“India, like America, feeds and nourishes creative individuality. Just as Americans have been inspired by the archetype of the Cowboy, who wanders the open spaces in search of a dream, so Indians are inspired by the Yogi, who wanders inner spaces in search of realization,” claims The Cowboy and The Yogi, by Teed Rockwell. For those of you who don’t know, Rockwell wrote the India Current music column for decades and I carried on for a few years after him. Thus, it was an absolute honor and delight when we had a delightful conversation about his journey into India and Indianness.
The Cowboy and The Yogi is a glimpse into the Indian music scene over a span of roughly two decades, largely in the US, as documented by Rockwell. It is an intelligently curated collection of his own research, study, writings for his India Currents music columns, and blogs. Thus, it is a passionate, loving, intimate, insider view into Indian music combined with a sense of adventure. Sprinkled with anecdotal tidbits such as “first article commissioned by India Currents,” the book traces a path between classical music and its many representations, note-worthy performances, as well as its practitioners. Thus, the book, as Rockwell himself describes, talks about Indians and non-Indians performing Indian music, along with Indians performing non-Indian music. Chapter 9, “Indians Doing Cool Stuff” is about Roc Zonte, Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, Nitin Sawhney, Vijay Iyer, and Tony Kanal, who was one of the first people of Indian ancestry to become a Western rock star and to let the world know it.”
Rockwell is a musician himself (enjoy his fascinating introduction to his jugalbandi-friendly “Touchstyle Veena” here) and therefore it is all the more believable when he claims that “In the area of rhythm, Indian music is totally without peer.” The Cowboy and The Yogi acts as a guide to how to listen and appreciate Indian music, deliberately, through chapters such as “Listening to Indian music,” and also through his own discoveries. Such as “In Memoriam” where he rues the fact that he got to know much about the Masters and their genius when he was asked to write their obituaries. “Yogis all, but with more than a little cowboy in each of them,” he states, of Vilayat Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, and Bismillah Khan.
The book is also a portrait of the gurukul that existed within the campus of the AACM (Ali Akbar College of Music). Rockwell writes, “Classes included people from Germany, Argentina, …as well as Bengalis, Punjabis,…I remember a blond two-year-old who regularly came to class with her mother, and whose baby talk combined so many different languages…There was an atmosphere very like an Ashram…spiritually devoted to profound and enigmatic music.”
Rockwell, a Buddhist now, then does a CowBoy-Yogi-combined on you, as he dons his scholar lens and delves into Islam. This is poignant since many of the Masters of Indian music are of the Muslim faith. “I read the entire Koran in different translations, studied histories of both Muhammad’s life and the Islamic political empires, and read commentaries on the Koran and Hadith [the sayings attributed to Mohammed]. As a result of these studies, I have concluded that although many horrible things have been done in the name of Islam, a careful reading of Islamic sacred texts reveals that these behaviors are contrary to the teachings of Muhammad and to the most intelligent people who follow his spiritual path.”
The book is a must-read for those who seek soul-food, an intellectual-nudge, a musical historical journey, and an emotion-drenched read.
Here is an excerpt from our interview, the video can be found below:
IC: Tell us about how you got started with India and Indian music.
TR: In the West, there is a lot of interest in Orientalism. I grew up as a hippie in the sixties interested in an alternative to Christianity, western culture in general. But what I began to find out is that any generalization that includes both Punjabis and Koreans isn’t going to be worth much…There are tremendous differences between South Asians and East Asians, for example, and I spent a lot more time with South Asians…The thing that really got me interested in Indian Music, rather than feeling that it was some sort of meditation tool, was the band, Shakti – (John McLaughlin (guitar), L. Shankar (violin), percussionists Zakir Hussain (tabla) and T. H. “Vikku” Vinayakram (Ghatam) – live at Kennedy Center Washington D.C. I went out and bought my first set of tablas. Then I got the feeling, I got to study this!
