It’s tough to watch the clip below. The thinly veiled contempt shown to Somadas Kacheri — a Dalit singer performing classical music — is barely restrained by a cloying condescension and insulting paternalism.
Insight Young Voices (a youth Dalit magazine) deconstructs the caste-ism on display during Somadas Kacheri’s episode. Here’s another reading from Fish Pond.
There are three main points to keep in mind about the context of the clip.
1. Unlike a lot of competitive shows in the West — in India, judges are friendly. Criticisms are supportive and encouraging even if low marks are given. There is no entertainment value gained from humiliating contestants. The difference in the show’s tone in the clip below, when Somadas Kacheri is evaluated, is striking to anyone who has watched the Idea Star Show before.
Relatedly, it’s also odd how the show’s host — Ranjini Haridas — tries to manipulate the audience vote. Even before any of the judges give their assessments, she sends a strong message that a vote for Somadas Kacheri is a vote for a flawed singer. This is also completely unusual. Hosts are always neutral, and do not normally attempt to influence the viewer vote.
2. Secondly, it’s worth noting how little information we gain from the judges on Somades Kacheri’s actual singing skills. We have no idea whether the problem lay in his tone, pitch, tenor or whatever. In fact, no one bothers to articulate a single technical point about music itself. Instead, Somades’ identity and background as a “serious” singer is repeatedly questioned in ways that are distinctly caste coded. Which brings me my final point.
3. The judges’ evaluation has a recognizable caste narrative — one that polices who expresses different art forms and how. There is a code, a tradition — rooted in a system of education and access to knowledge that is caste-based. Arts like music are elevated in a way that disregards its humanity, but instead focuses on an ill-defined “essence”. There is a certain “mystery” accorded to the arts that are based on notions of purity and essential-ism. In Hindu-based caste system, this “mystery” is accorded a divine validation.
[In Malayalam: My translation below the video.]
I am going to go ahead and call the first judge — Main Asshole.
What should I say, Soma? Soman, you haven’t learned classical music. What can I say to someone who hasn’t been educated? The life, the essence in a traditional song — if you don’t know anything about these things..When we talk about classical music, we are talking about something serious, it’s not like ‘light music’. Now Somadas, you are someone who sings from the heart. So if you haven’t studied Classical Music and you sing, it is like adding a smell to gold. You.Cannot.Sing.Without.Learning *emphasized* … classical music. It’s difficult. Now if you had tried a little harder…now you sang right now, if you had tried a little harder, you could have sang better. I felt it had only the talent of a ‘light film song’. To be honest, I am scared of classical music being sung like this. Classical music is not a joke. I am scared to see it performed like this. I need to say these things. You have to study it, okay Soma?
The judges have been telling you to start learning classical music for the past 4-5 stages, but have you? You know that in this show we are not looking for a particular type of singing. One has to sing classical songs, songs with feeling, there must be a range, perfect pitch. Will Somu fit in this would be a question for the viewing audience. You must realize that you have reached this far not because of them [pointing to judges] but them [pointing to spectators]. It’s their SMS that has pulled you through from stage to stage. But this competition should be won by the best singer.
Clearly Ranjini finds it a problem that the viewing audience enjoyed Somadas’ singing, implying that the “masses” have gone against the judges. In reply, Somadas perfectly reasonably points out that he has received decent marks from judges also. He emphasizes that he does have the support of the audience and he isn’t relying on it forever, but that he also wants his talent, the merit of his singing to be considered.
To which, strangely, Ranjini replies:
So you mean you are taking this contest lightly because you feel you will always have their support?
Obviously, we are very sad. [Before the other judges even give their evaluation.] And the judges can only give you marks based on your performance.
It’s not immediately obvious what is sad. Is it that the viewing audience found Somadas’ singing to be pleasurable enough for him to compete for so long? Or the judges’ low points (which are not yet given).
And then Ranjini says this:
Oh, this is quite a strange situation. While we like all our contestants the same, we want only the best singer to win.
The judges each personalize the way in which they give Somadas his low points, adding a different way of demeaning Somadas each time. In fact, each judge can be seen as a parody to how caste-ism (and racism) operate.
The first judge dismisses Somadas quickly, and goes on to give him a pointedly low 3 points (out of 25).
The second judge — the only female judge and the only judge who is known for singing non-traditional music — explains her points by first thanking the “supportive artists” (who play instruments) who are all “senior” and who took the time to support “someone like Somu”. Somadas’ singing can be dismissed, but not the “senior” artists around him. She goes on to give him 15 points, patronizing Somu for “singing from the heart”.
The third judge felt the need to explain and justify why the first judge only gave 3 points — unlike the other judges the first judge had only witnessed Somadas’ one performance.
The last judge (the Main Asshole who spoke in the beginning) digs into Somadas some more. In fact, this final speech in the clip, specifically evokes ‘God’ and ‘religion’ as the basis for judging.
Son, this is not just about the money. Or it’s not just timepass. Did you think you have some time, maybe I’ll just show up and sing a few songs. did you think that? [Soma answers no]. No, right? So you could have understood that seriousness and you could have studied from the very beginning. Even if you had studied for 2 months, you could have sang better than this. There is a good singer inside you Somu. I think you have only been studying for the past 3-4 days, that’s what I think. It’s just not possible to sing like this if you had studied. Everything you are saying is an excuse. Is it possible for someone to sing like this? You cannot cheat someone on the issue of music. You have to understand this. There’s a God up above. If you had actually studied and come here, it would have been such a good thing.
At this point, Soma has tears coming from his eyes, prompting Main Asshole to change his tone slightly.
You have a good singer inside you. And its because of this, that I think it’s so sad. I am not saying all this to hurt you. I am saying it because I want you to understand something good. So learn. Learn well. May you have a good future. 16 pts.
Like some sort of televised, musical metaphor for oppression, Main Asshole gives Somadas the highest number of points —which is high enough to make himself seem magnanimous, but not enough to make any real difference.
I am gonna just put up this clip of Malcolm X now.
Who Taught You To Hate Yourself.