It all started with a road trip through Kerala, a southern Indian state, when Abhirami Ajai was only 3 years old. An old film song was playing in the car and she picked up the tune instantly, and her father says he found the singer in her right then. Now 15, the Dubai-based schoolgirl has already sung playback in two Malayalam films, has two more in her kitty and is being feted as a singing prodigy.
She may look like your average teenager, but the moment Ajai lets the music do the talking, you realise she’s no one-hit wonder.
South Indians still hum her first film song, Thottu Thottu, from this year’s hit Diamond Necklace, a movie set in Dubai, while her classmates at the Delhi Private School in Sharjah like her crooning Ya Tabtab, a song by the Arabic pop idol Nancy Ajram.
The secret to her success is starting early, a strong foundation in the classical Indian style of Carnatic music, long practice sessions and support from her parents, who are doctors.
“I started learning music at the age of 4. I’m now studying Carnatic music under Dr Lakshmi Menon in Dubai,” explains Ajai.
She has also begun taking lessons from Ustad Rashid Khan in the Hindustani style of music, indigenous to north India.
Having honed her skills in Dubai, which is unusual for an Indian singer, Ajai is full of praise for the UAE’s multicultural tapestry and says it provides a great atmosphere for nurturing traditional arts.
“I’m very lucky to be in Dubai. It’s a stage for many cultural events. We don’t feel we’re away from home. Many celebrities come here and we get to showcase our talent. In the UAE, we get to mix with different nationalities and cultures. I think it is a brilliant land.”
And she means it. After all, it was in Dubai two years ago that she shared the stage with her singing idol, K S Chithra, known as “the nightingale of South India”.
At this moment, her father rushes in from work and heads straight to the radio. “They’re playing her latest song,” exclaims the proud Ajaikumar Nair.
Ajai’s melodious voice, with the innocence of childhood still intact, fills the air. The song is from the forthcoming film Ayalum Njanum Thammil, directed by the noted filmmaker Lal Jose and starring the popular actor Prithviraj.
So how did she get her first film break with the eminent music director Vidyasagar?
“Lal Jose heard me at a concert here and a month later he asked me to send my demo track to Vidyasagar in Chennai. Within 10 days, I got a call to come and record the song.”
For Ajai, her parents are her “pillars of strength”, and she is also grateful to her teachers for helping her catch up on school work.
“I have been scoring over 90 per cent [in school] for the last five years,” she reveals reluctantly. “And after I sang in the film, the principal of my school gave me a special music award, even though she doesn’t understand Malayalam.”
Apart from her interest in music, Ajai has hopes of becoming a journalist. She’s planning to start her own blog soon and also wants to publish a book of her poems.
The Indian consul general Sanjay Verma calls her “a voice to watch out for” and she’s already doing the rounds of radio stations in the UAE after the release of her second song. How does she handle her new-found fame?
“I really like what Lal Jose told me – when people praise you, take it to your heart, not your head. My parents also tell me it is important to remain grounded,” she says, before rushing off for another radio interview.