IC: America is “free”, but you’ve said that Indians are also free to follow their own intuition…
TR: When I wrote my articles, people always said, oh you know the traditions never change, and people would say that’s the problem with India, that they need to be able to change their traditions. But every time I actually studied somebody who supposedly was preserving the tradition, they were always changing it! There was nobody who was just doing it the same way. You do go through this kind of training but then you always have to go through a period of throwing it off. I interviewed and did research on dozens maybe hundreds of artists when I was with India Currents; there was never anybody who wasn’t changing the tradition. They would preserve it but they would change it at the same time! Trying to operate without rules, I think it’s a real problem but having rules, recognizing that sometimes rules can be broken is a really important characteristic. Letting your intuition be more important than rules – I see that in Indians time and time again.
Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.
Raised in a small town in Maine, born to immigrant parents, it has indeed been a long journey in filmmaking for the Indian American writer and director, Mahesh Pailoor.
Having studied filmmaking at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and later honing the skills from various film schools, Mahesh did his first short film, Little India in 2001. It premiered at SXSW and screened at different film festivals around the world. He has also directed award-winning documentaries, commercials, and branded content.
On May 1st, 2020, he made his episodic television directing debut with NBC’s The Blacklist.
“I always wanted to be known as a visual storyteller, creating as many unique stories as I can. It has been a long journey so far and the goal was always to break into TV, meeting and networking with acclaimed directors. This Emerging Director program opened up a new universe for me and I would love to venture more in this space. Hopefully, this opportunity will pave for others,” opined the director.
Mahesh was chosen from 500 applicants for the NBC’s Emerging Director program, the network’s annual initiative for ethnically diverse male and gender non-binary directors.
Celebrating its 10 year anniversary, the program aims to increase representation among scripted series directors. It took Mahesh years of hard work, perseverance, and rejections before this golden opportunity knocked at his doorstep.
“I have been eyeing on this program for a while and had even applied once long back but did not get through. Though many networks offer such programs, the one offered by NBC is one of the best amongst them mainly because they offer lots of support, opportunity to shadow the directors, and then guarantee an episodic directing credit. The entire process involved the submission of my work and different levels of interviews. Once selected, my work was then sent to its different shows for the various teams to review. I was lucky enough to be chosen by the episodic directors of The Blacklist to shadow them,” said Mahesh Pailoor.
Lauding the team, Mahesh claims the experience on The Blacklist set in New York as invaluable, which helped him learn more about the nuances of television direction. “The shadowing experience was really amazing, especially to work with such experienced directors. Right from being on set, pre-production to post-production, it was great to have the first-hand experience. I got to work with them twice before embarking on my own directorial debut,” he said. “Once the crew knew me, they were really supportive as I ventured into directing. They were very cordial and rooted for me, which was the best part. The entire period with the team was phenomenal. To be a small part of this incredible series that has been running for seven seasons with remarkable characters, was an enriching experience,” added Mahesh.
Fascinated by his father’s video camera, Mahesh was attracted to the craft of storytelling at a very young age of 12. The captivating power of visuals made him realize its potency in communication and connecting with the minds of people. “The great stories around and the visual medium always inspired me.
Growing up, I realized the need for having more stories that I could relate to and which later steered my path into filmmaking,” recollected the director. Speaking further on how the representation of Indian Americans in Hollywood and American TV space has been evolving, he added, “Earlier, we could not relate to any characters on screen and the representation was very less. But things have changed over the last 3-5 years with more Indian Americans not just behind the camera but also in front of the camera. Even programs like NBC’s Emerging Director makes it more welcoming for all. Changes are evolving but still, there is a long way to go.”
Aiming at the television space for his immediate future plans, Mahesh is currently looking out to venture further into episodic direction. He is also co-writing a dramatic feature, an immigrant love story based on true events, which he also plans to direct with half setting in India and rest in the US.
Foreseeing a remarkable era for creativity and cinema, Mahesh concluded, “This is a golden time with so many digital platforms evolving, we get to watch such amazing content, accessible to all from anywhere around the world. The geographical barriers are disappearing and with the advancement of technology, anyone interested can now make a movie even with their iPhone and broadcast it. My advice to upcoming filmmakers is to grab this promising phase. Don’t wait for someone to say yes. If you have an amazing idea to share, then just do it. There is no need for a big crew or equipment, you can make something with friends. The goal should be to passionately follow your dreams and you will definitely find your way.”
