Tag Archives: All India Radio

Of Bridges Crossed: My Fulbright Experience

I am an executive coach, motivational speaker, senior corporate trainer & English Announcer with the Overseas Division of All India Radio. I was also the youngest communication instructor of the award-winning all-women cabin crew of India’s largest airline. 

My childhood dream

I am the only son of a brave single mother, an Army daughter, who brought me up by herself, overcoming every challenge that life threw at us. My dad, an eminent barrister, passed away when I was very young and since then, I have seen life’s trials through formative experiences. I belong to a family of nation builders; my paternal grandfather N.B. Laha was a freedom fighter who received the prestigious Tamara Patra from the Indian Prime Minister and my maternal grandfather received several medals for distinguished service in the Army.  I always wanted to represent my nation abroad and that dream came true when I won the Fulbright scholarship, one of the most prestigious academic awards in the world.

It has been an amazing experience to be representing India as a Fulbright scholar and cultural ambassador in the United States. I vividly remember my excitement when I my plane touched down in Portland, Oregon. I instantly fell in love with the beautiful city of Eugene, where  I attended my summer orientation at the University of Oregon. I had a unique opportunity to meet so many people, from amazing professors to friendly fellow Fulbrighters from across the world. The evening of live country music next to the lake in a ranch setting shall remain etched in my memory forever. But most importantly, I held high the Indian flag, an honor that I had earned as a Fulbrighter.

As a Fulbright scholar, I am a faculty member at the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.. Living, working and studying in Washington DC has been a very fulfilling experience. Teaching American students Hindi in the political capital of the world gives me a chance to project my country in a positive manner and promote the best that Indian culture has to offer.

My first days in America were spent in hunting for rental accommodation. There were occasions when I felt like I was Harry Potter sitting on his trunk, waiting for the Knight Bus to arrive! I stayed in hotels and guest houses, before I finally found an apartment. The bright side of this itinerant experience  is that I managed to find a place, which is loated just 20 minutes from the White House.

When I first stepped into the classroom at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)  at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, I immediately noticed how different the environment was, vis-a-vis India. Back home, students  wouldn’t dare to eat sandwiches and sip on coffee while attending a lecture, but here this behavior was considered to be totally normal. Almost every student carries a Macbook with them and during the lecture, they are constantly taking notes. Teaching Hindi to career-oriented future diplomats and policy-makers means that I have to make my native language easy and interesting for my students. Grammar can be tricky, so I use a lot of examples. Some students are really interested to learn the correct intonation for sentences, so that they sound like a native speaker when in India. In fact, they want to pronounce each word perfectly, even though we native speakers often take the liberty to play around with the pronunciation of many words. Students take keen interest in South Asia and the geo-political developments there. While many students are  “heritage learners,”- born to immigrant parents who want their children to learn Indian language and culture, there are others who seek to work in South Asia and are learning the language as it is crucial for their success. Being a cultural ambassador of my country, I strive to enhance their knowledge of the diversity in India, be it food, religion, culture, language or the surroundings. Moreover, I am a trained musician and singer, so I use old Hindi songs as a tool to explain language and culture.

In India, students often look up to teachers as the Guru, who takes the final decision about everything. Here in America, teachers are given a lot of respect, but students get an equal say in discussions. And they have the right to disagree with the professor’s view on a certain topic. In India, that’s something that might not be appreciated.  Before a professor takes a final decision about assignments, it is important to negotiate buy-in from students in the class, keeping in mind their tight schedule and exams.

Studying American foreign policy, English and French at Johns Hopkins University has certainly contributed to my growth as an academic scholar in a big way. I felt very happy the day my English professor, a former US Ambassador, told me that I was a gifted speaker. I learnt advanced speaking techniques for panel discussions, press briefings, persuasive speeches and policy debates.  The French classes at SAIS have helped me gain confidence as a novice French speaker and the song Je te le donne is one of my all-time favorites now! Attending panel discussions, conferences and events has become second nature to me..  I was proud to showcase Indian culture during the Fulbright mid-year conference, an event that brought together 400 Fulbright language teachers, where I even spoke to Assistant Secretary of State Ms. Marie Royce expressing my wish to meet the US President and that I aspire to become the Prime Minister of India in the future. She was very impressed and encouraged me to continue working towards my goal.

In the years to come, I shall remember celebrating Christmas night in Times Square, New York. To add to the excitement, I was able to give my mother the best birthday gift ever–an evening in Manhattan, on the world-famous Fifth Avenue, to be precise. The view of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty was truly one to remember, as were the taste of the one-dollar pizza and the experience of travelling on the NYC subway.  On the other hand, the Baltimore Harbor offered me the chance to enjoy fresh seafood and a chance to see submarines, ships and boats, all at the same place.

My time at Johns Hopkins University has been very eventful. I recently attended the India Initiative conference at Georgetown University, where I got a chance to meet the charismatic former US Ambassador to India Richard Verma and the historian Ramachandra Guha, among others.  My experience as a champion debater was put to great use when I coached SAIS students who are participating in this year’s Hindi debate at Yale University. And to top it all, I was invited to speak as a panelist at the main campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where I shared my Fulbright experience with current students, encouraging them to explore their interest in India through a Fulbright grant. At the end of my address, a student walked up to me. She was from Africa and told me that she could really connect with what I said and felt really inspired to do something for her country.  The university now plans to make this an annual event and administrators thanked me for this idea.

