Himself a musician with a formidable classical base, Sharath is a hypercritical judge who could put the acerbic Simon Cowell to shame.
Predictably, the queue of aspirants at Chandramana's doors has been swelling. A good vocal chord scrubbing at his feet seems to be a sure shot way to reach the top: he has also trained Little Master champ Poornashree Haridas and last year's Star Singer winner Vivekanand.
"Reality show participants need special coaching, " says Chandramana. "Frankly, there is no scope for manodharma (improvisation) in this singing. In the kacheri (concert) round, they have to fit in a normally unhurried classical item into 12 frantic minutes. They cannot afford to go into a creative trance. But it takes immense hard work. "
On Vijayadashami, the crowds at Sadanam Harikumar's home in Palakkad have been swelling over the last few years. It is an auspicious day and eager-beaver parents push their children in to offer the Carnatic guru dakshina. Maybe, he will find them talented enough to take them under his wing.
Few in the queue are dreaming of sitting crosslegged some day on a classical concert stage meditating on the fathomless potential of a raga. For most, the first destination is the snazzy set of a reality show, then the top prize and finally, the key to musical stardom. And only gurus such as Sadanam can offer them the classical expertise they need to get there.
"They don't confess to being reality aspirants, " says the vocalist who trained Sreenath, a finalist in the last season of Idea Star Singer. "But it is clear they want to pack into a quick capsule what others take decades to master. If during the course of the training one of them wants to join a reality show, I don't say no either. "
For four years now, the unbelievably popular Idea Star Singer on Asianet has almost managed to shut down all prime-time social life in Kerala. It is the dream of any Malayalee who can sing two notes together to enter the show and find instant and complete fame. Star Singer, however, is also one of the toughest music contests on Indian TV, with a classically trained and very nitpicky panel of judges. If you don't know your sa from your pa, can't tell the charanam from the pallavi or differentiate between sangathi and shruti, you are dead meat in the very first round, no matter how many prizes you may have won at your school annual day.
R Sreekanthan Nair, the channel's former vice president who conceived the show, says that its strictly classical tone came from the need to create a strong position in the cluttered reality space. "Our theory was that if a contestant has reached the last few rounds he or she had better be classically sound too, " he says.
To make matters worse - or better depending on how you look at it - the penultimate round requires the contestant to sing a regular Carnatic solo item, accompanied by the mridangam and violin. It stands to reason that every winner so far has a classical base.
Not surprising then that Carnatic music teachers today are a highly sought after bunch in Kerala. But this is true for Hindustani musicians too. From Indian Idol to Saregamapa to Voice of India, it helps a contestant greatly to be sound in either the Hindustani or Carnatic stream.
Music teachers from the classically fertile Hubli-Dharwad belt even migrate to Mumbai during the peak reality season. This is the region that has produced the maximum number of maestros such as Bhimsen Joshi, and the late Gangubai Hangal and Mallikarjun Mansoor. An assistant producer who has worked on music reality shows across channels finds that ustads from the Hubli-Dharwad region often travel to the metro in groups during auditions. "It's their big-ticket to success, " he says. "Some of them move to cities and earn a living by becoming music teachers. There is a lot of demand for classical teachers from this region. " Rita Kaul, director of the Vinod Sur Shringaar classical music academy in Mumbai, says her 12-year-old music school has produced several singers who have made it big on music reality shows. "One of them, Arman Malik - nephew of composer and Indian Idol judge Anu Malik - made it to the top seven in Saregamapa, " she says. Kaul says that since classical music lays a strong foundation, it's the first step towards preparing for a reality show. But the teaching here is vastly different from the kind of scrubbing the voice is given for the concert stage. "We don't stretch their voices to the limit. For these shows, the voice has to be soft and silky, " she says. Not all aspiring singers need to be musically trained. But in reality shows those who can pull off musical acrobatics are certainly more likely to impress the judges. This is where classical coaching comes in handy. Sreeju Premarajan realised this fact when he competed in Indian Idol three years ago. When he lost after hitting the top 40, he restarted his lessons, this time with Dhrupad singer Sridutt Sharma. Over the years he has participated in a few other reality shows. The really fastidious classical musicians do not care to take on reality show participants. For one, they are learners in a tearing hurry - not for them the painstaking sadhana and the disregard for the fruit of labour. For another, few reality hopefuls bother to keep up with their classical training once they finish with the contest, especially if they win it. Where is the time to spare for practice when one is hopping between stage shows. Kochi V Vishwanathan is one such reluctant trainer. He taught two contestants the last season of Idea Star Singer and was underwhelmed by the experience. "They come and learn an item or two, a raga or two, in the one month leading up to their performance, " he says. "Then they are too busy to spare time for classical music. They learn classical music for a specific purpose, not to rejoice in its many faces. I make sure that at least 95 per cent of my students work at their music without aiming for reality shows. "
One of his students was Preethi Warrier, who, after being repeatedly ticked off for not being clued in enough to the raagabhavam (the feeling underlying the raga), decided to go in search of a guru. This was barely six months before the crucial classical rounds. She showed up at Vishwanathan's door for a crash course, he took her on, and she managed to go through, if not very successfully. "I would have preferred a year of practice. I would like to go back to him but there is no time, " says Warrier, who like most finalists, is flooded with offers to sing in the Gulf and the US. Singer Anju Joseph, on the other hand, says she is intrigued enough by her short stint with Chandramana to make classical music a part of her life.
Southern gurus are picky enough to now demand that their students come with some understanding of the classical nuances before they coach them for TV. Mumbai's more flexible ustads, however, have no delusions about their place in the musical careers of their shishyas. Aniruddh Joshi, who runs classical vocal training classes in Thane, says while he keeps a Hindustani base, he can train contestants in any genre - light music, devotional, folk or even film songs. Joshi, who was the casting producer for Indian Idol 5, has conducted over 5, 000 auditions.
"There is a huge misconception that you have to be trained in classical music to make it big, " he says. "That is a different body of music. " Two of his students crossed eight levels in the music show Lil Champs and another made it big on Marathi Saregamapa.
Nothing can dull the enthusiasm of the 350 children who flock to the Palakkad-based music guru KP Kutty. A lot of them are hoping to find reality fame. "They trust my skills as a guru implicitly - that my teaching has to get them on TV one day whether they have the innate talent or not, " quips Kutty.
With inputs from Mansi Choksi in Mumbai
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