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Indira Mahajan hangs on to the piano as if for dear life; as if the power of her voice would carry her slight frame right off the stage if she let go. Her expressive face is, by turn, despondent, delighted, and filled with rage and agony as she sings of love, loss and wooden horses.
Mahajan, a soprano — and recipient of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ 2008 Marian Anderson grant — is performing from the repertoire of humanitarian and American contralto, Marian Anderson, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.
Long list of accolades
By all accounts a rising star in the rarefied galaxy of accomplished opera singers, the award is just the latest in a long list of accolades coming Mahajan’s way, starting with the Dallas Opera’s Maria Callas Award for outstanding debut artist (for her role of Musetta in “La Bohème”) and the New York City Opera Debut Artist Award. With performances at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center (with the New York Philharmonic under Bobby McFerrin) already behind her, Mahajan has drawn consistently high praise for her solo and operatic performances and has carved a popular niche for herself in the role of Bess in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”.
Mahajan’s journey into the world of the arts began with violin lessons at the age of five. “I cannot remember not wanting to perform and not wanting to be an artist,” Mahajan says, as she remembers the early days of piano and ballet lessons, and voice training under her mother. But affinity for music and achieving success as an opera singer are completely different. A singer must keep up with her changing voice, be studious and be able to learn lengthy parts in foreign languages; overcome the self-doubt that comes with trying to live up to expectations born out of early triumphs; audition for work but learn to face the inevitable rejections.
At this juncture in her career, the Marian Anderson grant is a ringing endorsement of her tenacity and talent. Indira Mahajan and her role model, Marian Anderson, are also connected, if you will, by a not-so-visible thread. In 1957, as the U.S. State Department’s goodwill ambassador to India and the Far East, Anderson, a foot soldier in the war against racism in America, made it a point to visit Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial in New Delhi to pay her respects. Fifty years later, Mahajan is on an India quest of her own, albeit on a very personal
level — she is on a mission to find a piece of her heritage.
Born to Bhushan Kumar Mahajan of Dalhousie, an engineer, and Barbara Mahajan of North Carolina, a Juilliard-trained opera singer and performer, Indira grew up in New York under the diverse cultural influences of her mixed parentage. Her father died when she was very young, and Mahajan credits her mother — and her close relationship with her father’s extended family in the U.S. — for ensuring that the Indian part of her identity equation was nurtured.
Western Classical music and jazz on the family’s music system shared space with Ravi Shankar; trips to the opera alternated with countless viewings of Bollywood movies (“Indian movies were like musicals … and that’s what drew me,” she recounts with obvious delight). Her mother, an excellent cook, Mahajan says, taught her the intricacies of Indian cuisine.
Mahajan unequivocally attributes her success to her family’s support not only encouraging her passion for a career in the arts when the norm in Indian families was engineering or medicine or marriage at a certain age, but also bolstering her confidence through the long, difficult years of study rendered harder by the uncertainty of finding work at the end of the training.
In spite of this happy interplay of cultures growing up, there is still one thing Mahajan has been unable to do — visit her father’s birthplace and meet her extended family in India. As a child she was afraid of flying and lost the few, short-lived opportunities to go home with her father, but “the older you get the more important it is to have that kind of connection … now that I am an adult, I’m just craving it,” she says, excitedly describing her impending plans to finally visit India with her aunts.
On the stage, Mahajan concludes her performance with a spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand”. Her back is ramrod straight; her entire body seems intent on pumping enough oxygen into her lungs and abdomen so they can energise her formidable vocal chords. Her daily yoga practice is clearly paying off.
Originally published in 2008 in The Hindu Sunday Magazine.