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Global Indians: how desis won over the art world

You know those people who disdainfully say "Indians, they're everywhere!" Show them this Brunch copy. Let them have a good look at how their brethren - in every corner of the world - have taken India to greater heights. Filmmakers, actors, jazz singers, rappers, TV show creators and stand-ups – with their works, they again prove that being brown is awesome.

brunch Updated: Jan 25, 2014 19:26 IST
Team Brunch
Team Brunch
Hindustan Times

You've heard of India shining on the global arena. Locally born immigrants, NRIs and persons of Indian origin have held top jobs in business, medicine, science, technology, writing, even politics. They've all made the headlines. And deservedly so.

This story is not about them.

It's about India's other tales of success abroad. Of those who've followed their heart to avenues less explored by the desi diaspora. Of 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 our global Indians speak no Hindi; others are die-hard Bollywood fans. 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".

Navina Haidar, 48 Curator, USA

If, on your next trip to New York, you 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 Haidar, and contains the best of the 12,000 items (calligraphy, metalwork, ceramics, and painting) from the Met's Islamic collection across 13 centuries. It also makes her responsible for one of the most comprehensive repositories of Islamic Art in the West, at a time when the religion is viewed with such suspicion.

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.

How is the collection different from the Met's previous Islamic galleries?

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.

Did the 9/11 attacks and the radicalised perception of Islam influence your idea for the new galleries?

The 9/11 attacks 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 even meaning and power for the general public.

You've stayed at various points in India, UK, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and the US. Do you feel very 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 you keep track of Bollywood...

Yes 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.

What is the best part about being a desi in New York?

The fact that NYC lets you be a proud desi here.

- Aasheesh Sharma

Sameer Bhattacharya, 29, USA

Growing up in Texas, Sameer Bhattacharya was, in how own words, a "science nerd", awkward, bespectacled, a child of parents born in Delhi and Varanasi just trying to fit in. "I didn't really find my place until I picked up a guitar, and then I was the kid that played the guitar," he says. "It gave me something cool to hide behind, which was comforting. Few wanted to talk about dark energy and the expanding universe; they wanted to talk about music."

But Bhattacharya puts plenty of his energy and his universe into music as the lead guitarist of the Texan hard rock band Flyleaf. He turns his own experiences into broken poetry, often doing the backing vocals for Flyleaf's alternative metal/ hard rock/ heavy metal/ nu metal/ post-grunge/ alternative rock/ post-hardcore/Christian music.

Your Twitter bio describes you as 'that brown guy in Flyleaf' and someone who 'can't fix your computer'. Clearly being brown brings advantages and stereotypes...

The best part about being 'that brown guy in Flyleaf' is that I'm the only one! That and listening to people attempt [to pronounce] my last name. I have to fix my parent's computer every time I visit. GET A MAC!

What's being part of a band like?

When it comes to writing new music, there are so any different approaches that it could fill volumes. Typically we get into a room and begin hashing out ideas (lyrics, melodies, guitar riffs), picking out what sticks and working on them. Someone might have an entire song that works, or we'll rip it apart and fuse it to another idea. These sessions can last anywhere from three to 14 hours, and repeat for several days depending on how many songs we want to write. We shoot for one song a day.

Live shows are an entirely different beast. Loud, high energy, and emotional. It's like setting off fireworks in a tin mailbox. The place won't be the same after we're finished.

Is there anything typically Indian about you?

I drink entirely too much tea and am over-analytical to a fault. I assume everyone to be as hospitable as my family was [when I was] growing up, so I have to be extra conscious when invading someone else's space. I've realised that kind of hospitality is almost strictly an Eastern cultural thing. Also, I'm late to everything. We call it BST (Bhattacharya Standard Time).

