I grew up with a practical approach to life.
My mother grew up in Mussoorie and my father in New Delhi. They migrated to the US in 1976 and now have been practicing medicine in Washington DC for 20 years. My mother has always been a lover of books and strongly shaped my interest in literature and the broader arts. My father has always had a very fact-oriented, practical approach to life and has instilled in me a sense that ideas must be translated into action. I went to St. Albans school in Washington DC where, for a while, I was the only Indian American in my class. The spectacular teachers at St. Albans provided me with the support that allowed me to criticize some of the problems of homophobia and racism at my school without losing my place of leadership as Head Prefect within it.
As I sought insights into my own identity, the arts provided me with a powerful tool for mediating intercultural division.
Being South Asian in a predominantly Caucasian school had a great deal to do with my devotion to the arts. I began playing musical instruments in 1st grade, acting in 3rd grade, and painting in 5th grade. Then in college I started working in directing and video-making. I have moved across many mediums.
As I was growing up, I watched my parents struggle with their Indian heritages and traditions here on a new soil. In order to protect me from the difficulties they faced, they encouraged my "total assimilation". This was impossible and I found myself needing to reconnect. As I sought insights into my own identity, the arts provided me with a powerful tool for mediating this intercultural division. In painting I found that my intricate forms mirrored the miniature tradition of the Moguls while my vast color swathes harkened to Rothko. As years progressed I discovered theater. Embodying characters on stage from Romeo to Sakina allowed me to experience the complexity of others' lives, share my journey with my peers, and encourage laughter, empathy and introspection in an audience. Through theater, I began to realize my life focus of public service through the arts. I was able to ground myself and gain confidence in my capabilities through art making, and I see countless other young people, and many Indian American youth, who share my experiences.
Aina Arts was born out of the idea that fostering cultural pride in local art forms could be connected to encouraging their involvement in the classroom.
My mother grew up in Mussoorie and went back many years ago to establish a scholarship fund for a young underprivileged girl there. I accompanied her and saw many schools in need of support. In my conversations with teachers, NGO heads, students and local artists, I would hear repeatedly that Mussoorie had “lost its culture to tourism.” Many also said that education did not feel relevant or connected to daily life. It was increasingly clear to me that fostering cultural pride in local art forms could be connected to encouraging involvement in the school. Local artists striving to get by could be supported, and given tools to help enhance lesson plans, encourage participation from girls and minority students, and cultivate local art forms in classrooms. When I brought up the still inchoate idea with my peers at school, I was overwhelmed with the enthusiasm it garnered. Well over 100 students applied to work on the project, and I chose 11 who had exceptional sensitivity to cultural difference and background in the arts.
The project went wonderfully. We worked with over 200 kids at six underprivileged schools. Teachers in the community said that they had never seen the children so energized. By the end of our time with the Kozi school, the children were not just sitting in a silent room and reading, but actually enacting lessons from their texts, using rangolis to celebrate their school, and Gharwali traditional song to address equity in education. Even beyond our work with them, girls were speaking up more in class and attending school with greater regularity. This year we are continuing the project, called Aina Arts (www.AinaArts.org), and hoping to involve more local artists in designing and implementing programs.
The Truman Scholarship.
All I can do is speculate about what the scholarship looks for. I think it looks for people who not only think from the policy angle about public service, but more importantly do it, take initiative, and show a deep desire to commit their life to it. It is a government foundation so it is really all of America that is investing in Truman scholars as young leaders and I think both the foundation and the applicants take that very seriously -- they realize they are making a commitment to using their lives for the greater good. My advice to anyone who is keen on a scholarship like this is not to vie for it directly because it is so much up to luck when so many talented people apply. Every person who I met at the interview was very qualified and I know others who never made it to the interview who are equally if not more qualified. That is to say that it is not predictable. I think the best preparation is to stick firmly to your convictions, take loose ideas and idle aspirations and act on them, don’t be afraid of failing, nurture and have confidence in your vision for the world.
Receiving the scholarship was really an affirmation for me of many of my efforts over the past many years. I was delighted that the scholarship recognized the importance of the arts for developing individuals and communities. And it is just such an honor to be with the other scholars. I can’t wait to meet them in May.
The technicalities are: At my college, you submit your application in November and you are notified in December if you have been called back for a campus interview. 8 people come for a campus interview and 4 are nominated by the school to the national round of the Truman competition. So after Harvard nominated me from the college level, the rest of the competition took place outside of Harvard. The Truman selects about 1/3 of all nominated scholars and interviews them and then selects another 1/3. I went to interview in early March, and found out in the end of March that I had received the award.
I think the thing to note about the Truman application process is what a good experience it is regardless of whether or not one receives the award. The process really encourages you to look inside yourself and find out what drives you. And it encourages you to speak to as many people as you can to develop and refine your personal vision. I feel as though this award was won by all the people who helped me at the college to clarify my policy proposal and my application.
Devesh Kapur forced me to have a nuanced view of India and not succumb to clichés in presenting the problems of education of the country, Karthik Muralidharan had simple advice which was to ask myself "what do I live for?", the Harvard Fellowships Office, Judy Murciano, Paul Bohlman and Adonica Lui provided incredible support as did all my professors like Doris Sommer, Kiku Adatto and Ronald Ferguson. I really cannot thank these people enough for guiding me through this formative year.
My goals for the future…
I hope to improve the quality of education internationally, to develop Aina into a sustainable global initiative that engages artists for community development at the grade school level, and perhaps to start my own public-private partnerships or work through UNESCO, the UN or an international NGO to attain some of these goals. I would also like to help create and serve on the board of a South Asian American museum in DC, make documentary videos, paint and meet many of the talented Indian American artists working around the country.
SCHOLAR INDIVAR DUTTA-GUPTA
ACTIVIST VINITA THAPER