Rythms of a ‘Rock goddess’

The Internet and the judges of America’s Got Talent cannot stop raving about 11-year-old Maya Neelakantan, a musical wunderkind from Chennai
11-year-old Maya Neelakantan, a native of Chennai
11-year-old Maya Neelakantan, a native of Chennai

CHENNAI: A thousand people are seated with their eyes on a contestant, cheering, at the filming of season 19 of America’s Got Talent (AGT) audition on March 17. As the sounds of the crowd grew louder, the time was nearing for Maya Neelakantan to take over the stage in Los Angeles. “I had performed for a gathering of 50 in an ashram, but now, it is in the thousands. The crowd was loud and I heard them screaming. I was nervous as this also marks my first stage appearance,” says 11-year-old Maya.

In a viral video shared on the Internet, we see her father Neelakantan asking her, “Are you ready?”. “Yes,” says Maya as she takes centre stage. Dressed in a lehenga set in shades of pink, yellow, and orange, her hair flowing down in braids, adorned with triangle-and-round-shaped bindis, golden jewellery, red nail paint, holding a Gibson Signature 1979 Les Paul Custom guitar signed by Tool guitarist Adam Jones — gifted to her back in September 2022 — Maya introduced herself as a native of Chennai to the judges.

Breaking the Internet

Commencing with the improv of raga ‘Nata Bhairavi’, her 100-second performance peaked with the rendition of Papa Roach’s Last Resort. “I am always at ease and comfortable when I play the guitar, and all my nervousness changed into confidence then,” shares Maya. Mesmerised by her performance, the four judges of AGT — Simon Cowell, Sofia Vergara, Heidi Klum, and Howie Mandel — and the audience gave her a standing ovation. Simon even called her a ‘rock goddess’. “The performance felt like mere seconds, but after it was done and the reactions I received, that felt like hours,” she adds.

“The AGT team invited us to participate in the competition on May 4, 2023, on my birthday. Since then, I have been practising my act,” she says. For the next ten months, Maya planned and worked on her music. “I played Last Resort when I was seven years old. When the list shared with us by the AGT team mentioned the song, I knew which one to pick,” she shares, adding that she also had a list of songs. “The raga sat well with the song I chose, so I knew what I had to do.”

After completing her performance and coming backstage, Maya felt accomplished. “I have come across people saying that they want to go on stage again and again and now, I understand the reason and the feeling behind it. I, too, want to get on a stage and hold a mic while people cheer for me,” says an elated Maya. Currently, the video is making rounds online and Maya is the talk of the World Wide Web.

Training sessions

Maya seems to be handling the attention well, visible in her interaction with CE, where she details her musical journey. “Ever since I was two years old, I have loved music. My entire life I had so much music. It has helped me the whole time,” she points out. The man behind her interest and love for music is her father. Maya says, “My appa plays music; Carnatic music was played in our house all the time. And when we travelled, we used to jam to glass metal music in our car.”

Inspired by the band Metallica and their stage shows, Maya held the guitar in her hands for the first time when she was six years old. The first song she learnt was For Whom The Bell Tolls by the band. “I was trained in glass metal, rock music, and others but I always wanted to play Carnatic music on the guitar,” she says. One day she came across Guitar Prasanna playing Carnatic music on a guitar, and now she has been learning from him for over two years.

Balancing her love for music, and her studies was turning out to be tedious. “I was a student at Chettinad Hari Shree Vidyalayam. Attending classes for seven hours was tiring and I practised music only once a week. I was not okay with that. To get the freedom to pursue music, I am now studying at the US-based Education World Wide School,” says Maya.

Now, Maya wants to learn to play the veena and get involved in Margazhi celebrations. “Chennai is my home. I attended Nithyashree’s concert during the month and loved it,” she says.

Pillars of strength

With the support of her parents, no dream is unachievable for Maya. “My parents always say that I should continue to follow my passion and enjoy the process. And that is what I did at AGT. It was so much fun to not worry about the result and just looking forward to my performance,” she says. Concurring, her father says, “We believe that she is born with a higher purpose. It is not like we have put her in tuitions and made her do what she is doing. No. This is something that she wants to do.” Calling Maya “special”, Neelakantan believes, “the universe is taking care of her and I am proud of her. My only job right now is to protect her from negativity.”

Maya is hopeful and excited about her position in the competition. Only time and the AGT team will tell what it holds. In future, Maya desires to create her own music — a blend of Carnatic, glass metal, and every other style she knows. “Encouragement, motivation, and determination have brought me here, and I stand by them to see where they take me,” she winds up.

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