- The celebrated soprano and opera star, who has the same Indian American and Black heritage as the Senator, dreams of singing at the Biden-Harris inauguration.
Since Kamala Devi Harris was chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate, Indira Kumari Mahajan hasn’t been able to contain her excitement and her optimism. In an Aug. 11 Facebook post, after Harris was announced as the vice presidential nominee, the New York City-based opera singer wrote: “I am so proud of this woman. (My Black/South Asian soul sister).”
Harris became the first African American and first Indian American woman to be chosen as a presidential running mate; Mahajan has been a star on Broadway and the global stage for over three decades. And like Harris, the celebrated soprano finds harmony in her Indian and African American heritage.
Mahajan is the daughter of a Punjabi father and an African American mother. She has spent nearly three decades singing principal roles with the New York City Opera and with other companies nationally and internationally. Her introduction to music began with violin lessons at age 5. “I cannot remember not wanting to perform and not wanting to be an artist,” she says, as she recalled her early days of piano and ballet lessons and voice training under her mother, a Juilliard-trained opera singer.
Mahajan’s parents — Bhushan Kumar Mahajan and Barbara Mahajan met in the 60s, just like Harris’ parents — Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris, a Jamaican immigrant. “I am a product of an immigrant and a descendant of former slaves,” Mahajan says. Mahajan’s mother is a “product of the segregated South.” She came to New York City to become a singer, and met her future husband, Bhushan Kumar Mahajan.
Similarly, Harris’ parents met at Berkeley, while participating in the civil rights movement. “Her marriage — and her decision to stay in the United States — were the ultimate acts of self-determination and love,” Harris writes in the 2018 memoir, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey.”
Mahajan spent her childhood in Harlem. Like Harris, who grew up in Oakland, Mahajan’s childhood was shaped by the diverse cultural influences of her neighborhood and her mixed parentage.
Mahajan flirted with becoming a voice major and then abandoned the idea to pursue African-American studies. Although she still took lessons at the conservatory, it wasn’t until after graduation that she pursued her training full time at the New School’s Mannes School of Music in Manhattan and the Accademia Musicale Ottorino Respighi in Italy. “I never really thought then that I would pursue music as a career, but I’m glad I did,” she says.
Some of her celebrated roles include “Aida,” where she plays an Ethiopian princess; “Madame Butterfly,” where she transforms into an innocent 15-year-old; in “Porgy and Bess,” she is seen as the sexy, sleazy, strong and needy Bess and in “La Bohème,” she is the buoyant and affectionate Musetta.
In many ways, the unconventionality of Harris’ story runs parallel with that of Mahajan’s. Both are strong and independent Black and Indian American women, trailblazers in their fields and were raised by strong, independent women.
In a conversation with American Kahani, Mahajan spoke on the importance of Harris’ nomination and how the California senator’s story resonates with her.
Hopeful Moment in American Politics
“I can identify with Kamala on so many levels,” Mahajan says. Given the “strong connection,” Mahajan says Harris’ nomination was “the most hopeful moment in American politics, particularly at a time when the politics in the county is vicious, destructive and polarizing.”
Mahajan is “very hopeful and very excited because its history; a glass ceiling has been broken. We have never seen a woman of color being nominated to such a high post.” And regardless of what one’s political affiliation is, “you should see this as a life changing moment.”
What is interesting about Harris’ nomination, Mahajan observes, is how it resonates with so many women — women of color, products of divorced marriages, those raised by single women, path breakers and trailblazers. “It gives people hope, shows them what can be achieved.”
At a time when the country is going through several “infections” of race, bigotry, xenophobia and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mahajan feels Harris’ rise and nomination should give everyone “a sense of renewed hope and pride, no matter which side of the aisle you are.” People should agree that a change is needed, Mahajan says, adding that it’s a similar sense of hope and possibility she felt in 2012, with Obama’s nomination and eventual win.
“We cannot continue to sweep things under the rug,” she says. “And Kamala helps us brining attention to things that need to be addressed.” Harris’ nomination is “going to change the game, whether she wins or not,” Mahajan notes. “Of course, we have to do everything humanly possible to make sure she wins. But right now, we just have to stop and celebrate this moment.”
What’s in a Name?
Everything, if you ask Mahajan. “Names have a meaning, there’s a legacy in a name. There’s hopes and dreams that you wish for your kids,” she says. Having lost her father at 5, Mahajan was brought up by her African American mother. But it was her “full Indian name” — Indira Kumari Majahan — that gave her a sense of identity. “My mother ensured that I had an Indian name,” she says. “And as you probably know, I was named after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a strong, independent woman.”
Similarly, Harris has always taken pride in her name, and has also spent a considerable time correcting people who mis-pronounce it. In the preface of her memoir, she dedicates a paragraph on the meaning and the right pronunciation of her name. “First, my name is pronounced ‘comma-la,’ like the punctuation mark. It means ‘lotus flower,’ which is a symbol of significance in Indian culture.”
It was her name that connected her to her Indian heritage, just like Mahajan. “Our classical Indian names harked back to our heritage, and we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture,” Harris writes in her memoir. “All of my mother’s words of affection or frustration came out in her mother tongue — which seems fitting to me, since the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all.”
However, being part of a mixed-race family wasn’t easy, Mahajan recalls. “I was coming from a time when people couldn’t even pronounce my name,” she says. Now, by contrast, one sees so many Indian American artists and quite a few Indian musicians going to the conservatory.
