I grew up in two worlds…

 

My parents were born and raised in India, and they moved to the United States in the ‘80s. I was born in the U.S. and raised in a small, predominantly white suburb.

My family is definitely a hybrid family.  During meals, we would enjoy eating my mom’s delicious chicken curry and my dad’s palak paneer, alongside macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes.  

Because my mom and dad grew up in different regions of India, they didn’t even speak the same language – my mom spoke Malayalam and my dad spoke Kannada.  Their only common language was English, and so my brother and I never learned how to speak any other language.

 

Proud of my ethnicity

 

But I was always very proud of my Indian heritage.  

Of course, when many people think about India, the first thing that comes to mind is the food – the rich, tantalizing spices, the pungent aroma that stimulates all of your senses…  

But this wonderful boldness goes far beyond the cuisine.  Just look at the bright red and blue hues of a woman’s sari, see the explosion of colors at a Holi festival, and hear the quick, complex rhythms of a mridangam as they enter beginning the gat.  

Yet we are also reflective and meditative.

 We are spiritual and disciplined.  

And we are diverse – with 23 official languages and countless styles of music.

 

 

And I grew up playing Western classical music…  

I began playing the piano when I was four, and I picked up the flute when I when I was eleven and saxophone in the middle of high school.  

I’ve always loved to compose, and by the time I was applying to colleges, I knew that I wanted to become a professional composer.  

My parents naturally worried about my future finances as a music major, so they wanted me to also double major in engineering.

When I walked into our music school on the first day of classes, I was extremely alarmed.

Out of over 1,000 students, I was one out of about three Indian students majoring in music.

 

 

Why are there so few Indian-American professional musicians?  

For one, there are very few prominent Indian performers and composers already in classical music that the next generation of musicians can look up to.

Most people can count the number of Indian composers that they can name on one hand.  When we grow up without seeing many role models who are similar to us, it’s hard for us to see ourselves achieving success in the future.  And so the cycle continues, and we doubt ourselves and fall back on the common Indian stereotype – that instead of following our creative passions and becoming artists, we decide to pursue careers in other more “logical” fields.

(Not that I have any problem with becoming a doctor, engineer, or any other career that Indians are stereotypically associated with – I’m VERY proud of my engineering degree that I received in conjunction with my music degree!

But we should never feel that we aren’t creative enough to be the wonderful musicians that we also are just because we don’t fit the mold.)

 

Mac & Cheese with Palak Paneer in Music

 

India has such a rich history of music, from the gorgeous reverence of an alaap to the exciting dance-driven rhythms of Bollywood songs.

It is essential that these traditions be shared with the rest of the world.  

To be clear, I don’t think we necessarily have to “preach” a specific style of music when we write or perform.  

I think that all artists should be able to express themselves however they choose, whether it be through outward expression of their cultural background or not.  

But our cultural experiences growing up will always influence our perspectives of the world, which will, in turn, influence our music – either deliberately or subconsciously.

And so if we choose to explore our cultural identity in our music, we shouldn’t be reprimanded. Nor should we be for choosing not to.

Our identities are complex, and no matter what side of us comes out, it still belongs to us.  

So we can love our macaroni and cheese, we can love our palak paneer, and we can love eating both together.  

The point is that we will always be our lovely, unique selves.  And our voices are too important to go unheard!

 


 

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