Suchithra Pillai comes with over a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and the United States. In her spare time, you would either find her scribbling down some thoughts in the paper trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things or expressing her love for dance on stage.
Evergreen Valley High School. Tucked away in the middle of a quiet neighborhood in East San Jose, the blue and brown walls of the school burgeon with hopes, dreams and perhaps most dangerous — expectations.
The predominantly Asian-American school is ranked 79 out of 1334, for the best college prep public high school in California, and with an average ACT score of 31, the high academic standards of its students seems evident. In fact, EVHS is one of many increasingly competitive public high schools sending a significant percentage of students to the UC schools. (all statistics from niche.com)
But along with the academic rigor of public schools like EVHS come a vast array of mental health issues. According to Dr. Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin, the director and founder of Skills for Kids, Parents, and Schools, an organization that offers on site counseling services to children, educators, and parents in the Bay Area, two of the most prevalent mental health issues seen in high school campuses that she has supervised have been anxiety and depression. It’s no secret that Silicon Valley public schools in particular have been brought under severe media scrutiny for the increase in the number of suicides as a result of pressure to keep up with academic expectations. Of little acknowledgement in the factors influencing anxiety and depression is the impact that video-game and social media addiction can have in the lives of high schoolers today.
Dr. Marie-Natalie goes on to explain: “Five or ten years ago, we were seeing issues dealing with academic pressure, anxiety, an overdiagnosis of ADHD; it seems like all of these issues still exist, but the vast majority of calls I receive from schools and from distressed parents turns out to be related to video game addiction.”
Made to sustain continuous use, video games tap into the reward system of the brain — increasing dopamine, leading to a feeling of validated accomplishment, often resulting in an addicted and obsessed user base. “In the more privileged communities, issues of anxiety, like anxiety about performing academically goes hand in hand with a disconnection from social interaction. If young people spend all their free time on video games, as opposed to playing with one another, or interacting, or doing sports, then there’s a loss. There’s definitely a loss in terms of personal growth.” says Dr. Marie-Nathalie.
Video games facilitate a shift in social connections from being in person to online. The dissonance between the two seems to be characteristic of an era of Internet powered interactions, befitting (but not limited to) a Silicon Valley high school. Exchanging the quality of an in-person friendship for innumerable friends on online forums, like gaming communities, or social media platforms compromises the level of conversation between the two parties, and “interferes with the depth of the relationship — how meaningful it is.” The superficiality of the new standard is at the very least distracting — if not disturbing. Students are more likely to feel obligated to respond to a text, or check Instagram, thereby multitasking between their online presence and their academic work, resulting in prolonged hours of school work, and even a decrease in academic performance as a result of constant distraction.
A 2005 Psychological Science study, concludes: “a major reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential (is) their failure to exercise self-discipline,” quite common for today’s high schoolers. Dr. Marie-Nathalie concurs, explaining that the frontal lobe, responsible for self-discipline, is not fully developed until the twenties, leaving teenagers to grapple with the consequences of academic underperformance as a result of extreme distractions and lack of self-discipline without the benefits of a fully rational mind.
But how much do the video game addictions and social media interactions that comprise a majority of a student’s brain power have to do with mental health issues? After all, distraction doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. Inconvenient yes, but dangerous? This crucial issue is just beginning to be understood.
With the greater part of a high school student’s day being spent on social media platforms, or online gaming communities (widely considered to be an online social platform due to the elements of gaming chats), perceived validation from peers is often purely online, from the number of likes or comments on a post, often leading to an ascription of importance to maintaining surface deep relationships, and deriving self-worth from them. When the appropriate number of likes are not reached, self-esteem is impacted. According to a 2014 American Psychological Association study, “Social networking sites (SNSs), such as Facebook, provide abundant social comparison opportunities… indeed, the results showed that participants who used Facebook most often had poorer trait self-esteem, and this was mediated by greater exposure to upward social comparisons on social media.,” defining upward social comparisons as “a high activity social network, healthy habits, etc., .” Blows to self-esteem coupled with academic stress seems to be what drives students towards isolation, while at the same time instigating depression and performance anxiety.
