I’m Indian and studying the arts. Please, God, forgive me

Written By: Nandini Gupta ugc.wionews.com
New Delhi Updated: Aug 01, 2022, 10:43 PM(IST)

Representative image Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

Anybody should be allowed to study what they love without facing societal pressure, as the days when conventional careers

As a 17-year-old Indian student being asked to decide on a major while choosing which university I would attend, I was told there was no need to fret. I would eventually find my interests, and everyone would support me. I did find my passion in journalism and dramatic writing, but instead of support, I found panic from my family’s side. “Dramatic writing?” “English?” “The arts?!” “Who does that?” “Are you okay?” “Have you caught a fever?” These questions played on repeat when I announced my decision. Everyone told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life by studying what I actually enjoyed. I was labeled a failure without being given a chance to prove myself.

I escaped to the United States, wholeheartedly believing things would be different here. I still remember my first day attending a dramatic writing class at New York University. It was a seminar of twenty white students, sitting around a chestnut brown table, conversing with their peers and barely able to contain their excitement about the Broadway musicals opening soon. And then I stepped in. The excitement subdued, and every eye in the room was on me. Weirdly, it felt as if I was a Broadway star who had walked in. Only, I wasn’t a celebrity but an outcast in the group of people surrounding me. I walked toward the only empty seat and awkwardly sat down, avoiding making eye contact with anyone. And then it happened. The questions were back. “Umm… are you Indian?” someone asked, and I said, “Yes.” “And you’re studying writing?” someone else asked, and I said, “Yes.” Murmurs about me resumed, and it felt as if I’d never left India to begin a new life in the first place. 

Such episodes continue to occur, which constantly make me question whether I even belong in these classrooms and pique my curiosity about the connection between my Indian identity and studying the arts. Anybody should be allowed to study what they love without facing societal pressure, as the days when conventional careers, including becoming an engineer, were the only options are long gone. 

There’s a common belief in India that anybody pursuing the arts does so because they didn’t get admission to any other stream of study. The arts aren’t the top choice of study for 80 to 90 per cent Indian students, and many are deterred from opting for them. MS Wankhede, an associate professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told the Times of India that arts professors have to constantly remind students that they’re not inferior to those who study math or science. For the longest time, I fell into the same trap of believing that just because I wasn’t good at math and was more creatively inclined that I wasn’t good enough. The misconception that studying the arts will limit career opportunities for students or that they will struggle more post-graduation almost ruined my chance of writing my first novel and pursuing other artistic interests. 

People don’t realize that every field comes with its own set of challenges. Like me, people who decide to dig their hands in the artistic world are aware of the tumultuous journey ahead. If we’re still choosing to tread forward, then it’s our choice, and society should have no say in it. Tisch sophomore Ricky Kapoor, originally from India, struggles with society’s disapproval of his choice to study Film and Television, too. During those times, he reminds himself that the reason he became a filmmaker wasn’t to become rich and famous but to tell authentic stories. “I know the rejection I’m going to face in the future, the heartbreak I’m going to feel,” Kapoor said. “But I know what I have to do when it comes, which is just keep going and not say no to myself.” Because of the lack of support many students get from society, giving up can seem the most viable option. Society doesn’t realize that they’re murdering someone’s dream, someone’s chance to actually be happy and pursue their passion.

Such societal pressure has caused many Indian students to commit suicide. According to the National Crimmes Record Bureau, one student commits suicide every hour in India. One of the main reasons behind these suicides is the pressure to get into the Indian Institutes of Technology, public technical and research institutes located across the country, and some of the world’s toughest colleges to get into. Harvard University has an acceptance rate of 5%, while IITs have one between 0.5% and 2.5%. It’s little wonder that Indian parents want their children to get into an IIT because it looks like the pinnacle of achievement. But that’s not the biggest problem: not all students who get into an IIT want to become engineers. Many of them don’t even know what engineering is as they’ve been so focused on cracking the exams and following the “correct” path. Some of the IITs report the highest suicide rates because students are forced to study a subject they don’t have a taste for. 

Similar to how students’ creativity and ingenuity are being stifled, funding and promoting the arts and humanities in India are dying, as well. The leading STEM schools in the country receive more government funds than the top liberal arts university. Moreover, colleges across the world infuse their STEM degree with a set of general education classes, but in India, grades as low as 11th and 12th have students who are devoid of any content resembling history, literature, or creative writing. I first discovered my passion for dramatic writing when I took a theatre class in my international high school, which has grown to become my area of study at university. But the Indian students who are devoid of such courses aren’t even given the opportunity to see what’s out there, and it’s a shame that they probably never will because of the engineering mindset shoved down their throats since the day they were born. 

How did this Indian obsession with engineering begin in the first place? The first group of Indians to identify themselves as engineers was the East India Company's corps of military engineers who built roads, bridges and fortifications for the army. A select few Indian engineers were allowed to join the British team, and their job came with great prestige. When the Britishers left, Indian engineers saw themselves as building not only dams but also the nation, which helped them forge a common identity. Today, India leads in developing countries when it comes to having a positive perception of engineering in terms of status. In doing so, the country has forgotten about other professions on the rise. 

Some professions can be deemed unconventional and risky, yet many Indians continue to look up to any individual who follows that path. Chetan Bhagat, whose books have sold an estimated seven million copies, has established himself as one of India's top authors. But before becoming an author, Bhagat was an investment banker who graduated from an IIT. He confesses that he never enjoyed studying at IIT and, in reality, loved writing. Bhagat soon switched careers and continues to tell students in seminars today to study what they’re passionate about. Bhagat was lucky enough to be allowed to pursue his writing dreams, but what about the rest of us? When parents hand Bhagat’s books to their children, why don’t they encourage them to become the next Chetan Bhagat? Don’t give us his books if you’re going to take them all away one day to replace them with IIT books, which not all of us are interested in reading. 

Being the only Indian in my dramatic writing courses at NYU sucks, but at least one thing has changed. After talking to some professors about the struggle between my ethnicity and my college majors and challenging myself to read and write more, I’ve become more confident in my choice.

Before classes, there are fewer times when I feel the need to tell myself: “You belong here.” Regardless of their nationality, every person should be able to practice their art without feeling ashamed or doubtful. Just because we’ve been wired to think that engineering guarantees success and is the ultimate goal doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the path for everyone. India is doing better than before with the opening of institutes such as Ashoka University, which encourages students to pursue a liberal arts education. But this is just the beginning. No Indian student should hear “Oh, that’s interesting!” when their Indian family and friends learn about their creative major because what they really mean by “interesting” is “Oh, she’s doomed for failure!” No student should see their family boast about their children who got into an IIT while sidelining their other kid trying to make it in the creative world. By crushing a child’s dreams, you’re destroying, no, pillaging their entire life. You don’t have the right to do that.

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