ACHIEVERS WHO HAVE DONE INDIA PROUD – II
We have all heard about Indians who went abroad and excelled in the professions thay chose to get into. Locally born immigrants, NRIs, OCIs and PIOs today hold top-jobs in business, medicine, science, technology, writing and even in politics, where some have gone on to become Presidents and Prime Ministers of their adopted countries. All of them are achievers, and quite deservedly so. But this is not about them. It is more about those who’ve followed the way of their heart to avenues less explored by the desi diaspora. About those who’ve met with parental disapproval despite wider opportunities available to them. Of those who didn’t let their roots, their modest upbringing or their skin colour stop them from thinking they’re just as good as anyone else. Of those who stuck it out and struck it big. Some of them speak no Hindi or another Indian tongue, some have no fixed address, others visit India at every opportunity. Most of them have little in common with the other; a few of them even believe their success transcends their ancestry. But all of them have, in the words of jazz musician Rudresh Mahanthappa, “blazed some trails and made it easier for those coming behind us”.
If on your next trip to New York, you chance to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pay special attention to the new section called Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South-Asia. The gallery, eight years in the making, is the brainchild of Navina Nalat Haidar, and contains the best of the 12,000 items (calligraphy, metalwork, ceramics, and painting) from the Met’s Islamic collection across 13 centuries. Haidar, daughter of diplomat Salman Haidar and theatre actress Kusum Haidar, has lived in the UK, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and the US. Raised in Delhi before setting off to Oxford, she remains a self-confessed Shah Rukh Khan fan.
“This collection is different from the Met’s previous Islamic galleries, in that the new galleries have a different emphasis than those of the past – they stress the diversity of the Islamic world and its connections with other cultures. In the past the unity was more emphasised. Also the space is quite different – it very circular, as opposed to more linear as it previously was. That influenced the thinking and interpretation of the objects, as did all the new scholarship in the field. “Many have asked me if 9/11 and the radicalised perception of Islam influenced our idea for the new galleries. 9/11 happened just before the old galleries closed and we reopened on the tenth anniversary of that event, by coincidence. While doing our planning and building in the intervening decade, we were certainly aware of the politically charged background against which we were working. However we tried to create and occupy a zone above the politics, working as museum professionals and art historians. Of course we also realised that because of politics our Islamic art collection had meaning and power for the general public. On feeling desi: “Being desi goes beyond desi borders for many people today.
But also, historically, India has been connected to the rest of the world in many interesting ways, and through a variety of networks. It is always good to take a historical and objective view of all the various constructs that make up our identity. And the interesting thing now is that our genes may not be what we think – you can take a simple test now and find out – and many people who think of themselves as pure desi might find that they are a real genetic mix of faraway elements ! I assume my genes are desi, yes. Beyond that family, friends, language, values, all connect me to India. And I keep track of Bollywood … I am a big fan. Shah Rukh is a great hero in our house. So is Aamir Khan. Kajol is great. Also I like all the non-Bollywood films that come out of India and I’m really looking forward to Margarita with a Straw, shortly coming out by my friend, the director Shonali Bose.
Rudresh Mahanthappa may be described as a truly global Indian. While his parents are chaste Kannadigas harking from Karnataka, he was born to them in Italy, and subsequently raised in the US. His wife is a Gujarati, which makes his son Talin (named after an obscure avatar of Shiva) truly multi-cultural. But when Rudresh takes to the saxophone, all of this history seems irrelevant. “If you play the saxophone, there really isn’t anything else to do, except get into jazz,” says Mahanthappa, explaining his choice of profession. “My older and younger brothers are musicians as well, but while my parents encouraged us to be well-rounded, they weren’t all that wild about the kids becoming musicians, because just being good is not good enough to make a living.” Mahanthappa is more than just good. He has worked with seven acts, and released 12 albums. And he’s still playing his heart out. On what’s it like being an Indian American jazz artist: “There are two different interesting aspects to this. One, I’m a rare breed, not being African American, white or Latino, so I am able to rise above a lot of boundaries. Secondly, this meant that people didn’t know what to do with me when I was starting out. The expectation was that I should be doing something overtly Indian, that I had to have the sitar or mridangam incorporated into my music. It was a big struggle to develop an identity both musically and personally. I am otherwise happy with the way things turned out. I see my artistic trajectory always expanding. This year, in addition to working with my own group, I am writing a classical piece for a chamber group. So I see myself going onwards and upwards. On what he misses about India: “I definitely miss the food – Chettinad cuisine, and all the seafood. Where I live now, in New Jersey, to find a good south Indian restaurant, I need to get into the car and drive for at least 30 minutes, but a paratha is just a block away …
The first time you hear Sachal Vasandani sing, you’ll immediately wish you were in a small, intimate club, inky black and filled with smoke. His voice has that kind of appeal. Boston Globe describes it as “mature in sound and rich in texture”. “I always knew I wanted to be a singer,” says Chicago-born Vasandani. But first, the child of parents from Delhi and Mumbai did the “super Indian American thing”. He studied both music and economics, earning three degrees in four years and holding down an investment banking job in New York to boot. It felt like having been “drafted into the army,” recalls the singer with a laugh. “I thought I could do it all, but I was not able to give my music its due.” So he hung up his suits to sing full-time. His new career turned out be as smooth as his voice – fame, tours and fans. But he is also happy to ‘just be’. “My parents didn’t want me to be a dreamer, but unfortunately I am.” “In America, I am a brown person in jazz. You know what that feels like ? It’s like wearing underwear that’s snug but rubbing against you in a funny way. I think there’s a little chafing sometimes, but it’s nothing that I can’t handle. Life is about the moment, and about being present in the moment, about trying to bring as much of who I am to what I do. When I think of pitfalls and ambition, those can be corrosive to my singing. I want this journey to be less about me and more about ‘does my music make you feel something ?’ And the best thing about being Indian American is the volume of love and support I receive from my family. Most Indians enjoy a warmer family feeling than most other Americans. And it’s something we can sometimes take for granted.
Comedienne & TV Star
Elle USA recently put Mindy Kaling on their cover. Has she made you laugh yet ? Watch her on The Mindy Project, drunk, sequinned, heartbroken and riding a bicycle into a swimming pool; or smuggling wine in her inflatable bra, wine for a nobooze party. Follow her tweets (two million people do) about celebs, weight, dating and life. Read her thoughts on revenge fantasies and roommate rules in her bestselling book. This US-born half-Tamil, half-Bengali (Real name: Vera Mindy Chokalingam) is the first brown showrunner, star and producer of an American TV show – and she isn’t doing gags about curry or head-nods. Now that’s something to smile about, at least!
Talking of stereotypes and social perceptions, she says, “The greatest challenge one faces as a woman is to be a writer, as most sitcom writers are men. Some of my favourite female writers are Lena [Dunham] and Tina [Fey]. But there is this unfair feeling that women can only write for women and men can only write for men. But talent is talent, and really good writers can transcend those kind of things. As far as other stereotypes are concerned, I think I have managed to break them too. The feeling is absolutely empowering. Major adulations I receive are from women, which in a way makes me feel good. Relatively young women come up just to say hello. A couple of fans have expressed how they would love to live a day in my life. To them, it’s a starry wonderland. As far as people who think otherwise, I take it with a pinch of salt. When you are successful, you will have people who may not appreciate your job that much. But that is ok with me. I’m not worried about it. To each its own !