Sanjaya, "American Idol," and the dancing girl of Mohenjo-Daro

Worst singer in talent-show history, or proud inheritor of 5000 years of divinely inspired musical tradition?

Published March 30, 2007 11:42PM (EDT)

I thought Sanjaya Malakar's faux-hawk, revealed Monday on "American Idol" to a world unsure of whether to be horrified or delighted, was neat. But having watched zero episodes of this season's Idol prior to this week, I am woefully incapable of contributing to the raging debate over whether Sanjaya's rendition of No Doubt's "Bathwater" was a sign that the 17-year-old pretty-boy is capable of improvement, or was just the latest proof that he is the worst singer ever to walk the face of the planet Earth.

While others watch "American Idol," I read blogs and nearly-incomprehensible working papers about weaknesses in Environmental Kuznets Curve theory. But some of those blogs are devoted to topics of interest to Indians, and that means, especially of late, that there has been a steady drumbeat of comment on all things Sanjaya.

Naturally, the best source of coverage is Ultrabrown -- if you're looking for links to YouTube clips of mean-spirited SNL, Letterman and Leno anti-Sanjaya savagery, Ultrabrown has it all.

There are two conspiracy theories at work attempting to explain the failure of right-thinking "American Idol" watchers to boot Sanjaya off the show. One holds that the Howard Stern-endorsed campaign is successfully sabotaging results. Another is that Sanjaya is benefiting from ethnic solidarity -- desis all over the worlds are phoning in for him. Call it the Yao Ming NBA All-Star Top Vote Getter Syndrome.

I decided that How the World Works had to investigate, so I spent some time today reading the comments on various Indian-oriented blogs referencing Sanjaya. And I am happy to report that I found no evidence of racial solidarity. Sure, there was some excitement as far back as January when it became clear that a desi was going to make the show, but his performances since then have not won him unanimous support. Solidarity goes only so far when you butcher "You Really Got Me."

But then I stumbled on a comment by someone labelling himself ShorelineBlvdTechie: "Great going Sanjaya! Keep the Indian flag flying high. Indians gave music to this world. So you have to win!"

Indians gave music to this world.

Could this be true?

There is something ludicrous about spending a couple of hours Googling through the Web trying to determine if there is any historical consensus on when or where "music" was invented. Suffice to say, no. Music seems pretty much integral to the human experience, and no one's got a monopoly.

However, music does definitely play a not-insignificant role in the most ancient expressions of Indian culture and spirituality. The universe, according to one interpreter of Vedic tradition "is said to be birthed from pure sound." One of the four canonical Vedas -- believed to be among the oldest scriptural texts in the world -- is the Sama Veda, described as basically a song-book for chanting priests. Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge, is never portrayed without her veena, a prototypical stringed instrument.

I'll grant you, it's a bit of a leap to try to connect the dots between Simon Cowell's put downs of Sanjaya Malakar and the divine inspiration for the Indian conception of the universe. But culture is a funny thing.

While speeding through my Cliff Notes review of the roots of the ancient Indus Civilization, circa 2500 B.C. I ran across a figurine unearthed from the millenia-old city of Mohenjo-Daro. Four inches high, made out of copper, it is a sculpture of a saucy dancing girl.

Dress her up in a faux-hawk, trade the impudence in for a bashful grin... The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro would be a big hit on "American Idol," no matter how out-of-key she might sing, and no matter what Simon Cowell might dare say.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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American Idol Globalization How The World Works India