11-year-old Tamil ‘rock goddess’ wows America with Carnatic guitar and a headbang (2024)

Chennai: A week after her audition aired on the reality TV show America’s Got Talent, 11-year-old Maya Neelakantan is still basking in the spotlight. She’s now back in her family home in Chennai’s MRC Nagar, far away from Los Angeles where she wowed the audience at a packed Pasadena Civic Auditorium with her fusion of Carnatic music and thrash metal.

“A perfect audition,” declared actor and judge Sofia Vergara once Neelakantan finished her cover of American rock band Papa Roach’s Last Resort.

Neelakantan began the performance with the Natabhairavi raga on her electric guitar, which was met with raised eyebrows and confused looks from the American audience. Then with a headbang, she transitioned smoothly into thrash metal and the crowd exploded.

“Thrash metal is completely on the other end of Carnatic music. But I wanted to show how beautifully it can go with thrash metal,” Neelakantan told ThePrint. Wearing a simple white top, black pants and a large round bindi, Neelakantan is spending her weekend giving back-to-back interviews. Her room, facing the Adyar River, is filled with stuffed animals and guitars.

Part of her motivation was to show people both from overseas and in India what Carnatic music can be.

“When people hear Carnatic music, especially overseas, they immediately think it’s related to Bollywood. They don’t know exactly what it is. And even in India, most kids my age are not interested in learning Carnatic music,” she said.

Born to a Tamil father and an Australian mother, Neelakantan’s audition was her first stage performance. It earned her a standing ovation from the audience and the judges—Vergara, British music executive Simon Cowell, German-American model Heidi Klum and Canadian comedian Howie Mandel.

“We weren’t just expecting this. You were so shy and you are 10. You turned into this rock goddess,” said Cowell.

Recalling the life-altering moment, Maya said she wasn’t expecting anything when she was invited to audition for the show. Her 2022 cover of Tool’s song 7empest had put her on their radar.

“We sent an audition and it went back and forth. Before we knew we were practising the song. We weren’t really expecting everything that happened on the stage,” she said.

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The missing puzzle piece

Neelakatan’s journey began at age two when her grandmother introduced her to Carnatic music. And fascination with metal was passed down from her father, who would often play the genre at home. The guitar caught her attention when she came across a video of the iconic American heavy metal band Metallica performing their 1984 song For Whom the Bell Tolls.

“Something I really loved about them playing was how they were so confident on the stage. They weren’t even a bit nervous. They hit all the notes perfectly and I love how they were all having so much fun and enjoying it the whole time. So I was like yes I want to do this,” she said. She started learning the guitar from her father at age six and taught herself thrash metal songs by watching YouTube tutorials. She slowly started playing more complex songs and at the age of eight discovered the American progressive metal band Tool.

“Their songs for me are a different genre on their own. I feel like I started playing a lot better after learning Tool’s songs. Because their songs are really hard and they use a lot of advanced techniques,” Neelakatan said. But she still felt like something was missing from her music.

It was when she came across a video by guitarist R Prasanna that she found the last piece of the puzzle. Popularly known as Guitar Prasanna, he has extensively worked with AR Rahman and pioneered the performance of Carnatic music on the string instrument.

“I felt I wanted to do something more. I was looking to see if I can play Carnatic on guitar when I stumbled upon guitar Prasanna,” she said.

Neelakantan has been taking online classes from Prasanna for the past two years.

“When I listen to thrash metal, I become pumped and energetic. Carnatic music, on the other hand, gives me a spiritual and divine feeling. The atmosphere would immediately change the moment Carnatic music is playing. So I wanted to merge them both. I really loved how music takes you on a journey,” she said.

Although the young artist is brimming with ideas, she has yet to begin writing and composing her own music.

“AGT is bringing me one step closer to creating my own music,” she said adding that she is certain there are people interested in this fusion.

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Famous fans

Neelakantan’s AGT performance was a stepping stone to global fame, but her talent was noticed and celebrated by the thrash metal community even before the “viral moment”. Gary Holt, the guitarist from the bands Exodus and Slayer, is one such famous fan. He was even in the audience for her AGT audition.

“He flew from Sacramento to Los Angeles to cheer for me at AGT,” said a gushing Neelakantan.

She is also close friends with Tool guitarist Adam Jones, who got in touch with her a year ago after watching her cover of the band’s song 7empest. Jones was so impressed with her talent that he gifted her a signed guitar. The same guitar was her companion on stage at the AGT audition.

Her new-found fame hasn’t intimidated Neelakantan in the slightest.

“I’m enjoying all the attention. And I really love how many people in India are taking notes of it too,” she said.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

11-year-old Tamil ‘rock goddess’ wows America with Carnatic guitar and a headbang (2024)
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