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Briefs/ Briding Two Worlds with Music/ The Life and Times of Sabu Dastagir/ Book Matters.

Compiled/ Written by Murali Kamma Email Compiled/ Written by Murali Kamma
March 2024
Briefs/ Briding Two Worlds with Music/ The Life and Times of Sabu Dastagir/ Book Matters.


Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of AAPI Equity Alliance, is one of nine people from six organizations who won the 2024 Leadership Awards from the James Irvine Foundation in California. Each organization gets $350,000 to support their social work and activism. Besides focusing on issues like healthcare access, Kulkarni also combats racial discrimination. A lawyer by training, she is a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate.



Zakir Hussain, the renowned tabla player, won not one but three Grammy Awards last month. These were group awards, but he was the only member in all three groups. The Best Global Music Performance award was for “Pashto,” the Best Contemporary Instrumental Album award was for “As We Speak,” and the Best Global Music Album award was for “This Moment,” which was released by the Indo-jazz group Shakti.


Mangesh Ghogre, who was an investment banker in India, has the rare distinction of receiving an EB-1 visa from the U.S. Also known as the Einstein Visa, it’s an employment based green card for individuals who demonstrate an “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.” Ghogre is a crossword puzzle genius who contributes puzzles to leading publications. He did one as a tribute to the Taj Mahal.



Anantha Chandrakasan has been named MIT’s inaugural chief innovation and strategy officer. He is MIT’s dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He has launched interdisciplinary programs which show how universities and industry can work together to advance research. One initiative is the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium.


Priyamvada Natarajan, elected last year to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences along with eight other Indian Americans, has now been elected a fellow of
the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Known for her seminal work in gravitational lensing, dark matter, and black hole physics, she is Chair of Astronomy and professor of physics at Yale. Her other honors include Guggenheim and Radcliffe fellowships.



Deepthi Ravula, CEO of WE Hub in Hyderabad, is the only Eishenhower Fellow
from India this year, and she joins 21 other leaders for an intensive, six-week travel and learning program in the U.S. WE Hub is said to be India’s first state-led incubator that focuses on women-led start-ups. Ravula, who has through her foundation supported 3200 start-ups with mentoring and money, studied in India and at CSU San Diego.


Aravind Srinivas is cofounder and CEO of Perplexity AI, a conversational search engine that’s taking on titans like Google and Microsoft, both of which are his former employers. An alum of IIT Madras and UC Berkeley, Srinivas founded Perplexity AI with three others in 2022. It’s drawing attention for the way it uses generative AI to provide specific responses that rely on context and language processing rather than keywords.



Vyjayanthimala Bali, a film actress and Bharatnatyam dancer, is one of the five
2024 winners of the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award. Known for her role in Devdas (1955), she had a string of successes in the 1960s as well. Other winners: Indian VP Venkaiah Naidu, Bharatnatyam dancer Padma Subrahmanyam, social reformer Bindeshwar Pathak (posthumous), and film actor Konidela Chiranjeevi.


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DesiWorld_8_03_24.jpgChances are not many Indian Americans have heard of Reena Esmail, Nina Shekhar, Shirish Korde, and Asha Srinivasan. They’re all composers who meld Western and Indian classical music traditions, and their works have been recorded as well as performed by notable orchestras. To sample their music, which “represents the cutting and creative edge of classical music,” one can turn to an album titled Alone, Dancing: Music of South Asian American Composers (Third Angle New Music). Other New Music composers of South Asian heritage include, among others, Shruthi Rajasekhar in the U.S. and Rekesh Chauhan in the U.K.

Esmail, who earned degrees in composition from Julliard and Yale, has been featured on a PBS Great Performances series (Now Hear This), and she contributed to several Grammy-nominated albums. In 2003, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, where she’s an artist in residence, gave the world premiere of her Malhaar: A Requiem for Water, which combines Hindustani and Western classical music styles. Ugandan-born and Massachusetts-based Korde, now in his late 70s, is older than the other composers mentioned here, but that doesn’t mean he has stopped composing. One of his works is a multimedia opera based on the life of Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi. As for Shekhar, a PhD candidate in music composition at Princeton, she’s a pianist who also plays the flute and the saxophone. And Srinivasan, who teaches music at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, has composed works like the prize-winning Dviraag for flute and cello (or soprano sax and cello). The daughter of a professional Indian singer, Srinivasan notes, “I am enthralled by the possibilities of integrating aspects of the Carnatic style into the Western music idiom.”