Reversion to online activity, whether it be video gaming, or scrolling through Instagram suggests a sort of complacency, one that is reflective of a loss of agency, as a result of denial of severe academic stress.
The sheer competition to not only to get into college, but also to increase earning potential has influenced many students in the Indian-American community to ignore a well-rounded education, choosing not to explore other passions and instead focusing narrowly on STEM based career paths. It seems like the overwhelming amount of extracurriculars — DECA, Speech and Debate, Robotics Club — are all being pursued for the benefit of college admissions, rather than out of personal interest.
In a world where the college application process outranks everything, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for kids to just be kids. The superficiality ensures resume-building prevails over the true pleasure of doing an activity just for the sake of doing it.
It is in the midst of exactly this environment, that a group of unconventional (at least by Silicon Valley standards) high schoolers from EVHS chose to pursue rap. The possibility of a resistance to the stereotypical college oriented journey seems likely in a refreshing take on modern hip-hop. And with their very existence being unprecedented it seems that they call into question a potential shift in the social norms and culture of Silicon Valley.
But why rap?
In conversation with Chetas Holagunda, a member of the EVHS rap circles and better known by his rap name BLVSE, the authenticity behind his passion for rap is clear. The name BLVSE itself, a tribute to the caliber of this EVHS senior signifies the “flame, like a blaze, inside of me that keeps me going; I’m always motivated to keep going and trying new things…I push myself through it even though its not for a college app or anything, I still keep going.”
The journey to producing an upbeat and “hype” song has been paved with humility and determination, qualities that BLVSE proudly embodies — the hallmark of his musical experience. Coming from a family of Carnatic musicians, BLVSE’s influences seem diametrically opposed, citing the impact that artists like JUICE WRLD had on his style of music. A note about the importance of blending contemplative, and self-analysing lyrics with a party vibe seems to encompass the goal of many BLVSE songs — a marriage that might not be too far away from the Carnatic focus on sound and lyrics.
His current experience expands beyond the initial focus on “the melody that came out, the vibe that it spreads,”. Instead he says: “Now I’m trying to incorporate both, so you listen to lyrics that have one meaning, but you also have a vibe that you can party to, where you can have fun.” He tries to keep most of his songs light hearted at “ground level, and pretty relatable,” but on occasion, like any other artist, emotion is too powerful to ignore. “A lot of rappers talk about depression, like JUICEWRLD definitely blew up that idea…I definitely talk about it in some of my songs… I don’t explicitly say it but there’s some stories that end up sad… I don’t directly call it depression, but people can infer what happens.”
Although the blend of Jamaican cultural influences and working-class urban themes has historically characterized rap music as celebrating the African-American experience, its popularity—some may even say notoriety— has led to a divergence from the traditional African-American subject. Over the course of hip-hop history, as rap artists have become more racially diverse, there has inevitably been a shift in lyrical content, and although the original swagger that encompasses the essence of the genre has been kept intact, rap has gone from the discussion of urban issues to more diverse personal stories. Battles with mental health, struggles with poverty, and other topics of cultural relevance and relatability.
But it’s the core of hip-hop, the ability for raw self-expression combined with the triumph of bringing people together, that seems to be what persuaded these high school rappers to produce music. The goal of BLVSE’s music seems to be a creation of a safe space for the kids of toxic Silicon Valley high schools, where gaming addiction and academic pressures are the reality.
It is the harsh truth that these students must endure more than their fair share of stress. In addressing the extreme range of emotion regarding academic pressures, BLVSE does acknowledge some school interference, but says that “they have certain events but they aren’t really effective in helping students. They (students) just go to get the credits and leave, so it’s really not as influential as it can be.”
What might be more impactful, and certainly what seems to be more entertaining, is convening outside of an academic context with friends to blow off steam. BLVSE remarks: “I always have that vision of performing in my own concert where everyone is just jumping up and down to a song.” Where everyone is present.
