Darling of online rasikas

Shriya Mohan | Updated on March 02, 2018

In tune: Sooryagayathri practises with her father, Anilkumar, at their home in Kerala’s Purameri village, ahead of performances in Trinidad and Singapore   -  Shriya Mohan

Loving school: Soorya makes the most of her last days of school before she is switched over to home-schooling from the new academic year

Raising a star: Soorya is the centre of world for Anilkumar and Divya, who are focused on giving the budding musician a “pure” environment to thrive in   -  Shriya Mohan

Sooryagayathri, the 12-year-old Carnatic YouTube sensation who has notched up millions of views and fans, is being groomed to fill the vacuum left by none less than the legendary MS Subbulakshmi

When the shruti box is plugged in and set to G sharp, there is a sudden transformation in the house. The clanging of the kitchen utensils quiets down, the mixer-grinder is switched off and even five-year-old Shiva Soorya tiptoes silently into his room. It is practice time in Sooryagayathri’s house and the only sounds are those coming from the fingers of her father, PV Anilkumar, tuning the pitch of his mridangam as the 12-year-old hums slowly, allowing her voice to expand into every corner of her home. Anilkumar’s gaze is intent upon his daughter, in readiness for her cue. In a few moments, it is a sideways glance from the curly-haired girl, dressed in a blue frock, that brings a smile on his face and off they go exploring the depths of the Annamacharya composition ‘Brahmam Okate’, which deems the dwelling spirit in every creature to be one and the same.

Soorya, as she is fondly called, sings with her eyes closed, her fingers moving in perfect sync with the upbeat adi talam count of her father’s mridangam-playing. They exchange eye-contact at every verse, even as the eight-beat talam mounts to a crescendo. When the song ends, Anilkumar is tranquil, eyes moist, wrapped up in the sublime aura of his daughter’s music. A few more songs later, the shruti box is unplugged and off run Soorya and her brother to play with their friends outside the neighbourhood Ayyappa temple.

But for the ceiling-high glass showcase in her living room that’s decked with music awards, felicitations and prizes, there’s little else about the girl’s persona that gives away that she is “The Sooryagayathri” — a Carnatic sensation on YouTube with a viewership that runs close to a billion, and boasting live performances across the globe. At her village Purameri, lush with coconut groves in Kerala’s balmy Kozhikode district, she is just a little girl with a sweet voice.

Building a YouTube sensation

The Narikkunnu Upper Primary School in Vadakara likes to indulge its star pupil. Soorya’s class teacher, Bijesh sir, proudly says he has her song as his caller tune. Despite her low attendance, with her friends taking notes for her, she breezes through her exams, excelling in arts, history, languages and extracurriculars. After her house ran out of space for her trophies, Soorya decided she won’t compete any more, allowing other children the chance to win.

She was nine when one of the songs she had sung was sent to Kuldeep M Pai, a Bengaluru-based Carnatic singer and independent music composer, who was then creating caller tunes for mobile companies. He had been asked to record the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ in a “refreshing new voice” and had been on the lookout for a child who could do what the redoubtable MS Subbulakshmi did — essentially, create magic. “In the first few seconds of hearing her voice in that recording clip, I knew I had found what I was looking for,” Pai tells BLink on phone.

The YouTube video itself is very ordinarily made, a screen crowded with a still image of Lord Hanuman, the lyrics in Sanskrit and English, and the footage of little Soorya in a recording studio, wearing a pattu pavada, hair held back by a yellow bow and pinned with jasmine flowers, and singing with steadfast concentration. The singing style, the Hindi words pronounced with a south Indian accent and her brigas (speed of rendition) drew instant comparisons with MS, as the Carnatic doyenne is popularly known. So much so that, “Is Sooryagayathri MS Subbulakshmi’s granddaughter?” became a frequently googled query. The Sooryagayathri ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ video has over 17 million views, almost replacing MS’s version online, with the latter currently unavailable on YouTube.

“After MS, we have all been searching for a voice to fill the vacuum she left behind. The purity in her voice was unparalleled... Soorya’s voice too has the same pure quality. It moves you. She is special,” says Pai, who has since worked with many other children too, producing bhakti sangeet (devotional music) videos for a YouTube channel he runs.

