When I was a child, my parents often told me I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up. They would be proud whether I was a clown or doctor, so long as I tried my best and enjoyed what I did. With these assurances, I was not in the least bit uneasy when it became clear that my passions had sauntered into the precarious territory of the arts. To some Indian parents, my love for sketching and poetry may have been worthy of a scoff closely followed by a lecture about the merits of medical school. Certainly that scoff might have become a scowl when they saw the state of my physics grades! Luckily for me, I received nothing but encouragement and was packed off to a fabulous camp two summers in a row to hone my skills in creative writing.
Only a few years ago I would have called the existence of my “liberal” parents a stroke of undeserving luck—a cultural anomaly paralleled only by the startling pursuits of Parminder Nagra, the soccer prodigy of Bend it like Beckham! Nowadays, however, one need only look to the likes of Russell Peters, Aziz Ansari, or Mindy Kaling, each strutting into the limelight in full South Asian-American glory, to wonder whether the tradition-oriented, Indian parent is a steadfast reality or a fading stereotype. The best way to find the answer is to direct the attention to those who would be truly affected by potential change—the ambitious youth of today walking the path of unusual careers.
It is not unusual to find Indian youths pursuing the classical arts, but you are more likely to find them warbling Karnatik melodies or thakathaiya-ing to intricate bharatanatyam footwork. One young singer who is pursuing a very different classical direction is Simran Arora Afsah from Washington, D.C. Afsah is an aspiring opera singer who is entering her fourth year at Indiana University. She is working on acquiring two degrees—one in voice performance and another in environmental policy. Ironically, her pursuits in music began with classical Indian. She took Hindustani classical music lessons for eight years and is a trained kuchipudi dancer. At age 10, her interest took a turn for the West when she auditioned for a children’s classical choir at the Peabody Institute, John Hopkins’ music conservatory. Here she took voice lessons and her ambitions blossomed.
Is it rare for an Indian-American to try and master such a unique art? Well … not entirely, it appears. Afsah claims that, in fact, there are many other Indian-Americans pursuing opera, “There are less of us than most races, but it really isn’t some crazy rarity anymore!”
After five years of college, Afsah hopes to begin her career as an opera singer. She plans to base herself in Munich, Germany where, with luck and a few references from her German music teacher, she hopes to find contacts in the business. Any parent would shudder at the boldness of this plan, but Arora’s parents are supportive and ready for the risks. “My parents’ one rule is that I have to do two degrees in case singing doesn’t work out,” she explains, “that way, I won’t be jobless my whole life.”
It seems the main concern amongst many parents today is the risk that accompanies an uncertain trade, like opera. Perhaps their hesitation now has less to do with reputation and more to do with parental concern.
In the SF Bay Area, Rohith Santosh Jayaraman is courting a slightly different musical interest. A sophomore at Berklee College of Music in Boston, one of the largest contemporary music schools in the country, Jayaraman is majoring in Music Therapy and Professional Music, which focuses on business and production. Musical therapy is an established health profession in which music is used to soothe the physical, emotional, cognitive and social problems of individuals. Jayaraman became interested in this unique field because it combined two important aspects of his life. “Music has always been my foremost passion,” states the youth, “but I am also involved in working with a school for people with mental and physical disabilities. Music Therapy brought two of the biggest parts of my life together.”
Like Afsah, Jarayaman has also noticed a growing number of Indian-Americans popping up in unexpected careers. “I have friends who are considering art therapy, dance, musical theatre, and film/stage acting.” He insists, “Just at Berklee, there are probably about 50-100 Indians (that I only know of) … It’s just really heartening to see Indians branching out.”
Although music therapy is a less radical career option than opera, Jayaraman’s own parents took some convincing. While his mother, the singer, Asha Ramesh, fully supported his dreams, his father was hesitant. “He was just unsure of my determination and my dedication to it [music therapy]. He was worried about what sources of income existed after college, if I would lose my core general education studies, and if I would be able to secure a long term job.”
Jayaraman switched from a traditional to an unconventional path when the stress of self-inflicted expectations grew unbearable. “I took AP Biology in high school because I thought my options as an Indian American were either engineering or medicine … I found that I just didn’t enjoy the material in that class so I was a little lost.”
Indian-American youths like Rohith can feel burdened by the expectations, caused by the potency of stereotypes. It is difficult not to feel foolish when you are in a lower math section at school and are often told, “All Indians are good at math.” Society has a duty to remove these expectations and free children to explore new and different fields without the pressure of stereotypes. It seems to me that if change is happening, then it is because young people like Jayaraman are beginning to put their own wants above what Indians are supposed to want.
