When I was 14, I would walk three miles home every day, carrying my lunch box, my clarinet and my backpack. Before I started each walk, I’d open up the Pandora app on my phone, pop my earphones in and sing to myself as I slumped down the hill all the way to my house.
What I loved about Pandora was that it mixed up the playlists for me, throwing in new songs that I’d never heard before. One day, as I walked home, I found myself absolutely in love with one song: “Cough Syrup” by Young the Giant. I had heard the song before, but this time, it just hit me, so I noted to myself that I’d look the band up when I got home.
The first shock for me was to find that the lead singer was Indian. Sameer Gadhia, I learned, came from a family of musicians who practiced Carnatic music, a type of Indian classical music. He initially went to Stanford as a premedical student, but he dropped out to pursue his dreams in music.
A music genre that was usually distant from me suddenly became insanely relatable — Gadhia’s story was a little on the nose for me, an Indian girl who had sung Carnatic music for 13 years and wanted to be a doctor. Young the Giant defied the stereotype of a typical indie band with a white male singer who’s reaching his 50s but pretending to be 20.
So that summer of 2012 was the summer of Young the Giant. I remember listening to “Guns Out” as I was walking to a friend’s house in Cupertino. Right when the sun was setting, the evening sky looked exactly the way the song sounded to me: warm pink and orange tones, with clouds scattered here and there. I remember deciding “Garands” was my favorite when I visited my aunt’s house in India — I was laying on a bed and watching the ceiling fan rotate with a cadence that matched the song’s galloping rhythm. Throughout that summer, Young the Giant streamed through my conscious — and it has every summer since.
I was shocked that Young the Giant stood out to me, because I had never been passionate about American music before. Up until this point, I had only been really interested in Indian music. Specifically, Carnatic has been a part of me since I was in the womb — my dad likes to say that he played the great artist Maharajapuram Santhanam’s melodies right at my mother’s stomach while she was pregnant with me.
So when I turned 4, we began with Latha Aunty in Fremont, who taught me the basics of this Carnatic music. Once a week, after school, my father used to drive me one hour to her house for class, and on the way back, I pushed the seat back, sipped the mango Jamba Juice he had bought me and practiced everything I learned in class that day. She taught me what a talam (rhythm) is, and she taught me my Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa (the scale). She laughed at me when I couldn’t get it right and encouraged me to just try again.
Eventually, we found a teacher much closer, one who would shape Carnatic into a sophisticated, intensive form of art. In the 10 years that Preetha Aunty was my teacher — my guru — she taught me all the songs and forms fit for a serious Carnatic student: geethams, varnams, keerthanams and kalpanaswarams.
As I performed in various contests and group concerts, Carnatic took over my life for a good part of those 10 years. Whenever we visited relatives, someone would ask me to sing a song because, for my family and for myself, it was a source of pride that I, this American child, had held on to my roots.
But as high school came along, something about Indian classical music became deeply uncool to me. I began to skip those weekly classes; I stopped practicing; and, to the dismay of Preetha Aunty, my parents and myself, I finally just quit in my senior year. I felt guilty about it, but as I grew into the American teenager that I was socialized to be, I felt as though Carnatic music was too far removed from my life to be relevant.
Now, two years out from Carnatic music lessons, music is still woven into my life in smaller ways: I learned to procrastinate on schoolwork by making playlists for my friends, and I quietly sang to these playlists as I walked to school. I’m still a die-hard Young the Giant fan, but I’m starting to forget the Carnatic songs I learned, and I’m wondering: Did I let go of my voice?
The last time I came to Cupertino, I sat in my room zoning out to Young the Giant for two hours. Gadhia’s voice on that 2010 album promised me that you could find your way as a first-generation Indian American in a way that’s cool and mind-blowing. In his songs, he still preserved those Indian undertones that have seemed to slip away from me.
I slowly approached the shruti box I used when I sang Carnatic music. I turned it on so I could find my pitch and grabbed my song book. I started with a small bhajan and then moved on to other longer songs: first “Kali Yuga,” then “Idadhu Padam” and, of course, “Nanda Nanda Na.” I tried to figure out the ragam (scale) and make sure I was with the shruti (pitch), and I just let the songs take over me. Did I still have it in me?
When my mom burst into my room with a bright smile on her face, I had an answer.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the summer semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.