Berklee's Three A. R. Rahman Scholarship Winners Represent Slice of India's Boundless Musical Talent
When the college first set out to award its new Berklee A. R. Rahman Scholarship, the original idea was to give one gift to an exceptional Indian musician. But, the search committee soon discovered, extraordinary talent abounds in India.
"Our team came back and said, 'How do we pick one of these people?'," President Roger H. Brown said. "So we deliberated and said, 'Well, why don't we pick three?'" They narrowed the candidate pool to that number and, in May, headed back to India.
In Mumbai, speaking before a concert to celebrate the awards, Brown—along with Berklee India Exchange codirectors Annette Philip and Clint Valladares—presented more than half a million dollars in full-tuition scholarships to three artists: Ronojit Chaliha, Sarthak Mudgal, and Aman Sagal. Here's a look at who they are.
Hometown: Guwahati, Assam, India
Chaliha, also known as Ron Cha, first started playing piano as a toddler sitting on his grandfather's lap. The elder Chaliha would ask Ron to play him this or that tune. "And Ron would effortlessly play," said Dhrubajit Chaliha, Ron's father. "We thought we should do something about this or it would just be a waste of a very great talent," he said. There wasn't much opportunity for music education in their small town, so every other weekend Dhrubajit Chalija and his wife, Kooky Chaliha, would drive their son on a winding hill road to a town two-and-a-half hours away so that he could study Western classical music with a private teacher. Later, he started flying to Pune, India, every month for more instruction.
Though Chaliha's background is in classical piano, a few years ago he fell in love with jazz. For years, he wanted to come to Berklee to study it, but the college felt like a closed door to him—one that his family hoped he'd get to pass through some day.
"I was keeping my fingers crossed when he gave the audition, just hoping and praying that he'll get through and start a good career with Berklee," Kooky Chaliha said. His talent, and the scholarship, opened that door.
"I was so happy, I couldn't believe it," Chaliha said of hearing the news that he won a scholarship. "I kept calling my mom and dad and thanking them. I was just very overwhelmed."
Hometown: New Delhi, Delhi, India
Mudgal, an active touring musician in India, is known for developing a style of playing classical Indian tabla beats on the guitar. A self-taught percussionist and guitarist, Mudgal has been a concert artist for 15 years, and his YouTube videos, under the moniker Madari Mudgal, have garnered more than 300,000 views.
Through his travels in the Indian music scene, Mudgal has known many artists who've gone to Berklee. "I saw them before they were in Berklee and now I see them and they've graduated from Berklee, and it's like planet Mars and planet Venus; it's a major difference," he said.
When Mudgal got the call notifying him of his award, he asked the person on the other end of the line, "Can I please get five seconds so that I can shout in the room so that I can still feel the blood inside me?" Then, he said, with hands and voice shaking, he yelled "like a beast."
As a child, Mudgal's father would bring him home an instrument and tell him that if he could play it within a week, he'd get another. It was this parental support, Mudgal said, that allowed him to develop his talents. But the family knew early on that Mudgal had unusually strong talent, said his brother, Adrish Mudgal. "Since my childhood I've been watching him, and he's a prodigy," he said, adding that the family is elated about the scholarship. And so is Sarthak.
"I'm very grateful to Berklee," he said. "I'm going to live my big American dream in two months, and Berklee is responsible for that."
Hometown: Haldwani, Uttarakhand, India
Sagar was in his second year of studying English literature at the University of New Delhi when he developed a serious interest in music and began playing live shows regularly. He realized, he said, that he was at his happiest when performing. Though he first picked up the guitar years earlier, at 16, he didn't have much opportunity to learn from other musicians until he moved to New Delhi and became exposed to the broader artistic scene there.
His parents have nurtured his interest in music and support his decision to pursue it. This is no small thing in a "country like India, where you're supposed to be taking the traditional path of engineering or medical studies," he said. Now, his long-held dream of studying at Berklee will become a reality.
"The first time I got a call from Berklee it was really hard to believe that I was one of the chosen scholars," he said. "I have grown up listening to [A. R.] Rahman's music like almost every other teenager in the country."