- Shreya Sethuraman

Tina Sugandh, 36, songwriter, tabla player, guitarist, dancer, actor, USA

She's multi-talented and super hot. Mumbai-born Tina Sugandh is one of the world's few female tabla maestros and the next big thing in world music. She's taught ex-Beatle Ringo Starr how to play the instrument and collaborated with him on an album in 2009. She's been the main cast (with her husband, Tarz) of a reality show called Newlyweds, and has recorded over 60 songs. Hailing from a musical family, she started performing professionally at age five. While most kids were off with their friends on the weekends, Sugandh would be off on a musical adventure with her family in New Jersey. It's given her an identity and flavour that's both global and uniquely Indian.

Which musical instrument would you say is your first love?

Although I started playing drums and guitar first, tabla is my first love! I just played it because it made my mom's eyes sparkle, which meant the absolute world to me. But the more I played, the more I fell in love with it. It's damn intricate! Each of your fingers is doing something individually, which is rare for any instrument. I started playing at age eight, and it took me three years to really achieve that crisp, solidified, perfect sound from each of my fingers. There is nothing like that feeling of freedom in your fingers as you dictate the pace of a song. I admit, I've loved proving everyone wrong. At performances with my family when I was younger, I'd sit at the tabla to tune it, and everyone would look at me thinking "Oh, that's so cute that she's tuning the tabla for her daddy". Then I would bust out some intricate beat on the tabla, and their mouths would drop. I definitely loved showing people that it's not just a man's instrument!

You seem to be enjoying being Indian in America...

Although I was raised in America, I feel there are a lot of typical Indian things about me. Growing up performing and singing in seven different languages has really taught me a ton about the music, the culture, as well as Bollywood movies, which I'm absolutely addicted to! Then there's Indian food, which I could eat all day and night, and love to cook it as well. Also, I love anything multi-colour with sequins and glitter - the louder and gaudier the better. (Although, I'm not sure if that's 'Bollywood' or just me growing up in New Jersey!)

Any Bollywood favourites?

My favourite Bollywood movie will always be Namak Halal, because I must have watched it 8 billion times as a child. I love "Mere dholna" from Bhool Bhulaiya, "Jab Se Tere Naina" from Saawariya and currently I love dancing to "Agal Bagal" from Phata Poster Nikhla Hero with my new baby boy. My favourite actor right now is Shahid Kapoor, because I am a sucker for a great dancer, and he's absolutely adorable too! Tarz and I both fell in love with Kajol after seeing Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham years ago!

- Shreya Sethuraman

Vivek Mahbubani, 31 Comic, Hong Kong

All his life, Hong Kong-born Vivek Mahbubani's only ambition was to take up a job that would allow him to wake up after 9am. "So if I would be flipping burgers, it would have to be the night shift at McDonald's." He trained as a web designer and developer, but enjoyed watching stand-up comedy so much, he vowed to try it at least once before he would "die". The rest, as they say, is material for a prime-time act. He saw an ad for a stand-up contest, participated and won the Chinese category in 2007. Then in 2008, he tried again and won the English round too. That did it. He posted a clip of himself doing stand-up comedy in Cantonese and English and it went viral. His site and the You Tube channel took off, and Mahbubani probably hasn't had to wake up early without reason ever since.

What's your act about? Any fond performances?

It's about life. I love observing the world around me and working and polishing them to make into something funny. I love comedy. I watch around 20 to 40 minutes of it before I sleep. One of my most memorable experiences was when I was asked to perform for terminally-ill patients and their families. It meant a lot to me because for all I know, this may have been the first time these families laughed together in a long, long time. One of the patients was too sick to attend, so he made me a little microphone sculpture using small beads as an apology. He just had one request, to have a photo of me holding it. It reminded me that what I was doing was more powerful than simply telling jokes. It was giving people an experience of laughter and happiness unlike any other.

What makes you tick?

Again, it's life. I enjoy trying to bend reality so I can see it from a new perspective and retell a story or situation based on an angle most people would ignore. For example, it's common for people to joke about Indians bobbing our heads when we speak. But I take it one step further, suggesting that if that was the case, everyone would bob their heads at different frequencies, which means you would have a country full of people speaking at different pitches -the higher the frequency of bobbing, the higher the pitch!

