By Avanti Nagral
I am practically married to the Number 1 Bus. Constantly back and forth, traversing between two cities, two worlds, two identities. But I’ve lived almost exactly half my life in two different countries, so duality is no stranger. Bombay/Boston. Artist/Advocate. Harvard/Berklee.
It’s a mouthful to explain to people.
“A dual degree program where you get a Bachelor’s at Harvard and a Fellowship/Master’s at Berklee, but during your time at Harvard you get to (and have to) take classes at Berklee.”
“Basically, I have two IDs.”
*Registered awe at my power to get into all museums in the Massachusetts area for free*
Even though this one is brand-new, dual-degree programs aren’t a new concept. Other well-known ones include Harvard/NEC, Columbia/Juilliard and Brown/RISD – all geared toward “creatives” with intellectual passions. It isn’t as if my right brain receives nourishment from one, while my left brain receives nourishment from another. Music is often methodical. Psychology and Global Health are often mystical.
This dual existence opens up a world full of possibilities, libraries and practice rooms. My nerdy obsession with time management comes in handy when I balance riyaaz (the Hindi/Urdu word for music practice) with writing academic papers, and founding initiatives with professional shows. I often wonder, though, whether I am missing out on other aspects of each experience. But most people around me admit that they are trapped in a bubble:
Travel: “We don’t get out of Cambridge!” / “We don’t get out of Boston!”
Work: “I hate this p-set (translation: quantitative problem sets)” / “I hate this harmony assignment”
All-nighters: “I slept in Lamont (the undergraduate library)” / “I was in a recording session till 7 am.”
I invite a friend from Harvard to have dinner with me at Berklee, and she has her radar up the whole time, taking in everything. After meeting a saxophonist friend of mine with a slick New Orleans accent, she nudges me as we sit down. “He is SO cool. Everyone here is SO cool! Look at all the color, the fashion, and the vibe.”
I look around and for the first time really see the difference with my own eyes. At Harvard, I see Canada Goose and Vineyard Vines. At Berklee, I see leather pants and personality t-shirts. Another case in point? Pink hair. I can count the number of times I’ve seen it at Harvard on one hand. At Berklee? Nearly every day.
In my voice class at Berklee, I learn about the musculature in my vocal folds and use straws, make crazy sounds in a mirror, and manipulate my tongue to emphasize my CT muscle group. In my Effective Altruism class at Harvard, we are given $50,000 (real dollars, not Monopoly ones, as my parents thought) to impact donate after we rigorously evaluate nonprofits and learn about the sociological background of philanthropy to help guide our decisions. On the one hand I analyze through the performative lens of a Judith Butler, and on the other, I observe the performative experience of a Justin Bieber, in hopes to better my own.
Yet, despite the superficial differences, I see a world with a lot of fundamental similarity. At both places, almost everyone feels imposter syndrome. A feeling that you were the “admissions mistake.” That you’re not good enough. I certainly do too (sometimes doubly so), but I also feel like a kid in a candy store! Never again in my life will I be surrounded by as much concentrated diversity as I am now, nor as much supportive ambition. It’s not real life when I have the ability to walk up to literally anyone in the Berklee Caf, find out their instrument, and ask them to play on my next gig. I’ve played at venues in India, the U.S., and the Philippines, but nothing compares to the near-guarantee of professionalism I will receive here. Neither is it fathomable that I can walk up to literally anyone in “real-world Hogwarts” and discuss politics with them over a meal, later finding out that they have a biotechnology patent to their name and casually forgot to tell me.
But you are still an anomaly. You’re not a “real” artist because you study at Harvard, and you’re not a “real” intellectual because you’re in the pop world.
“So tell me, how’s your ‘music stuff’ going?” / “How do you study all that ‘brain stuff’”?
Casual questions acquaintances ask, but really don’t want the answer to, much like the fake “how are yous” thrown at you in a crowded hallway. Yet, they are genuine questions all the same, because no one can really figure you out. Every time I start to feel like I belong at either institution, something reminds me that I don’t really belong at either, and that’s okay.
I’m reminded of the reason I do this in the first place: to learn how to simultaneously use my voice and be a voice. As a singer/songwriter I quite literally have a voice, but it is in cultivating my voice through the liberal arts that I hope to be able use the platform that I am afforded as an artist. To empower both myself, and those who do not have the privilege of a voice. By colluding my purpose with my passion, I hope to bridge these two worlds. But really, I hope, more than anything, never to lose my drive for the voice—the singular, the multiple, and the metaphorical.
Avanti Nagral is an international pop artist from the soul of Bombay and the heart of Boston. Avanti’s music is influenced by her background in Indian Classical, Broadway, Church/Gospel, and Devotional music. She is the first in the world to pursue a dual degree at both Harvard University and Berklee College of Music. A symbol for powerful women, and a veteran live performer, Avanti has performed at venues across India, the United States, and Southeast Asia.