India’s musical shows
I am not much of a television buff, but nothing has captivated my attention more than the current crop of what they call ‘reality’ music programs like Saregamapa, Indian Idol and Fame Gurukul, in that order of preference. Suddenly it seems as if every Indian cherishes a secret desire to become a playback singer. Apparently, thirty thousand aspiring singers turned up for the first round of Indian Idol, now in its second year. Thirty thousand? Looks like the country’s singing potential is finally emerging from the bathtub! Apart from unearthing talent from the most unlikely corners of India, there is a lot that these programs can tell you.
I remember a time when there were just a handful of singers in the Indian movie industry. Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey, the Mangeshkar sisters remain household names. Their songs, sad or happy, tug at our heart strings even today, decades after they were sung. On the other hand, today’s music, inspired and influenced as it is by the West, is much livelier and faster, in keeping with the age and times. There are very few ‘sad’ songs, and even those are more often than not set to a lively beat.
I am no music expert and I strictly go by whether or not I like the sounds that fall on my ears. To be honest, whenever I try to form a more informed opinion on the singing in these programs, I find that I am totally wrong in most cases. My evaluation is usually diametrically opposite that of the judges! I also confess that despite my preference for the golden oldies, much of modern music makes me want to let go of my inhibitions and join the swaying bodies on the dance floor! Luckily, I have not done that so far - there woulda been one helluva stampede to evacuate the general area!
And yet, it seems to me that today’s music, however foot-tapping and exciting, is really very short-lived and fleeting. I am sure today’s hits sell a million times more than what the old ones ever did. When these songs become hits these days, they become really hot products, what with global marketing and satellite television. But honestly, while I am able to even remember the songs that were hits in my childhood, I can’t recall a single song older than two months, even the ones that became smash hits. I am not saying that current day songs are not brilliant or are in any way inferior to the ones of yesterday, but they don’t seem to last in our ears or hearts too long. They are like drugs that give you a high; then you become immune to them and need a dose of something else. The old ones are like those slow release medicines that stay in your system - for an entire lifetime, it would seem.
Or maybe it’s not the music that’s changed, maybe it’s us. We not only need the high, but we need it coming from a different drug each time, we need the variety. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. Music has just adapted to the change in us. Life imitates art or maybe it’s the other way round. Or both. They are like mirrors facing each other, reflecting off each other. The world around us is just us looking at ourselves.
I’ve always liked Saregama the most, right from the days it started. The program always seemed more sober, more challenging, more genuine, more varied. It had those chord rounds, I remember, and I used to wonder how people could recognize one from the other and sing a song in an entirely
different chord, pitch or tone or whatever they call it. Like I said, I am an ignoramus when it comes to music but a passionate devotee. At least to me, Saregama’s singers always looked and sounded more serious, more committed to singing, or rather more in love with the art, than with only the fame and the glamour. Its judges were always more serious, the Pundits and the Gurus to whom their music is their life, their religion, who consider music the worship of Ma Saraswati. Maybe I am a bit old-fashioned about these things but I am the kind who still likes the concept of Shishyas sitting at the feet of their Gurus. Somehow Saregamapa evokes that culture. Of course, there have been changes to Saregamapa too, with younger, more modern music producers and directors patronizing it. But the essence of the program remains the same - good, solid musical talent judged by great musical maestros. It has not given into the need to sensationalize ‘reality’ the way others have.
This time though, with the Challenge 2005 series, the Saregamapa program has committed a major mistake, so major that I would almost label it a crime. I had seen the mistake creeping into the episodes, as harmless jokes, as unwitting observations and by the end, it had metamorphosed into an unpleasant, distasteful and offensive phenomenon. I think it started when Shaan first started talking about the voting pattern for each candidate. It is natural for people to lean towards a candidate of their own culture or religion or language, but emphasizing that aspect in episode after episode turns that tendency into a contest, a war of cultures.
Unfortunately, there were people who played up to the differences and took advantage of it, and there were people who pointed out the phenomenon with derision as a major factor for the winner. At no point was there any move to quell such rivalry and emphasize the national spirit of the competition. It is no wonder that in the end, the entire competition had become a question of which region or state is more passionate in its support of its candidate. Showing graphic details of the voting patterns based on region, showing repeated clips of happenings and celebrations in each candidate’s home state, even naming each candidate after their region - all these contributed to the bitterness of the end. The coverage of the mad celebrations on the eve of the final in both the candidate’s hometowns was disgusting and despicable. Sadly, Saregamapa highlighted and used the myriad cultural differences in India to sensationalize the program. Of Saregama and Gajendra Singh, that was not expected.