Have you ever been to India? Would you want to perform here?

Yes, I have, to visit family. I did a short guest spot at The Comedy Store in Mumbai. I would love to return and I see this getting slotted into my touring schedule soon.

- Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi

Asif Kapadia, Filmmaker, London

London-born Asif Kapadia's best-known film is Senna (2012), an honest, high-octane, footage-only look at the '80s racing legend. It's the highest grossing British documentary of all time in the UK. He's filmed, among other works, the acclaimed Far North (2007) in the Arctic Tundra, and The Warrior (2001) in Rajasthan's desert. At the 2013 London Olympics, only four filmmakers were commissioned to create films - he was one of them. So if you're looking for hours of great cinema, Kapadia's your man.

But if all you have is five minutes, consider his video recreating the forcible nose-to-stomach feeding inmates undergo at Guantanamo. You'll recoil, you'll turn away and back again, you'll find a new definition of inhumanity - well before those five minutes are up.

Kapadia's eye is currently trained on an Amy Winehouse biopic, and he's "in talks" for a film about Sachin Tendulkar. Not bad at all, considering he didn't care for films as a kid…

You grew up in a family that loves films and sports. Did your career choice go down well with them?

As a kid in '70s north London, I didn't have the attention span for the VHS tapes my parents would play. I discovered my love for films only when I began working on one as a teen. My parents were very supportive. I'm the youngest of five kids and my parents essentially believed that to let kids be happy, you just let them be.

Kids who juggle two cultures usually find it hard to adjust…

Yes. But you're also in an interesting place because you get to go backwards and forwards a lot to find the balance between your heritage and your present. You realise that you can have the best of both worlds and be a person of the world. Many people used to think that they had to leave India to do well. But I don't believe it today. The world is getting smaller and lots of great stuff is coming out of India.

So what kind of connection do you have to the country your parents came from?

I lot of my films, regardless of their subject, carry an element of spirituality. And I visit once a year. I love Bombay and also head to Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. I love the places and the people there. - Rachel Lopez

Sachal Vasandani, age withheld, singer, USA

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. It felt like "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."

A brown person in jazz. What does that feel 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 nothing I can't handle.

What's on your plate right now?

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?'.

The best thing about being Indian American?

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 we take for granted. - Mignonne Dsouza

Rudresh Mahanthappa, 42, musician, USA

Rudresh Mahanthappa is a true global Indian. His parents are from Karnataka, but he was born in Italy, and raised in the US. His wife is Gujarati, which makes his son Talin (named after an obscure avatar of Shiva) truly mixed. But when he takes to the saxophone, all of that 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 wild about the kids becoming musicians because just being good is not 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.

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.

Are you happy with the way things turned out then?

I see my artistic trajectory always expanding, actually. 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.

You didn't grow up in India. Do you miss anything about it?

I definitely miss the food - Chettinad cuisine, and all the seafood. Where I live now, in New Jersey, to find a south Indian restaurant, I need to get in the car and drive at least 30 minutes, but a paratha is a block away.

- Mignonne Dsouza

Nisha Pahuja, Canada

Nisha Pahuja's best known film The World Before Her (2012) juxtaposes two extremes of India - the conservative right and the liberal capitalist - through two camps for women. The former, Durga Vahini, is a never-filed-before militant Hindu fundamentalist camp for girls; the latter a month-long beauty camp for Miss India contestants. The film appeared on a number of top 10 film lists for 2012 and won several awards. She also directed Bollywood Bound (2002) about a quartet of Indo-Canadians who travel to India to make it big in Bollywood, and Diamond Road (2007), a three-part series on the global diamond trade. Born in Delhi and raised in Canada, she spends her time between Mumbai and Toronto.

