Eight years ago Ph.D. student Ajay Kalra decided to take a break from his medical studies in New Delhi and visit the United States.
Kalra was in the last year of a five-year senior residency program in radiology when he decided on a lark to visit his brother in Alexandria, Va., and follow his true passion music.
An avid music fan from an early age, Kalra found the trip strengthened his desire to make it his career and decided halfway into the journey he wasn’t going back to India.
He is now working on his doctorate in ethnomusicology at the university and in the final weeks of teaching “Blue Routes,” an undergraduate music course with more than 140 students.
From the outside, his rock star looks and thick Indian accent make him an unlikely person to be an encyclopedia of American music, especially blues and bluegrass.
But his vast knowledge of the subject makes it clear that the right person is teaching students about the rich history of American blues music. It was this style of music that first caught his attention on the radio at home when he was a teenager in New Delhi.
Kalra said there was no commercial radio in India and most of the time Indian music was played, but at certain times the DJs would get the chance to play whatever they wanted and that usually included American music.
“BB King’s ‘You’re Still My Woman’ and ‘Smoke Stack Lightning’ by Howlin Wolf were two of the first blues songs I was introduced to,” Kalra said. “I can’t even explain the feeling I got when I heard that music. But I remember it, I never forget anything about music.”
Nearing the end of his medical education in India, Kalra decided to visit his brother for four months before returning to start his career. Two months into his stay he decided he wasn’t going back and this was his chance to live out his dream.
“I spent that first two months figuring out what I could do with music. I bought a mandolin, studied bluegrass and played by the Potomac,” Kalra said. “I figured I would learn something and go back to India. But I would never have fulfilled my dreams if I had gone back. Nothing else ever spoke to me like music did.”
Kalra studied bluegrass and country music performance at East Tennessee State. There he earned a master’s degree in Liberal Studies and became involved in researching the music and culture of the region.
His primary instrument these days is electric bass although he still plays mandolin and guitar. He has played in numerous bands during his time in the U.S.
“I can’t be a rockstar so I hope to get a job someday as a professor,” he said. “I think everybody wants to be a rockstar or some version of that.”