Soorya is a self-professed fan of “MS Amma”. Her favourites among the songs sung by the legendary musician are ‘Bhaja Govindam’ and ‘Bhavayami’. She brings out two pencil drawings she has made of MS — one that shows her singing and the other, her face, eyes closed and hands folded in prayer. What does she like about her? “Her divinity,” she replies, in English, after some thought.

Pai mentions that in the days leading up to the recording, he made Soorya chant the Hanuman Chalisa like an upasana (prayer) for 108 days. Recorded on the 108th day, not a syllable was out of place, he reminisces.

Alongside the instant fame that followed, Soorya went on to record the ‘Ganesha Pancharatnam’ (15 million views), ‘Vishnu Sahasranamam’, Annamacharya compositions and ‘Vaishnava Janato’ — all renditions made famous earlier by MS. The youngster’s other recordings include shlokas (chants) like ‘Aigiri Nandini’ (23 million views), bhajans such as ‘Sri Ramachandra Kripalu’ (10 million views), ‘Sharanam Aiyappa’ — the staple of Sabarimala pilgrims, and the popular Kannada composition ‘Bhagyada lakshmi baaramma’ (12 million views).

Her success rubbed off on Pai too, who now works with several child singers, producing a video a month under the series Vande guru parampara — “a collection of songs and chants that should be passed down generations,” as he puts it. So famous is he, in fact, that he no longer picks up calls from unknown numbers, as parents everywhere chase him to turn their ward into the next musical prodigy. “I have 3,000 unread emails in my inbox from parents introducing their children to me,” he says, chuckling.

Pai’s productions are also greatly in demand among parents who see these recordings as a surrogate for the family elder who, in earlier generations, taught children many of these chants and devotional hymns. Today, with nuclear families largely in vogue, many Hindu households simply play a Sooryagayathri YouTube video to fulfil their cultural obligation of passing on these hymns.

Hitting the right note early

Raising a star: Soorya is the centre of world for Anilkumar and Divya, who are focused on giving the budding musician a “pure” environment to thrive in   -  Shriya Mohan



“When she was barely three, Soorya just had to hear a song once to get its tune in perfect pitch and talam. Being so little she would mispronounce the words, but her tune was spot-on,” recalls her mother Divya, speaking in Tamil. That got the parents thinking about giving her music lessons. Anilkumar had been an A-grade AIR mridangam artist in Kozhikode for several years, while Divya had no real interest in music. Soorya’s father became her first guru, but it was her mother — a BA graduate — who virtually expanded her horizons. From developing the Sooryagayathri Official Facebook page to accepting requests for interviews and performances, to keeping up with the comments and views on the videos, Divya handles it all. At 11 every night, after the dishes have been done, the kitchen scrubbed clean and the kids tucked into bed, she switches on the computer, turns on the wi-fi and allows the outside world to seep into their sleepy village.

Soorya’s performances have taken her to London, Dubai, Singapore (twice), South Africa and she has more lined up this April in Trinidad and Singapore (her third). Within India she has performed in Uttarkashi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Assam, Bhubaneswar, Thrissur, Chennai, Delhi and Tenali, the last being one of her favourite places to perform in. “The Telugu people were so excited to hear my songs. They were roaring with applause when I sang in Telugu,” she says, smiling at the memory.

Her five-member Carnatic troupe has her father on the mridangam, a tabla player, a violinist, and an extra percussionist, all from Vadakara. Earlier, her mother accompanied her to every concert, frequently nursing her through illness, sudden sore throats or cold attacks during her tour. At Bhubaneswar, she performed despite having a sore throat and swollen tonsils. “I just did, I don’t know how,” the girl says. “Now she can take care of herself,” says Divya with pride.

Anilkumar remembers cradling the sleeping child in his arms through delayed flights, train, bus and car journeys in their hectic travels to concerts.

Today, Soorya practices for five hours a day, training under two teachers — Nishant K, a Carnatic vocalist in Vadakara who has been teaching her since she was seven; and S Anandi, in Kozhikode, who has been teaching her on a weekly basis for the past three years. Recently, it was reported that a renowned Hindustani classical singer in Mumbai, too, has agreed to train Soorya.

As her primary guru, Anilkumar says he’s a tough taskmaster who has, at times, made his daughter practise through the night to perfect a song she was scheduled to sing the following morning.

