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The little man with the big voice

For 10 year-old music reality show contestant, Azmat Hussain, growing up can wait. This three-and-a-half foot tall boy with great ambitions and a golden voice is busy living his dream

He crinkles his face to hit the high notes and plays an imaginary piano in the air to keep pace to the tune of Madhuban Mein Radhika Nache Re. Dressed in denims, a barefoot Azmat Hussain doesn't miss a beat of this Mohammed Rafi track from the '60s film Kohinoor. Ten year-old Hussain is an old soul in a roomful of grownups at the Goregaon bungalow, where the watchman informs us, 'shooting hamesha chalu rehta hai'.
 

Niladri Chatterjee and Azmat Hussain  at a practice session before the
show.
Pic / Pradeep Dhivar

Inside this bungalow reside the remaining four finalists of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li'l Champs, a music reality show aired on Zee TV, currently in its fourth season. The parents of these 10 to 15-year olds, live there too, playing second fiddle to these boys with golden voices. They whisper in their ears to not talk with their competitors, and the children comply, willingly. There are no friends in this house of kids.

Last week, 10 year-old Rimsha Deb was eliminated, but Hussain, who has shared the roof with her for four months, wasn't aggrieved. He hasn't been to school for that period either, but he doesn't mind. Hussain is intent on bagging a contract worth Rs 5,00,000 with the channel, besides a host of other prizes from generous sponsors. For that, he will have to win the competition. Everything else, can wait.

"I've quit school for music," says Hussain. What happens when the show is over? Will he return to school? "Haan, lekin koi badhiya school jayenge," comes the reply. ("Yes, but I'll go to a great school".) "My friends don't understand my kind of music," says Hussain with carefully cultivated irony, dismissing contemporary Hindi tracks that have most youngsters shaking their hips.

Four months ago, at an audition in Jaipur, Hussain was a shy child staring at the floor and Kailash Kher, a judge on the show, patted him on the back. Today, Hussain looks you in the eye and every word that comes out of his mouth is a Smart Aleck comment that he knows the whole room will laugh to.

Sure, he knows he's cute, but Hussain is quick to duck away from fingers that try to pull his cheeks and ruffle his carefully puffed hair. He is careful to refer to his maestros respectfully and calls the musicians who coach him 'uncles'. He reserves 'bhaiya' for the senior contestants he is competing against.

Rehearsals start at 8 am. We have waited for two hours and will wait another 30 minutes before we get a chance to speak with Khan saab, a nickname he picked up, as he survived the eliminations unlike thousands of other children. Eight musicians listening to him, halt every verse and give critical feedback. Hussain isn't mollycoddled. The critique is sharp, biting, and incisive, and would make a listener cringe.

Contestants practise by themselves from Monday to Thursday. They rehearse with a band assigned by the maestro Javed Ali on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tuesday is show time. Each contestant rehearses with a set entourage of musicians and trainers separately. The room Hussain is rehearsing in has old posters of other reality shows still stuck on the walls. 'Dance, India Dance', one exhorts, with forced gaiety.

Hussain, barely glances at the poster, as he begins his rehearsal. "I will buy a synthesiser and all the possible instruments and sing everyday," he explains, 'when' -- not 'if' --  he wins.  Would he move to Mumbai? "No, I'll stay in Jaipur," he replies, sounding credulous. 

Four kids stand between him and his plans. In two weeks, the winner will be declared after a national audience vote on October 1. The next episode, due to air on September 23, will pitch the finalists in a sing-off against each other. An organiser says, they must show 'tashan', but doesn't explain what that means.
 
For Hussain, it all comes down to a song with fellow contestant Niladri Chaterjee, who, like Hussain, waves his hand in the air as he sings, but unlike him, doesn't mind having his chubby cheeks pulled. Midway through the waving and cringing, Hussain is visibly unhappy about Chaterjee, who is singing louder than him. He looks to his voice trainer for support, but gets a dressing down for palming off his shortcomings on others. Hussain puts on his game face for the rest of the session.

Musicians are known to be flighty and volatile. Evidence of which presents itself in the same room when a debate between a sound technician and a bassist ends in the guitar being abandoned on the floor. But Hussain, who was unanimously predicted to make it big in the music industry by judges Adnan Sami, Kailash Kher and Javed Ali isn't one to throw tantrums. For now he shuts his eyes and smiles, as he starts off once again from the top.

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