Gandhi-ji?s favorite Vaishnav Jan To resounded through Harvard yard ? the message of peace and love brought to life in Gujarati and English for all to understand. And thus, a new era was born at Harvard. It was the occasion of Harvard?s 28th Presidential Installation and in its nearly 400-year history, this ceremony was one of many firsts - the first Harvard President of the 21st century, the first woman President ever, and presidency aside, the first time this ceremony attempted to represent Harvard?s diverse student body. President Drew Faust managed the first two, while Sonu Niigaam and Harvard Sangeet became the face of the last transformation.
Throughout his visit, Sonu-ji was stopped frequently by adoring South Asian fans wherever he went. By the end of his stay though, just hours after his performance, a palpable change had occurred. Now non-Indians and Indians alike congratulated and gestured to him from afar. We at Sangeet noticed it, as did Sonu-ji and in that joint realization, was a special moment of happiness and hope. Perhaps one could say history had been made. Not just Harvard history, which it certainly was, as the first ever South Asian, or any ethnic performance for that matter, at such a Harvard ceremony. But in a wider context, it was a symbolic moment of the next phase for our music on the world stage ? one that will be looked upon often for inspiration, and whose significance will only grow as history pens this chapter.
From the beginning, Sonu-ji seemed to understand Harvard Sangeet. Harvard Sangeet, a student group founded just over 2 years ago has made great strides in accomplishing its mission of propagating Indian music and establishing Harvard as a premier, international seat for South Asian musical excellence, vision and leadership. In its short time, it has brought dozens of artists to the community, ranging from Carnatic musician Aruna Sairam, Hindusthani doyen Pandit Jasraj, Actress-humanitarian Shabana Azmi and poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar, and now the biggest - maestro Sonu Niigaam. Sangeet?s own student performance groups have become a popular mainstay of campus-wide festivities, while many of these student talents impart lessons in Indian vocal, instrumental and percussive music to Indian and non-Indians alike. Overall, Sangeet has proved itself a true leader and pioneer, becoming a household name in Boston, and in musical circles throughout the world.
Perhaps the biggest recognition of its accomplishments though, came in the form of an invitation to present a South Asian performance at the landmark Presidential Installation Ceremony of Drew Faust. During his speech at the Installation, Gov. Deval Patrick recounted how his grandmother?s innocent reaction to his Harvard admission had impressed upon him that more than any prestige; it was awesome opportunity that his Harvard acceptance represented. In the inclusion of Indian music in the Installation ceremony, Sangeet recognized the same element. Harvard might not be looking for a Bollywood star, but with the world?s eyes upon us, why not give Indian music a face to last? This indeed was an awesome opportunity, and the gravity of our decision was not lost upon us.
For us, this face would have to be that of an Indian who commanded consensus at home, and conveyed universal talent, appeal and charisma abroad. This individual would be able to straddle two worlds ? old and new, east and west - bridging the gap to bring those worlds together; someone who?d entertain intellectual interactions and deliberations; someone who?d be accommodating in meeting the challenges of this new frontier, and generous and genuine in his or her commitment to the greater mission Harvard Sangeet embodies.
We found our perfect ambassador in Sonu Niigaam. Sonu-ji wholeheartedly accepted the honor of the stage, realizing the immense potential the combination of his celebrity and this exalted platform held, in launching Indian music into the next orbit. Nonetheless, he remained grounded in the realities and challenges of becoming a recognizable icon in this environment. He took Harvard students as his accompanists ? a gesture of foresight that was greatly praised by faculty and administrators, including South Asia Initiative Director Dr. Sugata Bose, who personally commended him on it. He worked tirelessly with the students, encouraging them warmly, and providing guidance every step of the way. Rehearsals on the open-air stage were no less, even bringing Pres. Faust herself out to meet Sonu-ji and the Sangeet team. The day before the Installation ceremony Sonu-ji met with students in a special intimate forum, where he responded to tough questions with characteristic humor and blended readily into the academic vibe. He was as generous as he was entertaining in obliging every sort of request, leaving the audience animated as never before. On a more serious note, Sonu-ji took out quality one-on-one time to speak with student leaders about Harvard Sangeet?s long-term direction and goals, and how he could help shape that vision. He made his every minute available, and his professed belief in our mission rang true in his dedication to it.
And thus is the start of new era, invigorated and richer than anyone might have hoped. Harvard is evolving in this new century to maintain its trendsetting leadership in a global world, by reaching out to talents and visionaries the world over. It?s safe to say that in bringing Sonu-ji to Harvard, Sangeet has already bolstered the University?s ends. Time will surely prove this ever more so, as Sonu-ji continues to blaze a trail in these uncharted waters, to the pride of Indians everywhere, and to the benefit of his colleagues regardless of rank. Indian music has been given a shot in the arm, for a great new beginning at a higher orbit, and one can count on Harvard Sangeet to sustain this with enthusiasm and energy.
The cause aside, at a personal level, Sonu-ji left a lasting mark on each person with whom he crossed paths at Harvard. His unassuming and genuine manner touched those around him, as he establishing strong human-oriented bonds. In just two days Sonu-ji endeared himself to us so much, that it is nothing less than sincere to say that we truly miss his presence and company. As a person, this speaks volumes about who he is.
Before his departure, took place a most touching incident for the few of us who were there to witness it. Presented with a ?future Harvard freshman? shirt for his little newborn son (whom Sonu-ji was missing terribly), Sonu-ji pulled the dress up to his face adoringly, studied the words, kissed it and carefully put it into his hand bag. Encapsulated in that one scene was the essence of so many dreams that have been set into motion ? the dreams for a newborn baby, of a new Harvard, of its organization Sangeet, of a music pioneering a new frontier, of each one?s legacy in shaping that future, and for the deep bond that has arisen between individuals separated by oceans, but joined by a common cause.