Debutante ball at Carnegie Hall

Imagine, if you will, being a desi kid with a passion for the claviers and chords of Western classical. You’d be sick of hearing, ‘Why can’t you be like Mr. Malhotra’s son, the doctor,’ for the last 20 years. Tired of uncles asking why you shave your head, where you disappear to all summer, why you’re never free on weekends. Isn’t it risky, a pauper’s life? Could you support a dutiful wife? I don’t know, beta, this whole thing is so phoren.

Imagine that in your 15-minute Warhol, you could perform in the most storied hall in America, painting away every doubt-hound dating back to high school. Your hands would throw auditory pottery, now throbbing delicately like gills, now stabbing angrily at imaginary boxers. Fifty pairs of eyes would look to your space needle for reassurance, tempo, tone. Just you, a riser and your musical crew: o captain my captain, carpe musicum, and they’d respond. A forest of swaying toothpicks, egg slicers and split-tongued shoots would churn buttery tones into a towering aural chasm.

On that day, you could be forgiven for feeling like Salieri even if you sounded like Mozart. So you’ll understand why I’m so proud to share with you my cousin Ankush Bahl’s Carnegie Hall debut. On Sunday, he conducted Brahms’ Tragic Overture for the best youth symphony in America. He did it without sheet music, a zipless conduct.

At 28, Ankush resembles bull-shouldered, shaven-headed entertainers from Yul Brynner to Ben Kingsley. The NYT reviews the performance:

… the Youth Symphony also promotes young professional musicians in the early stages of their careers. One example is Ankush Kumar Bahl, the group’s assistant conductor, who made his Carnegie debut leading an energetic reading of the Brahms overture with clear authority and enthusiasm…

Normally I’m far from a classicist in the arts. Tweeter tones sully themselves sadly against my shores, and the only Tragic Overtures I’m familiar with are my attempts at romance ;) But Ankush conducts with such drama, he’s a hoot to watch. So, there were first times all around.

As he left the stage in a herky-jerky, post-performance tremble, he turned and saluted his family in the box seats at stage left. (Just say you know the conductor, he said. He’d arranged the best seats in the house.) But he added an even more fitting touch. In an industry which pays deep obeisance to tradition, in a hall with a lily-white fundraising committee of Wall Street billionaires, he had the balls to begin his bio with this shout-out: ‘Indian-American Ankush Kumar Bahl…’

Despite Zubin Mehta, it’s a gutsy call. Can you dig it?

Watch the Carnegie Hall clip (14MB QuickTime; you need a BitTorrent downloader: Windows, Mac).

22 thoughts on “Debutante ball at Carnegie Hall

  1. kudos to ‘Indian-American Ankush Kumar BahlÂ…Â’ i grew up playing classical music with the piano/violin… and for him to be able to do that at carnegie hall.. :) , hats off…

  2. please dont lose your focus….

    commend him for his music but please dont make an issue out of his south asian heritage…….parental expectations,societal pressures exist for everyone…..having a shaven head in an indian family…well,your own personal decision,it doesnt add or take away from your calibre and should NOT be cause for any extra applause……

    and please can we stop being supercilious about being ‘an artist in an Indian family’!!!Every culture has its peculiarities…..just because we see so many Indian doctors/professionals doesnt mean its easy being one and we start sneering at these……the writer of this particualr piece might not be suffering from this malaise but yeah,this does seem like a trend……mebbe its just an anti-establishment streak but it sort of ends up belittling those who opted to be a doctor/engineer/anything ‘not-cool-like-an-artist-or-a-musician……

  3. and please can we stop being supercilious about being ‘an artist in an Indian family’!!!

    I disagree. I can attest to being similarly hounded for “leaving” the medical profession. Despite having incredibly supportive and artistically inclined, if somewhat patrician, parents, it is difficult to emerge as a profession where the culmination of a lifework is the art itself. Pursuing one’s art is not noble, it doesn’t save lives, it doesn’t yield much money, it is the festering “must do right now” that guides one to make and thrive in the art, whether the media be music, film, paint, or words. It is especially difficult to emerge and devote oneself to this nagging compulsion of doing one’s art in the context of South Asian communities in the US, which like it or not steers its younger generations into the fabled four (engineering, business, medicine, law) without considering the sheer plethora of occupations.

    Enough of the rant. Well-written piece, Manish.

  4. Amelie-Freak, HERE HERE!!

    I agree, it is entirely relevant to the focus of Bahl’s amazing achievements, that he is South-Asian. Any young artistic desi knows that fine arts is not a pursuit that mummy-papa or the potential in-laws will relish. The elders may think music/art/dance/film/writing is just a phase, and one day maybe you’ll snap out of this art-shart nonsense and take a pukka job as computer engineer…

    Bahl’s achievement is glorious, as is. The fact that as a South-Asian young man, he has probably had to defend his less-than-mainstream career and passion, plus the 2-cent patronizing of any and all random elders… well, the adversity makes his debut that much sweeter.