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Born in India 100 years ago, Sabu (as he was known) became a U.S. citizen 80 years ago. He died in 1963, less than two months before his 40th birthday. His son is an American singer and songwriter (his daughter and wife died years ago). Sabu’s journey from Mysore, where he’d been the maharaja’s stable boy and a mahout’s son, to movie stardom in the West was extraordinary. The movies, on the other hand, seem mostly cringeworthy today. They belong to a distant, still-colonial era. But some of his films, notably Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad (1940), were hits when they were released. It was Robert Flaherty, a documentary filmmaker, who had discovered Sabu when he was just 13 and cast him as a mahout in Elephant Boy (1937).

Sabu married an American actress after moving to California, although he didn’t have much success in Hollywood. He continued to have better luck with British films. A good example was Black Narcissus (1947), in which he played the role of a young local general. Praised for its striking, Oscar-winning cinematography, the film was based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel set in the remote Himalayas.

Sabu would have made his Indian debut in Mother India, reportedly, if his work permit hadn’t been denied. The role went to Sunil Dutt. Sabu’s later years, marred by civil and paternity suits, were not happy. In the 1940s, though, there was a triumph that had nothing to do with cinema: For his valor and bravery during World War Two, when he flew dozens of U.S. Airforce missions in the Pacific region, Sabu was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

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Amil and the After (Kokila), by Veera Hiranandani. Think of this novel for middle graders as a companion to Hiranandani’s The Night Diary, which won a Newbery Honor. Readers are transported again to the partition era, though now, instead of Nisha, it’s her twin brother who’s at the center. Amil, like his sister, is 12 years old, but he’s having a harder time than her to adjust to their new life in India. Having fled Pakistan—their Muslim mother died when they were infants, and their father is Hindu—they’re in Bombay, which even in 1948 seems more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country. Nevertheless, the wounds of partition are still raw. At Nisha’s suggestion, and through a series of drawings done in memory of their beloved mother, Amil shares his story. Before reading this novel, which got starred reviews, should one finish the earlier volume? Not really. According to The Horn Book Magazine, “readers can experience Amil’s account of hope and survivor guilt as a standalone volume.”



Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (Pantheon), by Sathnam Sanghera. In order to understand contemporary U.K. and U.S., we first need to understand the colonial era. A bestseller in the U.K., this book inspired a Channel 4 documentary called Empire State of Mind. Among other topics, Sanghera discusses how historical amnesia is at least in part responsible for disasters like Brexit. What he calls “statuecide” (the tearing down of statues) is unlikely to help us understand British imperialism, which was marked by Empire Day every year until 1958. Now it’s known as Commonwealth Day, but nostalgia dies hard, as we know from the enduring presence of Britain’s monarchy. The host of Last Week with John Oliver praised the book, and London mayor Sadiq Khan said, “I only wish this book had been around when I was at school.” Empireland won the 2022 British Book Award for Narrative Nonfiction. Sanghera, born to Sikh parents, also wrote The Boy with the Topknot, a memoir.



The Children of This Madness (7.13 Books), by Gemini Wahhaj. This novel is set in the U.S. and Bangladesh. Readers also travel to Iraq, where Dr. Nasi Uddin had taught at the University of Mosul after earning his PhD in Canada. He and his wife raised three children, but now, having retired, Nasi is visiting his daughter, Beena, and her Italian husband in Houston, home to a large Bengali community. The perspective shifts between Nasi and Beena in alternating chapters. The story begins with the 2003 Iraq War, which comes under withering scrutiny—and that scrutiny extends to post-independent Bangladesh, which continues to experience the aftershocks of colonialism. Nasi tells his story in the first person, while Beena’s saga in America, where she seems to have an uneasy relationship with her immigrant peers, unfolds in the third person. “Nothing in Wahhaj’s propulsive story has been packaged for a foreign audience, nothing feels manipulated or forced,” says Nell Freudenberger.


Ashoka: Portrait of a Philosopher King (Yale University Press), by Patrick Olivelle. Last year, with historian Ramachandra Guha acting as the curator and editor, HarperCollins India launched a biography series called Indian Lives. Two titles, Ashoka and Sheikh Abdullah, have been released in India, and now the first one is available here as well. Indians know about Ashoka, but this is no hagiography. Eschewing the myths found in popular culture, Olivelle relies mostly on Ashoka’s inscriptions and artefacts to reconstruct his life for a general audience. Guha thinks he’s the perfect author for this elusive subject. Born and raised in Sri Lanka, Professor Emeritus Olivelle taught at UT Austin for many years. The book’s first part covers worldly matters, while the other parts trace the king’s evolution in the spiritual realm. As Olivelle points out, Ashoka “was attempting to forge a universal moral philosophy that can underpin a theory of international relations . . .”


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