Madhulika Krishnan, a sophomore at University of Southern California, is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree with a specialization in Theater Arts. The BFA degree is a rigorous program that covers every aspect of acting training and technique. Krishnan has always been very confident about her future. “I guess nothing really excited me more than theater (growing up),” she explains, “and while I did have other interests (Broadcast Journalism, Psychology etc.) I realized that I wouldn’t be as satisfied doing those things, as I would be acting.”
Krishnan’s parents are also very supportive. They help her with applications and auditions, harboring only the smallest amount of doubt, as any parent would. “My parents are very liberal,” she says, “but my mother’s a bit nervous about the whole thing because I could very well end up without a job.”
Although she has faced no lectures from her parents, Krishnan, like Jayaraman, has felt pressure from other sources. In this case that censure is her community. “I was definitely irritated by the disapproving looks I’d receive starting freshman year of high school, when I’d tell Indian parents of friends what I was interested in,” she recounts, “they’d judge me because I didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear.”
This pressure is shared by many Indian-American youths across the country. Some say competition brings out the worst in people, and often times it is the primary reason for someone to abandon their dreams for a more traditional career choice. But luckily for Krishnan she has managed to overlook the speculations of those freshman year parents.
“After a while I didn’t care,” states Krishnan, “you honestly can’t be happy unless you’re doing what you love.” It is probably this kind of attitude that is affecting masses of young Indian-Americans today and nudging them onto their own paths regardless of expectation.
The Big Change?
Are South Asians beginning to change their views on non-traditional fields? And if so, why is it happening now? Jayaraman believes the answer lies in a generational switch “We’re at this transitional period, I think, with the Indian-American population.” He explains, “A lot of kids who were the first in their families to be born in the States now have kids of their own. When you have parents who grew up pretty much as Americans, you’re going to see a lot more open mindedness in terms of their own children’s careers.”
The rising third generation have a more Americanized view of the world. But what of the large majority of Indian-Americans whose parents are still first generation? Krishnan believes that it is the pervasive influence of the surrounding environment. “Those who have immigrated here are being immersed with people so different from themselves—people who are focused less on tradition and family values and more on individualism. Living here compels you to adapt to that way of life. I even know a lot of Indian parents who have abandoned certain careers very late in their lives to do something that makes them happy.”
Individualism is an influential and fundamental concept in America that permeates all corners of this society. It is not unlikely that it has tempted some to rediscover themselves and their passions. Indeed Shabnam Afsah (Simran Afsah’s mother) experienced such rediscovery after she was denied the opportunity to pursue music. “When I was young and got accepted as a student by some of the most famous Indian singers, my father absolutely put his foot down,” claims the elder Afsah, “I guess, once I got to the United States (I came for a graduate degree at a law school) I was out of my dad’s control and then I could do what I wanted to do … I actually went back to music and learned for 12+ years here.” Afsah admits that she wishes to kindle her daughter’s passion for opera because she lacked the opportunity to do so herself at a young age. “I remember my own disappointment at that moment and was certainly not going to put my child through that!”
It seems that by moving to America some parents, who caved to their own parent’s desires and followed traditional paths, are seeing new opportunities to recreate their views of professions that once were considered “non-traditional” and re-focus on the individual, whether that be themselves or their children.
But then again, perhaps the change lies not in the parent, but in the child. Jayaraman considers social maturity to be another force for change. “I think kids really are becoming more independent and confident,” he states.“I don’t know if it’s so much standing up to their parents as it is just having the ability to have a mature and adult conversation with them.” This maturity could be the result of individualism. Is it impossible to consider that the youth of today might have absorbed some of the omnipresent ideals of free speech and freedom of choice that are characteristic of this country?
Certainly for many Indian teens today, there is still a nagging reason to pursue the path of conventional academics; a pressure that seems to point down a one-way road to respect and acceptance. This type of pressure has always been an expected fragment of life as an Indian-American or even just simply as an Indian. But as more and more Indian-Americans are visibly succeeding in the arts with the support of their parents, it is hard not to conclude that change is indeed rolling down over the horizon.
Whether this possible change is due to a new generation of liberal parents or the strengthened wills of the new youth, or both, I know I, and many of my peers, will certainly not stand in its way as it tumbles into our lives and opens up doors of possibility that the youth of the past never had.
Viveka Kymal is a senior at Scarsdale High School in Scarsdale, New York. This article was written while she interned at India Currents this summer.