The World Before Her shows two different kinds of women… could you relate to either of them?

I related to both kinds of women in the film! In many ways the struggles that they are all undergoing are the struggles I went through as a young NRI growing up in a conservative family in the West, not really belonging in either world and carving a space that allowed me to be what I was.

Tell us about your five favourite Indian films. In no particular order and more than five!

Silsila: Marked my teenage years and Rekha was an icon that all young NRI women wanted to emulate, especially in that film. At the time it was a brave film tackling a subject most filmmakers wouldn't touch.

Chak De! India: Because I can watch Shah Rukh in anything, and when he's the coach of an all-girl team getting them and the larger society to rethink what it means to be a girl, even better!

London, Paris, New York: Incredible writing, great direction and amazing chemistry made this one of the best Bollywood films I have seen in a long time.

Mr. And Mrs. Iyer: Great story, wonderful writing and acting.

Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay and The Namesake by Mira Nair: She gets incredible performances from her actors and all her films are full of love and real richness in terms of characters.

Ship of Theseus: A beautiful film told masterfully, with elegance and I think it will inspire so many young filmmakers here to start experimenting with conventional form.

Kaminey, and really all films by Vishal Bhardwaj: He is a brilliant filmmaker. There were moments in Kaminey that still give me goosebumps.

How did you find out about the Durga Vahini and how exactly did you manage to get access?

One of the women featured in my film, Prachi, told me about the group and the camps. The minute she did, I knew I had to get access. It took nearly two years and involved me getting to know many people in the movement. The thing that people most respond to in the film is how non-judgemental it is of either world. I think the reason I got access to the Durga Vahini is that people knew I was not going to judge or sensationalise the issues. And they knew that because we built a relationship of mutual respect and humanity in spite of how different our political beliefs are.

- Saudamini Jain

Mindy Kaling, 34 and TV star, USA

Elle USA just put Mindy Kaling on the 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 no-booze 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 Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, And Other Concerns. The US-born half-Tamil, half-Bengali (whose real name is 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!

Which is the harder stereotype to break, Indian, women, comedian, chubby, boss or writer?

That is a very interesting question. I am in a fix now; all of these are quite strong stereotypes. The greatest challenge is of a women writer. 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.

Be honest. Do many Indians tell you that you should just have a regular safe job like other brown people?

Major adulations I receive are from women, which in a way make 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!

When was the last time you had a good laugh?

Just recently I was out with my friends for dinner. I was having a very serious conversation with a friend when I happened to mishear what he said as something nasty and weird. You know how it is… I had a mighty laugh. Eventually it turned out to be a laughter riot amongst all of us.

- Rachel Lopez

Veena Sud

TV-show creator, Canada, USA

Who killed Rosie Larsen? If you've been hooked to cult crime show The Killing, you can't have missed Veena Sud in the credits. But Veena Cabreros-Sud, the Canadian-born, half-Indian, half-Filipino, TV writer-director-producer is more than a bunch of hyphenated epithets. She was hanging around brothels and chatting with prostitutes in Ohio at age 15, researching a screenplay. She's borrowed from real life and real talk for detective shows like Cold Case. And she's turned slow procedural investigative work into an addictive Emmy-nominated whodunit with The Killing. Like she needed another hyphen!

You grew up on Filipino cinema and Bollywood. Was growing up easy with your mixed heritage?

I grew up with an Indian dad and a Filipina mom who met in New Jersey in the 1960s. I was born in Toronto but grew up in southern Ohio. Very few of my schoolmates even knew what an Indian was; they thought I was Native American. But my dad made sure we grew up understanding our heritage and visiting India in the summers. Our Indian community organisation hosted a screening of Gandhi when it came out. I just drank it in! I saw it many, many times - I was that hungry for images of Indians in mainstream American culture. I think I memorised every line.

There's a lot to watch on American TV today and a lot of it is good. What does it take to make, and sustain a good show?

