A Culture of Song in India's Tamil Nadu

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The streets of the Tamil Nadu province in South India are filled with song. Popular radio shows spotlight ordinary people singing the latest film music live on air and miniature recording studios offer a chance for untrained singers to sound like stars.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

In India, Bollywood musicals are huge. Now ordinary people are trying to sound just like their favorite stars from the screen.

Scott Carney reports from Chennai, India.

(Soundbite of radio show)

SCOTT CARNEY: Imagine a radio show when instead of listening to The Crows belt their hit songs, you tune in to hear everyday people - housewives, doctors, mechanics and rickshaw drivers - call in and sing for themselves. Think "American Idol" for the Indian radio audience, just without snaggy Simon Cowell poking in front of the tone deaf.

(Soundbite of radio show)

CARNEY: Witness the program in Chennai that's called "Padungal Pattu Padungal" or "Sing and Sing." It's a game show where the only prize is to hear yourself on the air. It's based from a children's game called Bentokshuri(ph) and the rules are simple.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's most fun and everybody sits around. And you just start with a song...

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #1: And the next caller will have to start the song with the last letter of the previous caller.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Woman #1: If you get stuck and you can't find the song that begins with that letter and you give them a count to 10, and if they don't get a song, you lose.

(Soundbite of music)

CARNEY: Sounds simple enough, right? But why would millions of people tune into a show like that every day? Reuben Mahadevan(ph) is an American Fulbright scholar studying traditional Indian music in Chennai and she thinks that so many local people are pushed into non-artistic careers that they're desperate for a chance for some public recognition.

Ms. REUBEN MAHADEVAN (Student): Things like (unintelligible) or music contests are really exciting ways for people to, you know, at least feel like they're kind of putting one foot into a music industry that they don't really think they have a chance to do otherwise.

(Soundbite of radio show)

CARNEY: I tracked down the woman behind the show, Uma Jai Chandran(ph), at the All India Radio Studios. She's a traditionally dressed Tamil woman and she tells me that she's wanted to host radio show since she was a child. I asked her through a translator why she thinks the show is so popular.

Ms. UMA JAI CHANDRAN (Host, "Padungal Pattu Padungal"): (Through translator) Music is connected to the (unintelligible) from birth to dead, and even she says that some people feel divine when they are into music. And there are some people who don't know how to become a professional singer. So what they think is, maybe if they sing on the show, there will be some who listen to this song and hire them.

(Soundbite of radio show)

CARNEY: But radio isn't the only way that people try to get themselves heard in Chennai. Some enthusiastic singers want the help of professionals and a budding industry of cheap recording studios is stepping up to give them a chance. One shop, Sing Your Tunes, on the top floor of a mall in North Chennai, has a soundproof booth and a team of sound engineers who vow that they can make even the meekest voice sound like a star.

For about $5, anyone can walk in and off the street and have about 20 minutes of studio time. One of the engineers, K.V. Subramanian(ph), has this to say about why people come.

Mr. K.V. Subramanian (Engineer): They're coming to sing the songs, their favorite songs, their favorite hero songs, their favorite heroine songs; they are searching for a chance.

CARNEY: With the magic of audio technology, the studio can turn this...

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing in foreign language)

CARNEY: ...into something a little more polished.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing in foreign language)

CARNEY: On the radios, in games, in the malls, and on the streets, people sing everywhere in Chennai, and it's hard to deny that there isn't something intoxicating about their voices.

Unidentified Woman #6: (Singing in foreign language)

CARNEY: For NPR News, I'm Scott Carney in Chennai, India.

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