Her performances typically last for two hours, during which she sings some 10-12 bhajans or other short Carnatic compositions. Earlier she would start singing straightaway, but these days she first introduces herself and the song she’s about to sing.

“I’m never scared, no matter how many people are sitting in the audience. When the mic is on and I’m up on the stage, I just go sing,” she says simply. The tough part comes after the show, when people surround her for autographs and selfies. All she wants to do then is get up from the stiff padmasana and scurry off to use the bathroom. She has even perfected a selfie-ready smile for her fans; her autographs showcase her pearly handwriting, the S marked by a super-curly treble clef.

Among her many awards, the biggest ones include the MS Subbulakshmi Fellowship in 2014, the Trivandrum Kalanidhi Sangeeta Ratna Puraskar in 2016, and the Bombay Hariharaputra Bhajana Samaj Shakti award last year.

There is gravel and new matt-finish outdoor tiles piled at the entrance of Soorya’s home. A compound wall is being built, for the first time. In Purameri, where good neighbours never built good fences, things are changing. Priorities have shifted in Sooryagayathri’s household. The young star singer has, overnight, raised the family’s financial status. The question now is how to steer her course forward? As Soorya wraps up Std VII, her studies are jostling for attention in her packed daily schedule of music practice, tours and performances.

Tackling the big decisions

“We’ve been thinking, what use is formal schooling, really?” her father says, in Tamil. “The purpose of an education is to give you all the exposure you need to decide which career to pursue. But here, that decision has been made. Soorya is already a musician,” he says, picking his words carefully.

He himself comes from a family with a rich grounding in music — his father was a Bharatanatyam dancer, his mother a singer and his grandfather was a Kathakali singer of repute. After studying music under the tutelage of Karaikudi R Mani, Anilkumar began performing as an accompanist in Carnatic music concerts. But with his daughter’s ever-growing fame and work, his own tours and performances have shrunk — apart from an upcoming performance in the US and a few telecasts on Doordarshan, he is a man seemingly reborn from mridangam artist to chief architect of his daughter’s destiny.

The family plans to homeschool Soorya from the new academic year, to allow her to devote more time for her training and performances. “She doesn’t need to waste her time learning complex mathematics. She needs the freedom to learn music in a pure environment,” says Pai, whose idea it was.

But what about friends? And playtime? And just the freedom to be a child? “Music is her fun-and-frolic,” the father says shortly. On their trips overseas, Soorya is ushered in and out of performances before being flown back home. Do they find the time for a wildlife safari or, perhaps, a visit to a theme park?

“She has no interest in all these things,” Anilkumar insists.

The only entertainment she gets to enjoy is semi-classical film music and watching an occasional Hindi film at a theatre. “The last film I watched was Dangal. I really liked it, even though I couldn’t understand that [Haryanvi] accent,” says Soorya. Asked if he sees in himself the character essayed by Aamir Khan in the film — a tough dad readying his daughter to perfect her skill — Anilkumar disarmingly admits, “Yes, that’s me.”

Determined to safeguard the “purity” of her art from the dangerous influences of the big bad cities, Soorya’s parents are against moving out of Vadakara.

Loving school: Soorya makes the most of her last days of school before she is switched over to home-schooling from the new academic year



MS Subbulakshmi, Soorya’s role model, had a devadasi lineage and found fame as a film actress and singer before establishing herself as a Carnatic legend. Her avatars were many. Who can forget that famous 1937 photograph of MS with dancer T Balasaraswathi, both in striped pyjamas and holding unlit cigarettes in fashionable nonchalance — an image that appears ahead of time even today.

But Soorya’s parents, like most traditional Indian parents, see themselves as the gatekeepers against “unwanted” influences. “Her obedience is her hallmark,” says Divya proudly of her daughter. But will obedience to those around her be enough to help the naturally gifted Soorya find her own voice, to carve out her own inimitable style?

One of her favourite performed songs is a Kabir bhajan that celebrates non-duality:

Na main jap mein, na main tap mein /

Khoji Hoye Turat Mil Jaoon / Ik Pal Ki Talas Mein

(I am not in prayers, nor in meditation or renunciation /Seek earnestly and you will discover me In but a moment of search)

The lyrics move this 12-year-old deeply, evoking, yet again, comparisons with MS and stoking the hopes of a billion rasikas for an encore.

Published on March 02, 2018

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