A Strong Cultural Identity
“I would probably be more Indian if my father was alive,” Mahajan says. But her mother ensured that along with the Indian name, she exposed her young daughter to “everything Indian” — movies, clothes, food and her father’s extended family in the U.S. “I had a very strong sense of cultural identity” she says.
Having worked in an Indian restaurant, Barbara Mahajan was a great cook and always made Indian food at home. Since she was a baby, Mahajan remembers eating Indian food and that has influenced her palate to this day. Much like Harris whose love of idlis and vadas is now a part of the legend.
Addressing Indian Americans in a webinar on Aug. 15, India’s 74th Independence Day, Harris recalled how her mother always wanted to instill in her a “love for good idli.” Growing up, my my mother would take my sister Maya and me back to what was then called Madras because she wanted us to understand where she had come from and where we had ancestry. And of course, she always wanted to instill in us, a love of good idli.”
Growing up bi-racial, there’s been a lot said about whether Harris identifies herself as a black American or an Indian American. Though Harris has never shied away about speaking about her mother and her influence on her, there is a section of Indian-Americans who believe that Harris doesn’t identify herself as one of them.
Mahajan doesn’t get the debate. “I don’t understand when people say this,” she says. “The way I see it, she neither has to prove her Indianness nor promote it,” she continues. “And how does one define Indianness anyway,” she asks. What qualities does one need to have to be acceptable as an Indian?” She says it’s a similar debate that Blacks face as well. “We are not a monolith,” she says, “and there’s varying degrees of skin tones as well as countries you can trace your origin too.”
Harris, meanwhile, has never denied her Indian roots and always spoken of the influences her mother and her maternal grandparents and her extended family of uncles and “chitthis” have had on her. Speaking about her mother, Harris said: “She raised us to be proud, strong Black women. And she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage,” Harris said during her acceptance speech as the Democratic National Convention. In her memoir, she writes: “My mother, grandparents, aunts, and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots.”
Shaped by Strong Women
What Mahajan connects the most with Harris is the influence of strong women in her life. “We both come from a stalk of strong women,” she says. “Strong women who have found a voice for themselves enable their children to learn and benefit from their experiences,” she says, like Harris did from her mother, and Mahajan from hers.
“Shyamala Gopalan was only 19 when she moved to America for studies, at a time when it was mostly unheard of,” Mahajan says. “She defied all her traditions and culture to marry a Black man and had the courage to walk out of it with two small children when it didn’t work out, She adds. “What Shyamala Gopalan did was incredible. It was unheard of during those times. And it is this legacy that her daughter will carry ahead.”
In her acceptance speech at the DNC, Harris spoke about the influence of her mother in her life and career choices. “There’s another woman, whose name isn’t known, whose story isn’t shared. Another woman whose shoulders I stand on. And that’s my mother—Shyamala Gopalan Harris,” she said. In her memoir, she writes: “There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter. That is the truth I hold dearest of all.”
Mahajan’s career choices, too, were shaped by her mother, herself an opera singer. She was influenced by her grandmothers on both sides as well. Barbara Mahajan moved from the segregated South against all odds to New York City to learn music; Mahajan’s maternal grandmother — a HBCU alumni, like Harris, was the first one in the family to graduate college, and her paternal grandmother was the mayor of her village in north India.
Similarly, Harris credits her maternal grandmother for the crusading civic spirit that both her mother and she inherited. “My mother inherited my grandmother’s strength and courage,” she writes in her memoir. “People who knew them not to mess with either. And from both of my grandparents, my mother developed a keen political consciousness. She was conscious of history, conscious of struggle, conscious of inequities. She was born with a sense of justice imprinted on her soul.”
But what Mahajan credits Shyamala Gopalan the most is her decision to raise both Harris and her sister, Maya, as Black Americans. “She raised them with an awareness of how they would be perceived by the society,” she says.
“In a country where she had no family, they were her family — and she was theirs. From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community. It was the foundation of her new American life,” Harris wrote in her memoir.
For Mahajan, it is impossible to discuss Harris and not talk about race in America. “I think racial politics in America is complicated,” she says. “The idea of who is Black is defined by the larger society,” she says, referring to the ‘one-drop rule,’ which asserts that any person with even one Black ancestry is considered Black. “It is uniquely American and has its origins in slavery,” Mahajan notes. “You will not find these issues in any other country.”
Another thing that’s not talked about in this country, Mahajan feels is “the politics of race and how race has been historically defined.” It is in this context that Mahajan lauds Shyamala Gopalan’s decision to bring up both her daughters as Black women. “What her mom knew that regardless of what your ancestry is, how you will be defined by society is predetermined.” It shows that Shyamala Gopalan was “progressive,” Mahajan says, “to understand the ramifications of having biracial kids.”
However, Mahajan is optimistic as things are gradually changing for multiracial people. “Race is gradually being demystified.” She says now we see so many options for race in a form. “We didn’t have a box called ‘other’ while growing up. One had to either fill this or that.”
While Harris’ nomination has given hope to Mahajan, it has also given birth to a dream, “a fantasy.” Mahajan wants to perform at Biden-Harris’ inauguration. “Image that,” she says. “An Indian American and Black woman performing at the inauguration of the country’s first Black and Indian American vice president.” And whether Mahajan realizes her dream or not, she will celebrate for sure. “Of course I will be singing at home.”
Bhargavi immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and has worked with Indian American media since then in various capacities. She has a degree in English literature and French. Through an opportunity from Alliance Française de New York, Bhargavi taught French at Baruch college for over a year. After taking a break and two kids later, she went back to work in the Desi media. An adventure sport enthusiast, in her free time, she likes to cook, bake or go for hikes, biking and long walks.