Consistent with the counterculture element of rap, these teenagers are cutting through the intense norm of laser beam focus on structuring all activities around a college application. Coming together to enjoy good music seems to be a rarity in the lives of today’s teenagers —lives that are focused on not only getting good grades, but also volunteering at homeless shelters, and winning speech and debate trophies, peppered with the constant Instagram check in. Moving kids away from their obsession with the activities of the other, the value placed on comparison to peers through social media, might be a challenge, given that platforms like Instagram and Soundcloud might be essential in distributing music, which help create a fanbase. But even in the presence of such widespread social networking, the intention of bringing people together in real life, is laudable — even reflective of the origins of hip-hop in Bronx house parties.
In a world where perfection is deliberately demanded, there is little time for recreation. By doing what they do with love, these rappers ensure that high school isn’t just about ignoring stress in an extreme focus to get into college — it can be about celebrating little successes, and taking some time to live in the moment.
But rappers like BLVSE understand that this freedom to create isn’t universal. The undisputable motivational role of parental support seems to be instrumental in the production process. As BLVSE describes it: “The good thing is that my parents actually support this… so that definitely helped me,- like if my parents like a song, they would push me to share it with other people.” With a chuckle, he says: “It’s definitely not the type of music they listen to, but they do enjoy it, so that motivates me to put it up.” And even as BLVSE acknowledges that his experience in the EVHS rap community has been with full support from his parents, it is understood that this is a luxury some of his peers don’t have.
Supporting high school rappers might be one way to fight a toxic culture of Silicon Valley disenfranchisement with harsh and competitive academic environments.
The shift towards STEM education seems to be reflective of a body of parents who came of age in a community where there was only one path to escape the cycle of lower middle class life — where the easiest path to guaranteed success was STEM education. And although STEM education, the craze that has taken over Silicon Valley isn’t innately terrible, it forces students to put on blinders, curbing passions like music, design, art, dance before they fully develop into hobbies or even careers. The beauty of the American dream is the diversity on the journey towards success. Forcing students to comply with an outdated standard, emphasizing perfection no matter the cost, has resulted in a generation plagued by the pressure to perform. Retreating into a world of superficial connections through social media or gaming seems to be an apparent attempt to find that affection and validation that have traditionally been a parent’s responsibility to cultivate, through any other means possible.
Rap music is the perfect union of elements of actual social interaction and self-expression, both ideas that are “taboo” in the Silicon Valley high school journey of college preparation. It is reflective of a growing population of students that are no longer complacent — students who declare, like BLVSE: “Any field is of equal value!”
Students who don’t hide behind an online identity, but rather embrace the power of their voice. In the words of BLVSE: “Im putting my feelings out there, if you don’t enjoy it, then that’s up to you. If I express myself saying that I’m happy with myself, then I’m gonna be happy with myself.”
In fact, there is a proven therapeutic effect of the self-expression of rap. The danger of bottling up emotions is something that Gloria Baxter of the Lighthouse of Hope Counseling Center knows intimately. She even uses elements of hip-hop culture in adolescent group therapy sessions, asking students to write a rap about what upset them. Results have been phenomenal.
It is our responsibility as a society to encourage creative expression among the next generation. Together, we have opened up a Pandora’s Box of perfect SAT scores and 5.0 GPAs. In a world where the bar can never be reached, rap is not only a coping mechanism; it restores agency amongst these high schoolers, giving them a sense of responsibility and control over their actions. Up to this point, we have raised children who only knew how to be students. They will be forced to approach the workforce the same way they approach school — desperately rooting around for validation. There is a cultural shift that needs to occur in the Silicon Valley parent community (especially among Asian and South Asian parent groups) to allow students to pursue their true passion while carving their individual path to success. Encouraging high school rappers in their journey of creative self-expression might be one of the ways to do so.
Sumedha Vemulakonda is a youth contributor at India Currents. This article is the result of a year long quest to expand her music tastes, while learning more about rap and hip hop culture.