A commitment to the story, to its twists and turns, its surprises, allowing the story to come to you over time, to be open to it. Also a commitment to a character, even when the character is "dark" or does things that are uncomfortable or challenging.

What part of your Indian heritage do you hold dear today?

Every single part. It is who I am.

Entertainment and TV are seen as a less prestigious career option here. Any advice for those who dream of making it in TV?

Do what you love, that's the only way to live. And your parents will appreciate it when they see "Executive Producer" above your name and all their friends see it too. Follow your dreams always.

- Rachel Lopez

Ashok Kondabolu, 27 artist, dancer, content creator, USA

You know him as the 'hype' man for off-kilter hip-hop group Das Racist. You also know him as stand-up comic Hari Kondabolu's younger brother. You definitely know him from Chillin' Island, those quirky webisodes veer from eccentric to plain crazy. What you don't know is that Kondabolu's folks migrated to New York from a small village in Andhra Pradesh in the '70s; he grew up in Queens, dropped out of college because, well, he was bored, and did many odd jobs like "listing 15,000 mobile phones individually on Craigslist for some Punjabi dealer."

These days, Kondabolu is working on podcast and live show, The Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Project, with Hari. His parents still don't understand what he does for a living. His mom believes that he does some "unorthodox, weird stuff" and his dad thinks he "sings and dances".

Das Racist is over. You're doing a bit of radio and some sketch comedy online. What are you really up to?

Nothing actually! I've always wanted to make weird TV, radio shows and do weird art, interview strange, interesting people that I would not be able to meet otherwise. And I am doing just that. I really needed the freedom to not wake up before 10am and I am doing just that.

What's it like being a brown pop culture vulture in America?

I don't see how my being Indian affects my pop culture vulture reputation. But yes, being brown is interesting. The best thing about being brown is not being white. And that I don't have to use any sunscreen.

What connects you to India other than your genes?

Well obviously that I have Indian parents, that I eat awesome Andhra curry quite frequently, and that I am always perceived as an 'Indian guy'.

What was the last Bollywood movie you watched?

Hey, I am a south Indian boy so ask me about Tollywood movies and I'll tell you everything. I think I've seen hundreds of them. Oh wait, I think I watched Mohabbatein 13 years ago, but I can't be certain. - Amrah Ashraf

Himanshu Suri, 29

Rapper, USA

Five years ago when Himanshu Suri was hustling for Goldman Sachs, he couldn't shrug a nagging base note he had heard while growing up. A Commerce graduate from Wesleyan University, Wall Street guy and an Indian kid from Queens, Suri defied his identity and became a rapper. "I am a brown educated rapper. Why do people expect rappers to be black and illiterate and poor? It's bizarre!" Suri exclaims.

Suri is also a rapper with his own record label - Greedhead. "I always found myself to be a business-minded person who happened to rap. I preferred chasing deals, managing and marketing [now defunct band] Das Racist to be more interesting," Suri says. "I thought just being an artist wouldn't be enough. I thought it was too elitist to just be an artist, I had to earn more for myself and the group."

How did an Indian boy become a global indie rap mogul?

I just prayed to Goddess Laxmi. She made it happen. No in all seriousness, I met the right people at the right time and I was always into music anyway.

You moved from making music to selling it. Why?

Why should producing good music and making good money be mutually exclusive? In fact, balancing the two is so important that Greedhead's logo is a stick figure in the lotus position with a dollar sign for its head - the battle between money and inner peace.

What was the last Bollywood movie you watched?

I watched Go Goa Gone last year in Mumbai. I quite liked it. But I've become quite fond of Bigg Boss 7. I enjoy the drama.

The best thing about being brown?

I guess since I'm not white, I have a 'real' culture to attach myself to. And the fact that I'm not black, the white institution isn't trying to lock me up to build more prisons and make more money.

- Amrah Ashraf

From HT Brunch, January 26
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First Published: Jan 25, 2014 17:36 IST