This summer, when 35 million people tuned in to India’s Got Talent—which features Bollywood star judges and is hailed as Asia’s biggest talent show—they probably didn’t expect to see a group of devotees in dhotis and saris, chanting Hare Krishna.
But people warmed to ISKCON devotee rock band “Madhava’s” quickly, sending them all the way to the IGT finale, where they reached third place out of thousands of contestants.
For the band, it was both a humbling and educational experience, and a chance to deliver Krishna’s name to as many people as possible.
“Five out of the seven band members met while in engineering college in our home town of Chandigargh, Punjab,” says lead guitarist Nirdosh Sobti, whose sister Namrata is also in the band. “My father is a music teacher, so music was in my blood and I decided to get a band together as an extra-curricular activity. At that time, we played commercial, non-spiritual rock at various venues and corporate events, and we were called De Innovatives.”
Lead singer Neha
Attached to Krishna since her childhood, Namrata discovered the Chandigargh ISKCON temple during this time, and when she found the devotees had answers to all her questions she began regularly attending.
One by one, the other members of the band followed her: her brother, lead vocalist Neha Behl, rhythm guitarist Gagandeep Singh, and sound technician Barinder Pal Singh.
Meanwhile, they continued to pursue their music careers, with Nirdosh moving to Mumbai in 2009 to audition for the MTV India reality show Rock On, a search for the best rock musician in the country.
Gagandeep Singh gets Krishna's name painted on his arm
Naïve and brand new to Krishna consciousness, Nirdosh began to pray to Krishna to help him win the show, and even made deals with the Lord. “I would pray, ‘If You let me win this competition, I will start chanting sixteen rounds,” he says. “In the back of my mind, I knew I was asking for something far smaller than what Krishna could really give me—love for Him—but that’s where I was then.”
Nirdosh got what he wanted. Moving up from one level of the competition to the next, he finally beat 5,000 other contestants from across India to become recognized as the best guitarist and winner of MTV Rock On.
Thrilled, he contacted the rest of his bandmates back in Chandigargh, and convinced them to move to Mumbai to ‘make it big’. “Now that I had won this reality show, I thought my life would change, that all the big record companies and musicians would be clamoring to sign me up and work with me,” he says.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Nirdosh couldn’t find any work, became practically homeless and had to rely on his parents sending him money just to eat.
Nirdosh applying tilak backstage
“Everything was falling apart all around me,” he says. “It was the complete opposite of what I had expected. But there was one light in my life. My sister and Barinder had married and taken initiation together as Nama-Bhakti Dasi and Braj Kishor Dasa, and they encouraged me to read Srila Prabhupada’s books. As I did, I began to understand that what I had wanted so badly was not the best thing for me. I understood that I should simply serve Krishna and leave everything up to Him, because He would give me what was really good for me.”
With this realization, things began to look up again almost immediately. Nirdosh began to aspire for initiation from Gopal Krishna Goswami, as did the other members of the band, and they changed their name to Madhava’s, indicating that they belonged to Madhava, the presiding Deity of ISKCON Chandigargh. As well as playing commercial Bollywood songs at corporate events to make a living, they began to perform extremely popular “rock kirtans” at Rathayatra festivals and colleges across India as their unique offering to Srila Prabhupada’s mission.
Two new members, drummer Isaac Chinnaya, and Tabla and Dholak player Mehul Waghtla, joined, and the band—now aged between 25 and 28—thrived.
It was then that the last thing Nirdosh expected, or wanted, came knocking—another reality show.
“A devotee called Akanksha, who had previously booked us for a mantra rock show organized by ISKCON Chowpatty, happened to be a talent scout for India’s Got Talent, and called us, asking us to audition,” he says. “I wasn’t interested. I had won a reality show before, and nothing good had come from it. But she told us,
‘They want you to sing Krishna’s name and verses from the Bhagavad-gita on the show—it will be your signature. This is a chance to chant the Holy Name on national television on a show that is seen across Asia.’”
Unable to pass up this opportunity, Madhava’s agreed.
From the very beginning, it was clear that this group was going to stand out. Ascending the stage for their first audition in dhotis and saris, with Vaishnava tilak on their foreheads and japa bead bags around their necks, they launched into a rock fusion version of popular bhajan Raghupati Raghava Raja Rama, then segued into
Srila Prabhupada’s classic tune of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.
In a hair-raising moment, the audience went wild, throwing their arms up in the air and singing along.
Ad for the Madhava`s final performance
Mesmerized and delighted by the unique quality of the audition, Bollywood star judges Sonali Bendre, Kirron Kher, and Dharmendra Singh were full of praise.