  5. i think it’s important as a community to support desis in the arts. greater ticket and record sales translates to more opportunities for south asian art, film and performance.

    i, for one, enjoy hearing about desis in the arts. this blog is the best place to find out about up and coming artists and musicians who are talented and also happen to be desi.

    i don’t think manish was trying to belittle those who are physicians or scientists in our community. i think we all know how hard it is to become a doctor or engineer. if anything he was making a comical observation of what his cousin probably dealt with from his family. i deal with similar comments as well. it’s not all uncommon and honestly gets annoying when it’s assumed that my career is not seen as legit.

    (Woo hoo for Ankush!)

  6. Being Indian and pursuing the arts is a tough road to take but picking on parents for not encouraging that misses the point. (Most) parents want the best for their offsprings and the probability of sustaining a financially viable occupation in the arts is decidedly lower than the so-called traditional options pushed by Indian parents. Kudos to Bahl and hopefully he will inspire others but in the end it is sheer economics that will continue to influence parental thinking

  7. Good for Bahl :-)

    It’s not about being anti-authority. For some of us, it is doing what makes you happy (B.S. Biochemistry to please Mummy and Daddy, but currently work in education because it makes me feel good about myself). At least I’m not a robot feeding the cycle.

    “parental expectations,societal pressures exist for everyone.”

    If you have been raised in an Asian culture, you are basically conditioned to believe you are worthless unless you have an “M.D.” following your name. I’m sure many of you know young South Asians/Asians who buckle under unrealistic expectations.

  8. So what you’ll are saying is that all desi parents force their children into engineering/law/medical.

    While I agree to have met some of these kids, there are a whole lot of desi parents who also supported their children in whichever profession they chose.

    And do we really know whether Behl’s family initially supported or we against him entering the classical music arena?

  9. So what you’ll are saying is that all desi parents force their children into engineering/law/medical.

    no, not saying that. And certainly society needs all vocations, so no dis on daktars or painters, both.

    While not forcing, per se, it may be motivating for some, to pursue a career that means their parents will be supportive, or at least stop lecturing. Some parents/aunties/uncles seem to view arts as a cute little hobby, but entirely shameful as a career. If you’re getting conversationally ambushed at every diwali party by elders who want to know when you’ll take a “proper job”, it may be easier to avoid the whole path of alternative career pursuits. With career out of the way, we can move on to earth-shaking, important things like finding you a nice girl, beta…

  10. Ankush is my brother-in-law (I married his sister) and I can vouch for the fact that his family has been completely supportive of his career and is very proud of his accomplishments.

    Conducting is a tough profession- tougher, I think, than medicine. You have to be exceptional to get a job because vacancies are rare- there is no pre-set retirement age for the established conductors in major symphonies, so those old geezers never leave!

    Bottomline, all Ankush had to say was this was his chosen field, that he believed he could make it, and the family was fully supportive (mandatory summer excursions to music festivals in Switzerland notwithsatnding)

    I don’t know if we ever (openly) questioned whether he could support his family in this field, but I do know that A) succesful conductors make a great living. B) becoming a music/ intellectual property lawyer was Ankush’s backup plan :-)

    BTW, well-written piece Manish!

  11. Well, the reason that desi parents push their boys into lucrative professions is because millions of years of evolution has dinned into their heads that the nicest ladies will not pick their sons if they end up in “loser” professions. Since desi parents do not want their genes to be terminated, they are doing their thing very rationally.

    The real question is why some desi kids have a fascination for picking “loser” professions. A little bit of self-spiting rebellion perhaps?

  12. Oh BTW, obligatory props to Ankush. He seems to have emerged a winner in his profession and he seems to have had a viable backup plan if his venture had not turned out well.

  13. Well, the reason that desi parents push their boys into lucrative professions is because millions of years of evolution has dinned into their heads that the nicest ladies will not pick their sons if they end up in “loser” professions. Since desi parents do not want their genes to be terminated, they are doing their thing very rationally.

    Congratulations! You win the 6/1/05 Pseudoscience of The Day award!

    I’m going to go keep working in my loser profession now to keep spiting myself.

  14. because millions of years of evolution has dinned into their heads that the nicest ladies will not pick their sons if they end up in “loser” professions.

    If we’re really talking evolution, I’d think that the “nicest ladies” would NOT be in high demand. ;)

  15. you sound interesting……write me back if you’d like to participate Alexshaw13@aol.com

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  17. First of all, I feel like a tresspasser on what appears to be a ‘young folks’ site. But reading all the comments about Ankush, (a terrific person as well as a great musician) and other kids in the “loser professions” I cannot keep silent! I am the mother of one such desi kid who shunned traditional non-’loser’ professions, resisted family pressures and even tongue in cheek pleas like, “Cant you be a singing doctor? You’ll have a great bed-side manner..” to follow his dream of becoming a musician. Like Ankush, he also had a back-up ‘insurance policy’ plan of a carrer in investment banking, but walked away from it. These kids who chose the arts over banking, engineering, medicine or law know that the course will be full of higher hurdles and tougher competiton, but they still have the guts to pursue elusive success in the arts. They chose that path for various reasons- they love the arts, they have seen their parents and other family members stick to conventional professions for the sake of security and financial gains, and they dont want to die “with their music still inside them”. Hats off to all these kids – desis or non-desis. Very few can walk this road. As a mother I wish I could somehow make my kid’s life a little easier, especailly when I see his struggle, but if he can weather the tough road ahead he will have something inside of him that I could never give.

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