BY JAMES FARRELL
Before Ben Parag left for Bombay to compete on the Indian TV singing competition “Dil Hai Hindustani,” he was just “your average 19-year-old New Yorker,” he says.
When he returned to his home in South Richmond Hill, a parade was held in his honor and he was escorted through the neighborhood on a horse and carriage.
Parag finished in the top six in the hit Indian singing competition, which plays out similarly to “American Idol.” He was the only American to compete—it was the first time the show welcomed international contestants—but his performances resonated around the world, especially with his Guyanese family and hometown.
“It was really nice,” Parag said of his homecoming, adding that it felt good to breathe the air in New York again after almost six months away.
“If there’s one thing I love about New York, I love the air,” he said.
Parag hails from a musical family—his parents, Kumar and Savi, were always singing around the house. While some children might play sports or take part other activities, Parag would return home from his high school, the Hillside Arts and Letters Academy, and sing. Although singing started as a hobby, it became more serious for Parag when his mother connected him with a guru, Shri Kinnar Seen, who taught him the techniques of singing Indian music.
“He always pushed me: do this song, do that song, go to the next level,” Parag said of Seen.
After Parag first sang for Seen, the guru insisted that Parag should travel to India and try to make it there as a singer.
“I always knew that, one day, it was going to happen,” Parag said. “Maybe for singing, maybe for sightseeing, but one day I’m going to be there. I belong there.”
In the meantime, music became Parag’s obsession. After school, he would go home and immediately start practicing. His tanpura, a four-stringed instrument that helps singers keep their pitch, became a source of comfort for him.
“I would always, just like, run to it,” he said. “I was always practicing. I never left my practice for anything.”
When Parag heard that “Dil Hai Hindustani” was accepting international contestants, he sent an audition tape from New York to Bombay. He received glowing feedback—the producers told him that he was exactly the kind of person for whom they were searching. So, he attended a ground audition and was selected to be one of 10 contestants from a bigger group of 30. He started living in Bombay as the show began filming.
While there, he made friends from nations around the world, such as Oman.
“You learned about so many cultures. It was like a culture shock, but it was a really good one—everyone was really joyful,” he said. “People would always ask questions about New York.”
Parag said that he wasn’t nervous about going on the show or living in India. He felt as if his path was always destined to take him there one day. But his experience on the show has spurred him to continue following his talent wherever it leads. In May, Parag will move to Bombay full-time to pursue a career as a Bollywood playback singer—the voice to which Bollywood actors lip sync in the movies.
He will be surrounded by his newfound friends in Bombay, from his experience living there throughout the course of “Dil Hai Hindustani.” But he knows it will be a long journey.
“I’ll be crawling before I start walking,” he said.
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.