Sonali, in particular, described their devotional attire as “very attractive” and gave them their tag line, calling them “a band with a difference.”
Later, however, Madhava’s were told that to ensure variety, they could not sing only Vaishnava songs every time, and could not use the maha-mantra again in a performance.
It was a challenge. They were a devotional band. What was their next step?
“Krishna took care of everything,” Nirdosh says. “Suddenly we thought of the beautiful music of Sufism, a Muslim devotional path similar to bhakti. There’s a very popular Sufi song, Dama Dam Mast Kalandar, which was written in glorification of the Sufi guru Jhulelal by one of his disciples. With lyrics like ‘You, guru, have given me a chance to sing the holy name, all glories to you,” we found it very in line with Krishna conscious philosophy. So we chose a verse from that and sang it along with Srila Prabhupada’s Pranam Mantra, ‘Om Namo Vishnupadaya.’”
Again, people loved it. Even devotees, whose possible critical response to this more broad presentation of Krishna consciousness had Madhava’s apprehensive, were delighted that they were spreading the glories of Srila Prabhupada on such a large stage.
Moving into the semi-finals with the highest votes of any group in the competition, Madhava’s continued with their interfaith approach, singing a Sikh bhajan by Guru Gobind Singh in praise of the guru. They followed this with Krishna’s words from the Bhagavad-gita, “Yada yada hi dharmasya/glanir bhavati bharata/abhyutanam adharmasya/tadatmanam srijamy aham: Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendent of Bharat, and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I descend Myself.”
“Our message was, whenever you feel any kind of difficulty or fear, just surrender to your guru and to God, and everything will be fine,” says Nirdosh.
As Madhava’s geared up for the finals, the India’s Got Talent Team filmed the band at their home where they all live together, and showed them cooking and offering food to their Gaura Nitai Deities and honoring prasadam. The show also filmed the morning program at ISKCON Mumbai’s Mira Road temple, and explained the band’s pledge to donate every paise of their five million rupee prize to the temple if they were to win.
Once again for the semi-finals, Madhava’s received the highest votes, owing in no small part to the many devotees all over India who watched the show and supported them.
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The Madhava`s final performance
“Devotees were just so excited to see Gaura-Nitai and Sri Sri Radha Giridhari on television, purifying this reality show,” Nirdosh says. “And to hear the holy name being sung. Even devotees from other countries, who couldn’t vote themselves, contacted their relatives in India and asked them to vote. The assistant director of Food for Life in Vrindavana emailed me and told me, ‘You guys are doing a wonderful job. Every morning at mangal arati, we make an announcement asking the devotees to watch Madhava’s and vote for you.’ It was all so moving. I actually started crying in front of my laptop, because I never felt that we deserved so much love and blessings from the devotees.”
For their performance in the finals on October 1st, Madhava’s were asked to sing a romantic Bollywood song from guest judge Shah Rukh Khan’s upcoming movie RA.One. Still, they found a way to Krishna-ize it by prefacing the song with the first two verses of the Vaishnava text Sri Isopanishad.
“They describe how everything in this world is controlled and owned by the Lord—including, of course, Shah Rukh Khan’s song and movie,” Nirdosh says. “In fact, Shah Rukh, who is a practicing Muslim, said that he chants too and very much appreciated our chanting of the shlokas.”
The Bollywood megastar also got up onstage to dance with Madhava’s for a spell, before announcing the upcoming marriage of Nirdosh and lead singer Neha live on the show, and saying a heartfelt “God bless you, may you keep chanting.”
As Shah Rukh announced the results, Madhava’s were free from the anxiety that plagued the other contestants. Chanting quietly, they knew that Krishna was in control of everything, and as Nirdosh had learned before, He would give them whatever was best for them.
The Madhava`s perform with Bollywood megastar Sha Rukh Khan in the Grand Finale
“When we came in third place, were just happy to have gotten this far, and to have gotten so many chances to chant for so many people,” Nirdosh says. “The audience appreciated that we were so peaceful and happy, while others who didn’t win were upset.”
Unlike Nirdosh’s previous bad experience with winning a reality show, Madhava’s runner-up status on India’s Got Talent has landed them a series of gigs and many queries for more, as well as a manager in the form of ISKCON Singapore devotee Bhadra Govinda Dasa.
“Because of India’s Got Talent, now wherever we go, even if we are performing at a wedding or corporate party to make our living, people will expect us and want us to sing Hare Krishna, because that was our signature on the show,” Nirdosh says. “And if they sing along with us, just by chanting Hare Krishna, they are starting their devotional lives.”