It was waiting to happen: a musical talent show based on bhajans and devotional songs on a prime time channel with religious leader and serial entrepreneur Baba Ramdev as the main judge.

Star Bharat, the new name for the channel Life OK, has started airing Om Shanti Om, which gives the reality television show format a religious tinge. Composer Shekhar Ravjiani, singer Kanika Kapoor and actor Sonakshi Sinha, called “guru cools”, and Baba Ramdev, termed the “maha judge”, supervise the efforts of 14 contestants on Om Shanti Om every weekend. The idea of creating a show that scopes out the achievements of bhajan singers has been brewing for four years, creator and producer Pankaj Narayan said. Among the milestones crossed thus far: a rap version of a bhajan by Baadshah, a Ganesh aarti by Ranveer Singh, and a dance performance of the dashavatar by Sonakshi Sinha. The show has made place for sufi songs and extends the definition of devotion to patriotic tracks.

Apart from working in television and advertising, Narayan has directed the feature film Chal Guru Ho Jaa Shuru (2015), featuring Hemant Pandey, Chandrachur Singh and Sanjay Mishra. He is a Baba Ramdev follower, and hopes to successfully sell the idea that “you can dance to bhajans” too.

What is the story behind ‘Om Shanti Om’?
When I used to watch reality music shows and I found eight-year-olds singing such songs as Badan Pe Sitaren Lapete Hue, I felt that unlike film songs, spiritual and devotional songs can actually be sung by all age groups. In fact, the songs that are most heard and sung in India are devotional songs.

However, the genre has not received the big platform that it deserves. Bhajan singers have not been able to become celebrities. Take a singer like Sonu Nigam. He began his career singing at jagrans. However, he became famous only when he entered Bollywood. So the primary objective is to give devotional songs a platform as big as other reality music shows.

There is a song I like a lot – Chanda Re Chanda Re sung by Hariharan. It’s beautiful, but it is a song that we perhaps listen to once in a while. But the same Hariharan has sung the Hanuman Chalisa that lakhs and crores of people listen to every day. This is a country where bhajans are sung and listened to a lot, but they have not got the support of good music.

The other objective was the propagation of culture. Parents of children who auditioned told me that their children learnt bhajans only so that they could participate in our show. Until our auditions, they did not even know these songs. That encouraged me even more. Through a show like this, I could tell youngsters that our culture and their trends can be friends. I wanted to show that culture can be stylish too. You may have noticed the promos we ran for the show: Puja ke saath pop hoga aur shraddha ke saath rock hoga (Pop music with worship and rock music with devotion). We want to make bhajans and devotional songs cool enough for today’s generation – to reinvent bhajans in the vocabulary and style of today’s music.

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Om Shanti Om (2017).

Once the concept was in place, how did you fix the format?
We are singing god’s songs, so I decided that there will be no elimination, only elevation. We will have what we call the Top Tentastic, which comprises the top 10 contestants. But we will not show anyone losing.

So far, in all reality music shows, the search is for an ideal. And generally, that ideal singer will finally find a place in Bollywood. The focus is always about making a person’s career. Here, we are interested in creating icons. For instance, there is a contestant who is a devotee of Hanuman. His end goal is to sing songs for Hanuman. Then there is Zaid Ali, whose goal is to sing in praise of the country.

Don’t all reality shows aim to create icons?
There is a difference between voices and icons. Bhajan singers Anup Jalota and Shraddha Sinha have not sung for any popular Bollywood actor. They are icons, not just voices, who are heard by millions of people. Each genre of bhajan singing has an icon associated with it – Jalota for bhajans or Narendra Chanchal for jagrata. That’s what we want to create in this show. The goal is to create a generation of cool and trendy singers for devotional songs.

What is your definition of ‘cool’?
For every generation, something becomes outdated and something else becomes cool. The question is when you are communicating with the next generation, how do you represent or introduce aspects that appear old or outdated to them? That’s why we have the tagline “Shraddha vahi andaz naya.” Why will a 13-year-old boy listen to a Meera bhajan? It is a song that his grandfather listens to. But when the grandfather comes dressed in shorts, holds a guitar and sings the same song, the boy feels he is cool. The cool quotient fixes the generation gap. Why can’t we make our culture cool?

Pankaj Narayan, creator of Om Shanti Om.
Pankaj Narayan, creator of Om Shanti Om.

How did you choose the judges?
All the judges are there because they deserve to be there. Shekhar Ravjiani is an artist who can make devotional music contemporary. Kanika Kapoor has sung with Anup Jalota. She has popularised and modernised bhajans for audiences abroad too. Sonakshi Sinha has explained her connections with spirituality in one of the episodes: Shatrughan is her father’s name. His three brothers are Ram, Bharat and Lakhan. Her brothers are Lav and Kush. Her house is named Ramayan. She has studied in an Arya Samaj school and speaks Hindi well.

How did Ramdev get associated with the show?
I have been associated with him for years. Being one among his karmyogis, I respect him a lot. He is a man who made yoga and Ayurveda popular. Since our goal is to make bhajans contemporary, I thought he would fit the show well.

Is Ramdev’s company Patanjali also sponsoring the show?
Sponsorship is not my call. It is the channel’s prerogative. As the producer, I went to Star Bharat and told them that I have a concept in mind and I would like Ramdev to be a part of it.

Is there an effort to ensure that all religions are represented?
We are going to release episodes in tune with the upcoming festivals. So, you will see episodes about Dussehra and Diwali. Now, the trending god is Ganesh.

You’ll hear songs of every religion on this show. That said, I don’t think that we will include every religion just for the sake of political correctness. We need to take into consideration what our audience wants.

What does your audience prefer?
Our audience is Bharat. We are not pushing any agenda. We do not prefer a particular religion over another. We want to focus only on the popular songs as of now, whichever religion they may be from. But if there are four Hindu Bhakti songs and two songs from Islam, we are not going to obsess about equal representation.