My Fulbright year ends next month, but I shall take back with me an incredible experience, many fond memories and yes, a congratulatory letter from the US President. The initial culture shock, shopping at the supermarket, attending classes at SAIS, promoting my language and culture, stringing together words in French and excelling in my English classes – each experience has been valuable. The United States shall always have a special place in my heart, for it is a country that recognizes and rewards real talent.

Gaurav Laha is a Fulbright scholar working at Johns Hopkins University. 

A Life of Melodies and Memories.

Every so often, you come across individuals who leave a lasting impact on you. They hold within them the wisdom of life experience – which cannot compare with academic laurels or material worth. Their stories can be likened to a well aged wine of a full-bodied flavor, enriched by many layers of emotions and experiences. But one common trait they share is a spirit of gratitude and humility.

If you met Seetha Ramakrishnan on the street, you’d see at first glance, an Indian woman of mature years, walking along briskly with her two ‘grandkids’, Zook and Miki – her daughter Radhika’s pets. She will greet you with a smile and walk on.

It is only when you spend time with her, that you realize her remarkable attributes. She has the ability to understand the subtleties and nuances of people across age groups. And she possesses a sense of humor that belies the hardships she has faced along her life’s journey. Of course, she will make light of these revelations saying “that was then… this is NOW”. A person could spend their entire lifetime learning this ability to live in the moment.

The youngest of 10 children, born into a family of modest means, Seetha learned to ‘make do’ from an early age. Her story reads like a movie script, when she speaks of long walks to the bus stop to get to school in Kuruvayur, a small Kerala village of her birth. She remembers those times, with a matter-of-fact attitude. Her sisters married early, as was the norm, but Seetha managed to complete her SSLC – 10th grade. When the family moved to Mumbai, Seetha lived with her brother’s family. Learning to live with people of varying personalities and dispositions were part of her early learning experience, and has served her well throughout her life.

Music was a familiar backdrop in her early years. Her sisters could sing, but did not receive formal training. At her brother’s home in Mumbai, Seetha began learning music formally after completing her 10th grade education. Her brother was a respected dance teacher. And in that environment, Seetha received initial training on the violin by Shri. A. Narayana Iyer and his daughter, N.Rajam – who is one of the most renowned violinists of our time. She relates how difficult it was to start training at the age of 17. But she persisted. And so began a musical journey that zigzagged its path from Mumbai, to Coimbatore, and back again.  Her teachers – Smt. Meenakshi Vishwanathan, and the famous Kovai Kannan brothers – helped further her musical growth.

Along the way, music transformed into a teaching career, quite by chance, when a neighbor requested that she teach her kids. And then came the dawning awareness of wanting to be financially independent in order to be able to continue her own musical education. Completing a Stenographers course which led to a paying job, aided the process. Teaching music also enhanced her own learning. Whether it was necessity that created opportunity, or passion that gave shape to it, she found herself beginning to enjoy teaching.

Marriage at the age of 26, brought with it another change of role. And with it came limitations of a different sort. A joint family meant more adjustments, and a need to find her place within its framework. But her passion for music and teaching never waned. They shaped her identity. Later in life came hardships in the form of her husband’s ill heath. Seetha found herself in the position of being the sole earner, providing for the family both emotionally and financially. The forward-facing attitude inculcated through her early life, and a deep abiding faith in her music, got her through those trying times.

Balancing family life and teaching, Seetha managed to accompany many eminent vocalists on stage. And she was also an ‘AIR’, All India Radio artist for 25 years. Despite the recognition and growing fame, she considers her influence on her children as the greatest feather in her cap. Her children grew up around music, learning by listening while she taught. And then beginning their training under her care. Her son, Kumar, preferred the Mridangam. While her daughters, Radhika and Ranjani took up the violin and went on to win accolades, perform and teach – a testament to their mother’s passion, resonating with their own.

Radhika Iyer, is a prolific California based musician. She balances her job as a Finance Strategist, with her musical journey, which has taken her down interesting roads. Radhika plays Western and Indian Classical music on a seven-string fretted violin called the ‘viper’. She is also an author, songwriter, session musician and record producer.

Ranjani Ramakrishnan divides her time between Chennai and the U.S, playing on the Carnatic concert circuit, and teaching the violin. She has performed extensively including the most revered World Festival of Sacred Music at the James Armstrong theatre and the Cleveland festival. The musician visits the US in March-April before the Cleveland Aradhana Festival, to train kids who participate in the events. The sisters have collaborated on albums and play duets occasionally.

As for Seetha, at age 78, the enduring love affair with her violin continues. She now considers her music as a service to humanity. While it brought with it financial help and support when the need arose, she firmly believes that it is a form of the Divine  – enriching her life, and those of many she has managed to touch through the ages. She is known by many labels – Daughter, Sister, Wife, Amma, Aunty, Musician, Teacher and Thaati (grandmother). She gives of herself without hesitation, with loving kindness.

Her parting comment to me was profound – “My learning never ends. It has taken a different route – inwards”. Hers is a life, shaped by circumstance, as much as by her passion for her violin.

A full life – a synergetic union between the bow and the string.

This is a tribute in words during Women’s History Month for a woman I am proud to know.