Arjun Verma ’07 moved 3,000 miles away from home and found a supportive, welcoming community at both Dominican University of California, where he studied psychology, and at the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM), where he studied directly with the world-renowned sarode maestro Ali Akbar Khan.
Now an internationally recognized sitarist himself, Arjun reached out to his wide community of friends and fans to raise funds to provide oxygen supplies and equipment to hospitals in India, many of which have run out of critical supplies as the country battles the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arjun had been in the process of putting together an online solo concert when he got the news about how overwhelmed India was by COVID — not only through the international news headlines but also by hearing directly from his friends and relatives there.
“As the situation got worse each day, I had a growing, irrepressible feeling that I had to do something to help,” he says. “And the only thing I could think of was to donate my income from the online concert.”
After announcing his efforts on social media, Arjun raised more than $2,200 in a couple of weeks. The donations went 100 percent to providing oxygen supplies and equipment through three different Indian nonprofits. Some provided oxygen directly to COVID victims via public oxygen centers or even deliveries for critical patients, and others provided supplies to the hospitals that had run out of oxygen.
“The takeaway for me was really how much goodwill and compassion there is out there, and that sometimes all that is needed is a channel to funnel that good energy into positive action. In this case, I was lucky enough to be that channel,” Arjun says.
Arjun has fond memories of his undergraduate years at Dominican, where he valued community and friendships.
“There were so many bright young people from all over the country and abroad that I am grateful to have met, collaborated with, and become friends with,” Arjun recalls.
Arjun declared psychology as his major his junior year in the School of Liberal Arts and Education at Dominican. The decision, he recalls, was a “happy accident.”
“I wasn’t sure what major to take for almost two years, so I just took a bunch of classes that looked interesting. After hearing great things about the psychology professors, I took an introduction to psychology class with Afshin Gharib, and the rest was history.”
The psychology faculty, he adds, “made the study of the human mind so fascinating to me that the program was irresistible to me.”
“I had a lot of fun with the psychology department’s professors and students. It was a perfectly sized program and cohort, and it really felt like a family,” he says. “The professors put a lot of personal effort into creating that type of culture. We did an academic trip to Vancouver BC to present our research, which was a fun and memorable adventure.”
Drawing on his studies at AACM, Arjun worked with his faculty mentor, Dr. Matthew Davis, to explore music learning techniques for his senior thesis. “I still use techniques from that project to this day when I teach sitar.”
After Dominican, Arjun became a faculty member at the AACM after Ali Akbar Khan died in 2009. He also worked part-time with environmental sustainability-related tech startups in San Francisco for five years before making the leap to become a full-time sitarist, working within the tradition of North Indian classical music and in collaboration with various other genres.
“Playing sitar has afforded me an amazing creative life – performing on TV, recording on film scores, and traveling all over Europe, India, and North America sharing music and meeting all kinds of interesting people.”
Arjun last visited India in December 2019 – just before the pandemic hit in full force.
“It was my first solo tour there and I had been hoping to return annually, but now, we’ll have to see. I’m hopeful that as vaccination rates rise, I’ll be able to tour there again soon.”
In the meantime, while the pandemic caused Arjun to cancel performances and tours, he remained productive working on studio recordings.
“I’m producing the first album from this past year’s recordings right now – it’s called EPIPHANIES, and it’s my attempt to show what solo sitar is capable of doing all on its own.”
“Ultimately for me, it all comes back to wanting to make a positive impact in people’s lives –whether that’s through inspiring people with powerful, beautiful music; through teaching and inspiring children; or through creating bridges across cultures through the arts to promote mutual understanding and collaboration.”