Even while chasing the American dream, Indian Americans often attempt to preserve our cultural and religious heritage and live in accordance with Indian cultural values in our adopted homeland. This is especially true when it comes to raising our children. Rarely will you find an Indian American family where the children are not learning either an Indian dance or Indian classical music. By having our children learn and practice these art forms, we expose them to our culture, mythology, languages, and religion and hope they capture the essence of what it means to be Indian. While as first generation Indian Americans we continue to support classical music, it is our children who sustain and propagate it. They are the “global torch bearers.”

This is particularly true of karnatik music. The Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana, the largest karnatik music festival in North America boasts of participation by well-renowned as well as upcoming artists from Chennai, the karnatik music capital of the world.

In the current climate of liberal exchange and mutual recognition of talent in the karnatik music world, it was heart warming to witness an American Idol-style music competition conducted in the United States solely for the young, talented, and upcoming Indian American singers.

Karnatik Music Idol USA was a music competition styled in the tradition of a reality show, jointly sponsored by Maximum Media, an Indian production company and the Cleveland Aradhana Committee. Maximum Media and Jaya TV have previously partnered and successfully conducted the hugely popular Karnatik Music Idol show in India. This is the first time this contest was conducted in the United States.

Between September 9th and 18th of 2011, preliminary rounds of the Karnatik Music Idol USA contest took place in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, and San Jose, California. The winners selected in the preliminary rounds gathered on Sep 24th at the Shirdi Sai Madir in Milpitas, California for the final rounds.

On the morning of September 24, a crowd of colorfully clad karnatik music lovers, including many an anxious parent, thronged the temple auditorium awaiting the final rounds of the contest, which began promptly at 10 a.m. Karnatik music heavyweights Sri Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Smt S. Sowmya, and Sri Shashikiran presided as the judges. The young vocalists were tested in batches of three to five in both the junior and senior categories. The endearing youngsters in the junior category exhibited their talent in singing varnams and batted questions testing their ability to distinguish talams, string together patterns of swarams or simply their capacities for breath control.

The judges framed their questions in an encouraging and friendly way. “We approach this competition more as teachers wanting to guide and improve their skills rather than as stern judges probing for weaknesses,” said Sowmya. Young Geetha Shankar concurred. She said that as she progressed through the rounds her initial apprehension gave way to an enjoyment of the challenge posed by the questions. There were also some lighthearted fun rounds in which all the junior contestants in a batch participated together. The questions got tougher for the participants of the senior category as they were additionally tested for their grasp of ragams, ability to sing thanam or render kalpana swarams at random places in a song as chosen by the judges. However, some audience members felt that it might have been fairer to the participants if the questioning format had been kept uniform and announced prior to testing.

The mastery displayed by the young singers in comprehending the questions and demonstrating their talent within seconds was amazing. “The necessity to think on our feet kept our minds razor sharp and sustained our interest in the competition,” said Ananya Ashok, a participant in the senior category. “Speaking for myself,” she added, “although I was initiated into karnatik music by my parents, it is my deep love for this art form and my appreciation for the Tamil language that has taken me to the next level.” Akila Iyer, the mother of one of the contestants, expressed similar sentiments and said that this competition was only for those who truly loved music and enjoyed facing the rigors of competition. Parthiv Mohan, another senior contestant said, “This kind of competition helps you gauge where you stand amongst your peers and motivates you to do better.” He added, “Since a musician often spontaneously improvises while performing, participating in competitions like this hones your ability to think quickly and demonstrate your skills instantaneously and will help you blossom into a good concert musician.”

Even though the spirit of competition was high, the interaction between the participants was quite friendly. Maya Lakshmi Srinivasan, a junior contestant said, “I was so thrilled and happy to meet several young singers from other parts of the country. I have made friends with quite a few of them. I had an enjoyable time being part of the Idol and will certainly participate if there are more competitions like this in the future.”

Ashok Subramaniam, a performer and a music teacher in the SF Bay Area who attended the show felt that Karnatik Music Idol USA turned out to be a great opportunity to advertise the talents of the young aspirants in the United States. “This would open the doors of concert halls in Chennai and other cities in the world to our young talented singers,” he asserted. Indeed, the winners of Karnatik Music Idol USA would have an opportunity to sing in the “Margazhi Utsavam’ program organized by Maximum Media and Jaya TV. They will also perform in a special slot in the Cleveland Aradhana. If you are wondering who the winners were, you will have to wait till November, when Jaya TV airs the entire competition in India and to audiences worldwide.