Fame Gurukul sensationalized its program by showing bitter infighting and backbiting among its contestants. Much of this seemed to be have been stage-managed to promote the program, but some of it seems to have been wantonly encouraged too, but to the same end. The participants in these programs are the youth of the country, with ages ranging from 16 to just about 25. These are the formative years of a youngster’s life. What was Fame Gurukul putting these children through? What are the values they were imparting to these kids - that is alright to pretend, to hustle for the sake of votes, that the way to win is not through your own hard work and talent, but to degrade the reputation of the opponent and stab him in the bock? I hated Fame Gurukul and often wished I could sue the producer of that program for doing this to our children. It’s the age when anything goes as long as you make money. Shame Gurukul.
But Saregamapa takes the cake, by accident, if not by intention. We were fortunate that the program ended when it did. Can you imagine what could have happened if one of the finalists had been a Muslim and the other a Hindu? What could the voting patterns be used as? There are any number of people ready to interpret numbers and change them into perceptions and insults. Luckily too, neither of the finalists was a Maharashtrian from my beloved Bombay. Who knows if Balasaheb Thakeray watches this program? The possibilities are endless.
The only excuse that I can offer on Saregama’s behalf is that they did not realize what they were achieving. I hope somehow this article somehow reaches Mr. Gajendra Singh. I have always been a fan of Mr. Singh and I am disappointed that he allowed this to happen.
I am happy that Indian Idol refrains from dissecting the origin of the votes for each candidate. Sonu Nigam is always asking the audience to judge the candidate on his performance and talent, not on the basis of cultural and lingual affinity. That redeems, to a certain extent, the program that is, in my opinion, somehow insipid in every other respect. It’s one of those typical sensation-hungry programs that depends on title-tattle for its sustenance, not content - the compere will not ask the judge who they would like to see at the top three positions. He will ask them who they want to see at the bottom three. And usually, the judges take the bait, freaking out on the under-achievers. “Haath dho ke padh Jaten ham”, as they say. Notice their recent remarks on the hapless Anuj and Sandeep. Notice also how Antara’s recent remark about her own performance was taken totally out of context and thrown in front of the judges. That’s cheap sensationalism at its worst. Antara was all of 18 years of age.
My main peeve with all these programs is that they allow their contestants to be chosen by public opinion, people like me. I think it is an insult to the candidate, to the judges and mentors who have selected and trained them, and to music itself. Vincent van Gogh once said, “Painting is a faith, and it imposes the duty to disregard public opinion.” The same may be said of singing or any other art, for that matter.
Saregamapa does not show you the earlier rounds of elimination so you directly get to see the best of the lot. Indian Idol, on the other hand, involves you right from the first round, so you know the candidates as well as the judges’ opinions about them. This makes it especially poignant when some of the better ones are eliminated by public opinion in the later rounds. I can imagine how frustrated the judges must be, when Sandeep is retained at the price of Antara, who in their opinion was among the best. Notwithstanding the urging by the compere for a negative reaction about Sandeep, their frustration gives them no reason or right to berate the former. All they should do is to bemoan the loss of the latter.
I wonder too, how the candidates feel when they are eliminated by the ignorant, partisan, shortsighted force called public opinion. It’s one thing to be judged and failed by your peers or by experts; it’s quite another to be nonchalantly discarded by fools. Yesterday’s episode of the Indian Idol was a case in point. It seems Sonu Nigam, Anu Malik and Farha Khan just woke up to the injustice of the process.
I think this whole process needs to be changed. These programs should use a bigger panel of judges with the number of judges increasing as the contest progresses. They can even make the judges vote or award marks secretly. That way, they can remove all talk of partisanship. The ‘gharana’ concept made Saregamapa so bitter – the contest should be between the candidates, not a prestige match between the judges.
I am not sure why they insist on these singers becoming performers on stage. Nobody ever dared to ask Rafi or Manna Dey to perform. They rarely even looked at the camera when they sang. I wonder what would have happened if Rafi was asked to dance on stage. The singers in these competitions today seem to so camera conscious, actually camera hungry, following it around with their eyes. It takes something away from their singing. It was obvious especially in Fame Gurukul, where the singers were not as talented. You can often hear the pressure of their performance in their voices. I guess this too is the sign of the times – appearances matters as much as the real matter matters.
In any case, Indian television seems to have caught up with the American media, at least as far as hype is concerned. That they could make the mediocre singers of Fame Gurukul into international stars shows not only the power of television as a medium, but also that Indian television has arrived. The media has learnt how to hype, how to convert black to white.
It’s amazing how many of American shows are being Indianized. It started with Kaun Banega Carorepati. We now have Indian Idol, Deal Ya No Deal,
and Fear Factor. Very soon we’ll have no original programming. Outsourcing seems to include everything. So does copying.