When Robin Sukhadia (Music MFA 07) began his study of Indian classical music at CalArts in 2005, his career as a marketing director in Silicon Valley was already on the fast track. But by embracing his Indian heritage and discovering that India’s rich music was in his soul, a passion took hold, and it changed his life.
Sukhadia’s first immersion in Indian music was in the mid-1990s. Raised in North Carolina, he was a pre-med student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when he went on a semester abroad program in India. He took up the tabla, an Indian percussion instrument, and “reconnected with my roots on a deep level,” he says.
After graduating with a double major in English literature and biochemistry in 1998, Sukhadia held various jobs in high-tech industries in the areas of database management and marketing, eventually moving to San Francisco, where he worked for several start-up companies. In 2002, on a trip to western India’s Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, he volunteered for a San Francisco-based organization called Project Ahimsa, arranging music lessons for local youth, and distributing musical instruments purchased through a grant. Designed to empower underserved youth through music education, the project informed much of Sukhadia’s later work.
Twelve years ago, he began taking group tabla lessons with Swapan Chaudhuri, chair of CalArts’ World Music Program, at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael. It was Chaudhuri who recommended that Sukhadia study at CalArts. “He said, ‘You should focus on your artistic passion.’ I applied, got accepted, and decided to come.”
Giving Up a Career to Study Indian Music
At first, Sukhadia had doubts about his decision to give up his business career for music. “I was intimidated by the caliber of students I’d be with at CalArts,” he says. “Many had been professional musicians.” But Chaudhuri encouraged him to persist, and he did, eventually gravitating toward the Institute’s Center for Integrated Media, in which students master new technologies and find ways to apply them to their practice.
He participated in several technology-related projects, including Stroll, an interactive sound installation constructed along Santa Clarita’s South Fork Trail, in which Sukhadia contributed street sounds he’d recorded in Kolkata. He also composed a north Indian classical music score for a fellow student’s animated film and experimented with software programs to manipulate the tabla’s sound. “By my second year, I was flourishing,” he says. “I saw that CalArts was full of opportunities.”
In early 2007, a few months before he graduated from CalArts with an MFA in Indian Classical Music, a marketing manager at Hewlett-Packard (HP) hired Sukhadia to help him create a personal blog. He was so happy with the results that he recommended Sukhadia to an HP recruiter. “She asked about my background in technology and I said I was interested in art and music,” he says. After a second interview, HP hired Sukhadia to analyze its international accounts and to develop ways for the company to improve its marketing to businesses overseas. “I think both my creative background and prior work experience helped me land the position,” he says. “The job required that I speak to global marketing teams based in Asia and Europe, and HP appreciated my study abroad experience. Since my analyst team was based in Bangalore, my understanding of Indian culture also played an important role.”
Returning to the Workplace for the Sake of Art
Sukhadia says that taking the HP job was not an easy decision, because he had hoped that his CalArts degree would immediately lead to a career as a professional musician, and not back to high tech. “Chaudhuri said, ‘Take the job. It will make you a better artist.’ What he meant is that it would remove financial pressures so that I’d be able to sit with the instrument, give it everything I’ve got, and enjoy it.”
After two years creating complex data charts for executives, Sukhadia was laid off during a retrenchment at HP. He quickly landed at Flavor Group, a San Francisco-based advertising agency, where he served as a senior account director, leading global marketing efforts for several companies, including Japanese clothing manufacturer UNIQLO, Red Bull and Toyota. Among his projects was an international publicity campaign for flash memory card manufacturer SanDisk. In this branding partnership between the company and the DJ known as Tiësto, he helped create a crowd-sourced music video using cell phone footage from different Tiësto concerts around the world.
In 2011, looking for a new challenge, Sukhadia applied and won a Senior Research Fulbright Fellowship to return to India, where he set up six music education programs across India and Nepal over 18 months, each serving children in some of the poorest communities in the region. Last year he helped bring 16 elementary school music and dance students from Ahmedabad to the U.S. and Europe on a tour of 18 cities.
In March 2013, Sukhadia became director of development and communications at artworxLA, a non-profit group that sends teaching artists—including many CalArtians—to alternative high schools throughout Los Angeles. “We’ve hired many CalArts graduates and each one of them has been brilliant,” he says. “They have innovative ways of connecting the dots and finding ways to communicate their ideas. They think on their feet and our students respond to that.”
At artworxLA, Sukhadia says that he hopes to make a difference in the lives of young students. But he hasn’t given up his music, still studying the tabla, practicing at night, and performing regularly, including a recent gig at USC as well as studio sessions to record music for independent films. “I still consider myself to be a professional artist,” he says. “I am involved in international projects focused on art and music that I wouldn’t get to do without a sound financial footing.
“One thing CalArts gave me was belief in myself as an artist,” he says. “It also taught me to think outside the box, and more companies are interested in that now. Silicon Valley is hiring more designers than ever. One in seven jobs here in Los Angeles is in the creative economy. For many companies, having a design aesthetic is critical. Only an artist can give you that.”