Sanjaya returns to the stage

Good news, American Idol fans! Former American Idol contestant Sanjaya Malakar is back.

Sanjaya, a 2007 Idol finalist, is currently starring in the off-Broadway musical Freckleface Strawberry. Based on actress Julianne Moore’s children’s book of the same name, the play follows the title character and her friends as she learns how to accept her freckles and individuality. Sanjaya plays Danny, a friendly athlete who is one of Freckleface’s closest friends.

“This is the first time I’ve done professional theater,” said Sanjaya when we recently spoke over the phone. “I love the challenge of really taking on a character.”

Noting that the play had a very positive message for children, he said, “I think the main thing is that you are who you are. [The play is] about finding out what you have and working on that and bringing that to the world.”

In addition to his rehearsal and performance schedule, Sanjaya has also been working on his next album, a follow-up to his debut album Dancing to the Music in My Head. “I write most of my own songs, though I do have some songwriters come in,” he said. “It’s a story, very emotional, very real, with definitely an R&B vocal.”

Additionally, some of the new material has been influenced by traditional South Asian music. “My father was a classical Indian musician and lived in an ashram growing up,” said Sanjaya. “I grew up going to the temple every Sunday.”

“[Indian classical music] is different because it is sung for a different reason. When you sing a raga and you are singing to God, it’s different from singing a normal pop song. It’s the same for Gospel music,” he noted.

Of course I also had to get his thoughts on the current season of American Idol and the new judges. “I think it’s great, it’s a great panel to get feedback from,” he said of stars Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and longtime judge Randy Jackson. “When I was on, you had the performer [Paula Abdul], the producer [Jackson] and the executive [Simon Cowell]. It’s a little bit more performance heavy now.”

Idol also recently lowered its eligibility age to 15. Sanjaya, who was 17 when he competed on the show, said that a strong support is key for younger contestants. “As a 17-year-old, the emotional stuff you go through, I think it’s hard.”

“Music and performing is personal, you are putting yourself out there at a young age. The good ones will last though.”

Visit the official Freckleface Strawberry website to purchase tickets and for more information. You can catch Sanjaya through April 23.

Catching up with Sanjaya Malakar

Does anyone else remember when pundits used to argue that American Idol’s Sanjaya Malakar was the most famous South Asian since Gandhi?

Oh, 2007. We were all so young back then.

The Gandhi comparison is especially funny when you consider that Sanjaya was last in the news for a speeding ticket and busking in a New York City subway station.

Last night’s Idol finale inspired many news outlets to track down contestants from years past. While I will always wonder why Sanjaya and his management didn’t do more to capitalize on the notoriety he gained during the show, It looks like he’s turned out to be an almost-normal 20-year-old:

Malakar has enrolled at Cornish College of the Arts in his hometown of Seattle, which is known for its music program. And in his spare time, he’s working towards…a career in Calvin Klein ads?

“I signed with a modeling agency in Seattle,” Malakar, 20, tells E! — although he admits he’s “not necessarily an underwear model at this point. My body isn’t quite there yet!”

I wonder if Sanjaya’s sister Shyamali also signed up with a modeling agency? Shyamali was last seen performing in Japan last week.

(Hat tip: @krupali)

Anoop Desai sets his sights on India

Former American Idol contestant Anoop Desai released his debut album, All is Fair, last week. Desai finished sixth during last year’s competition.

He recently told the LA Times’ Idol Tracker blog that he hopes the album appeals to pop music fans in India:

“I feel a remarkable sense of pride being able to sing American music in India,” he said. “It’s a market that’s familiar to me, obviously, because it’s where my family is from. And a lot of my songs are influenced by that heritage. And they show all the American shows over there. It’s so funny how my relatives in India would send my parents all these articles about me during ‘Idol.’ To have music out in India, to me, that’s full circle.”

Desai frequently spoke about the Indian and Bollywood influences on his songwriting while recording the album.

Watch Desai perform his first single, My Name, below: