Triple-Threat Singer-Songwriter-Artist Avanti Nagral is First to Graduate from Harvard and Berklee’s Dual Degree Program

If I had a penny for every hour I spend scouring the internet for incredible South Asian musicians, I’d be a millionaire…who would still listen to inappropriate amounts of music, alas I digress. On one of these late-night searches, I stumbled upon Avanti Nagral, another singer-songwriter you say!? Think again. This triple threat performer, singer and writer is also the FIRST student in the WORLD set to graduate from Harvard and Berklee’s dual degree music program!


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As the entertainment industry begins to hear and see more South Asian faces, it is incredible and motivating to see folks pursuing their fine arts and creative passions in and out of the classroom. Having spent exactly half her life between Boston and Bombay,  starting my personal favorite music series #Songonthespot and integrating classical lost Indian Instruments into modern productions, I had to know how Avanti got here.

Who is Avanti? 

I’m going to try and be dramatic while answering this:

Singer. Songwriter. Advocate. Artist. Creator. Idealist. Soul-searcher. Adventure-seeker. Friend.

You’ve lived between Mumbai and Boston your entire life, tell us about your dual identity!

I was born in Boston, moved to Bombay when I was 8, moved back to Boston for college when I was 19 (I took a gap year to do some professional theatre work in India), and keep going back and forth a few times a year! It’s been really fascinating because neither am I a straight-up Indian-American nor am I a Bombay girl. I feel like I’m always in-between, but that also enables me to fit in (or stand out) in both environments. This dual existence has definitely shaped my identity — personally, creatively, and artistically, and I strive to bridge the gap in a meaningful way through music, culture, and conversation.

Do you remember your first meaningful encounter with music and the arts? 

Yes! My father plays the tabla (although his primary profession is in the tech industry), and my mom is spiritual, so I grew up doing a lot of devotional music. I remember my first public concert was at this place in suburban Massachusetts, and I was singing Payoji Maine for this cultural program. I think I was around five years old. While the style of music was different than my primary style now, I remember feeling a rush being on stage, and loving the way people connected with music that they probably grew up listening to. More than that, the way in which all the performance arts at that program had their own special place, and how magical they were when combined!


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You attend both Harvard and the Berklee College of Music in a new hybrid program, break that down for us!

The Harvard-Berklee dual degree program is the newest addition to programs that I think are meant for “creatives with intellectual passions” or vice versa, joining the likes of the Columbia-Juilliard and Brown-RISD programs. Essentially, it’s a five-year program in which you receive a bachelor’s degree at Harvard and a master’s Degree at Berklee. During your undergrad, you also get access to all the resources at Berklee, and have to take a few classes there per semester, in addition to your regular Harvard course load.

I’ll be the first to graduate from the program, and as their de facto guinea pig, it’s been an incredible experience. It’s a lot of back and forth between the two schools, but when you’re passionate about something, it’s worth it! At Harvard I’m studying Psychology and Global Health/Health Policy, and at Berklee I’m studying Voice and Music Business.

Why was it so important for you to research classical instruments and sounds and find a way to merge them with your contemporary music? 

My musical foundation is in Hindustani Classical music. My guru is Dr. Prabha Atre, a living legend of the kirana gharana, and I feel really blessed that she has been so supportive of my experimentation with other musical forms and my eventual foray into pop. Our South Asian artistic heritage is so rich and diverse, but I find that our generation lacks exposure, and therefore, interest in many of the traditional art forms. I received a grant from Harvard to work with South Asian traditional instrumentalists, and spent part of my summer researching and recording with instruments such as the bela-baharr, sarangi, sarod, tabla, dhime, madal, and more.

My aim is to blend these traditional sounds into modern arrangements, and to make these unique sounds of South Asia accessible to our generation. Rather than being typecast as fusion music, my hope is to make these sounds modern and mainstream, and as normal to hear as Spanish guitar and African beats in the pop world are today.

How do you use your platform and voice to work with global initiatives in the environmental and health sectors? 

My biggest motivation for doing anything, is always, how am I using my voice, whether literally or metaphorically. That manifests itself in my work as an artist, singer, and songwriter, but also as an advocate, speaker, entrepreneur and creator. I personally have had many health issues through my life, and have been fortunate enough to have access to care, but many aren’t as lucky. That drive fueled my global health work, through research, initiative creation and advocacy. I am passionate about the intersection of art and social change, and truly believe in the power of storytelling and content. 


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#Avantips and #Songonthespot are two of my favorite series! How did you come up with both? 

#AvanTIPS: I’ve been super particular about my vocal health for a long time, and am a bit of a nerd in that regard, collecting information from different vocal coaches, through research, and my own experience. It only felt fair to share some of what I’m learning through the process, and surprisingly people have really been enjoying me embarrassing myself online in the name of sharing tips! I share everything from vocal tips, South Asian secrets, exercises, superfoods, to-dos and don’ts for speakers and singers. 

#SongOnTheSpot: I have a background in theatre, so this concept is a marriage of storytelling, music and theatre. I started doing it at live shows, and pretty much never stopped! It’s always so much fun – and is so prone to failure that it captivates the audience immediately, and creates pressure-filled adrenaline for me on stage to come up with rhymes, hooks and melodies in my head. The thing I love most about it is how interactive it is, and how we can create art out of anything, anywhere at any time. The premise: an audience member will tell me a story about literally anything, my band will play literally anything, and we all make a song out of it! I’ve now started doing it with brands and creators, and we’re reinventing the format as we migrate it online!


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If you had to pick one food from Mumbai and one from Boston to eat, what would they be? 

Bombay: Akuri toast


You’re in the midst of releasing an EP, tell us about your newest song.

I can’t give away the name just yet, but what I CAN say is that it is a dual ode to Indian and Latin music, fusing reggaeton and bhangra beats in a global pop sound. I’m super excited about this one, and we have a few surprises up our sleeves that I cannot wait to show you!

Favorite performance to date? 

This is an unfair question, but if I had to choose it would probably be singing at the Gateway of India for the 26/11 terror attack memorial service. Not only was it a beautiful tribute, but it was also the first time almost all my grandparents watched me perform together. That meant more to me than any show could.

Avanti is traveling, performing and developing productions that merge her hyphenated identity experiences and training from classical music to pop songwriting and dance. The next pop queen may have just arrived but if you’re a vocalist as well, do yourself a favor and watch #Avantips to keep your vocal health in check!

By Jashima Wadehra

Jashima Wadehra is a multi-hyphenate entrepreneur who serves as the Director of Ode, a global artist management and brand strategy … Read more ›

Anita Verma-Lallian Launches Arizona’s First South Asian-owned Film Production and Entertainment Company

Anita Verma-Lallian

Indian-American commercial real estate and land consultant Anita Verma-Lallian launched Camelback Productions at an event held in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Jan. 7. Billed as the state’s first women-and South Asian-owned film production and entertainment company, it will focus on South Asian representation and storytelling, according to a press statement issued by Verma-Lallian. The announcement follows “Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s $125 million film tax credit for film and TV production that was introduced in July 2022, “ the statement added.

The Jan. 7 private launch party and meet and greet introduced investors and supporters to what’s ahead for Camelback Productions.

Noting the “major push to see minority groups represented in the media over the past few years,” Verma-Lallian said she wants to see more South Asians represented. “I want my children to see themselves when they watch TV. I want my daughter’s dream to become an actress to become a reality. Skin color shouldn’t be a barrier to that.”

The event opened with remarks from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who has served as the city’s 62nd mayor since 2019. She welcomes the company to “the greater Phoenix community.” She expressed confidence that “the team will attract some of the country’s top talent to the Valley.”

Guests at the event included actor and comedian Lilly Singh, actor Nik Dodani, Aparna of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” Bali Chainani and Anisha Ramakrishna of Bravo’s “Family Karma” fame, and Paramount+ executive P. Sean Gupta, to name a few.


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The company is Verma-Lallian’s first venture into the film industry. She is known for providing full concierge services for land seekers and developers of all types of sites and assists investors in discovering viable properties in the Phoenix area through her company, Arizona Land Consulting, the statement added.

Named in honor of the iconic Camelback Mountain in the Valley, Verma-Lallian says she wants her production company to have the same indestructible foundation. Camelback Productions plans to begin its first project later this summer.

In Conversation With ‘Life of Pi’ Actress Salma Qarnain

Salma Qarnain

Few people can call themselves rocket scientists. Even fewer can say they are a rocket scientist-turned-actress, producer and Broadway star. Salma Qarnain is a Pakistani Muslim woman who can claim the title. 

Salma Qarnain
Salma Qarnain at the “Life of Pi” Broadway Debut | Photo Credit: Rebecca J Michelson

Artistry runs through Qarnain’s veins. Her grandfather was a filmmaker in Bombay and Karachi, before passing away at a young age. Her mother performed in plays throughout college. Now Qarnain is using artistry to build empathy, playing characters that represent her family’s story and promoting Black and Brown allyship through Black Man Filmsthe production company she co-founded with Roderick Lawrence.

Qarnain grew up in the Midwest but traveled back to Karachi often. Some of her earliest memories were in Karachi singing along to the Beatles and pretending to be Ringo Starr. When her family moved to the United States, typical of South Asian immigrant parental influence, her interest in math and science and immense love for Star Wars led her to pursue aerospace engineering, hence rocket science. Her mother’s passing forced her to rethink her goals and when she wanted to achieve them.

[Read Related: Anya Banerjee: The New Face of NBC’s ‘The Blacklist’]

Today, she describes her purpose for creating art in profound terms.

I want people to be equal. I want people to understand we’re very much all together a speck of dust in the entire universe, and that there are so many more things we share than we don’t.

Starting entertainment work in the aftermath of 9/11 made it clear how she, a Pakistani Muslim woman, would be seen.

I remember [at] that time… Friends of mine told me, ‘Don’t let anybody know x, y, z about you, because they may have a bias against you. Something might happen.’

The beginning of her career was defined by how Western culture perceived Muslims and South Asians. Her first entertainment gig was as a casting assistant in Washington D.C. She noticed if South Asians were cast,

They were going to be playing something stereotypical to what a South Asian person is thought of… that could be the geeky, mainly male, math nerd, or a terrorist.

While the position provided an opportunity to learn about what it took to become an actress, Qarnain also leveraged her responsibilities to make a change —  if a role didn’t absolutely require a white actress, she would gather diverse resumes for the casting director, slowly trying to shift the idea of what a person of color on television had to be. 

With people of diverse experiences joining writer’s rooms and a “pipeline of young South Asian actors,” the industry has improved but isn’t close to equitable. She sees “Life of Pi” on Broadway and Black Man Films as ways to combat that.

Broadway’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel brings a multigenerational South Asian cast to the stage and has Qarnain playing two roles — Pi’s (gender-swapped) biology teacher, an analytical, guiding mentor, and the Muslim cleric Pi studies under. “Life of Pi” is one of Qarnain’s favorite novels for being a story about faith, storytelling and the power of both to provide hope. She took a callback for the role via Zoom in an Applebee’s parking lot. 

I feel very invested in both of these characters. Just because they are absolute extensions of who I am as a person, and to have this be my Broadway debut — I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

She got to play a Pakistani Muslim character once before in the off-Broadway play “Acquittal.” It was the first time she could represent an authentic story. In “Life of Pi,” Qarnain helped workshop the scenes with the cast and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti to make them more authentic. 

She absolutely took our suggestions and comments and reactions, for myself, from another person in our cast – who’s also a Muslim – and then from castmates, [who are] Catholic and Hindu, to understand what would work and what would people respond to. That’s where the gift was, that [Chakrabarti] was very receptive to what we had to say.

Salma Qarnain
Salma Qarnain at the “Life of Pi” Premiere | Photo Credit: Rebecca J Michelson

Black Man Films and her partnership with Roderick Lawrence run parallel to her theatrical journey. The pair formed the production company during the pandemic through a short film that Lawrence created to explore Black men’s mental health. As an enthusiastic fan of Lawrence’s work and having wanted to begin producing for film and television, Qarnain joined the project immediately. The short film, “Silent Partner,” went to 21 film festivals and won Best Short at several. 

It was never done for accolades. It was done because there was a purpose and message to the story around Black men’s mental health told through the lens of micro-aggressions in the workplace.


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The second short film, “Speak Up, Brotha!” was released in late March and will be played at Oscar-qualifying film festivals, this summer. 

For Qarnain, Black Man Films is a platform for change and Black and Brown allyship. 

I want people to look at our films and understand where they are, who they are in this film; in “Silent Partner.” If they’re complicit in propagating systemic racism, and, if so, what are they gonna do about it? How can they start? How can they talk to their parents? How can they, you know, engage with other South Asians and put a stop to colorism and any racism that exists against the black community?

Telling stories that reflect the experiences of people of color gives creatives the power to build systems that can improve people’s lives.

There is a racial hierarchy that exists and if we want to break that, we have to be a part of building everything, not just for us, but for everybody who isn’t white.

She is confident that the stories she’s helping bring to life will do just that and change the world in the process. From “Life of Pi” to “Speak Up, Brotha!” the possibilities for encouraging justice and empathy are endless.

Featured Image Courtesy of Bjoern Kommerell

By Usha Sookai

Usha Sookai is an undergraduate student at New York University, studying Journalism and Social and Cultural Analysis. With a passion … Read more ›

In Conversation with Karan Singh: CEO of the Sunburn Music Festival

Karan Singh Sunburn
Karan Singh Sunburn

From receiving his MBA from Harvard business school to being the CEO of Asia’s largest music festival brand Sunburn, Karan Singh combined his interests to push his passion for music! Singh received his bachelor’s degree in management from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He worked as an investment banker for three years at Ambit Corporate Finance before working at Sunburn which is a part of his family’s business. Sunburn started providing the music festival experience starting in the year 2007. The first festival was in Candolim, Goa. The music festival brand has put on over 5,000 events over the past 15 years. In 2022 The Sunburn Festival will be in it’s 16th year. Continue reading to learn more about Karan Singh’s journey with the Sunburn music festival!

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What does the Sunburn brand offer and what made you have the festival in Goa as opposed to other parts of India?

We believe that Sunburn offers a really unique experience and is a melting pot of diverse people & cultures from not only across India but around the world. Goa is the ideal setting for this as there is something magical about Goa in the winter-time and truly enables us to tap into that global audience.

Safety at live events has always been a concern among concert goers. Considering recent, events more individuals have asked brands and artists to do more to ensure audience safety. What are you doing to ensure safety for live concerts?

Safety is a huge priority for us. We work with the best-in-class security agencies as well as closely with the police and requisite authorities. For anyone in the crowd a Sunburn safety officer will always be close by and easily visible. We also run an awareness drive on both social media and on ground.

What was the first Sunburn Festival like and what did you learn from this experience?

The first ever Sunburn Festival was in December 2007, and I had actually attended it as a fan, not part of the crew. However, it was absolutely eye-opening as the first proper music festival on Indian shores and opened up our minds to a world of possibilities.

As Sunburn houses so many electronic dance musicians who have been your favorites throughout the years?

It is difficult to pick from the list however the favorites for Sunburn, in no order and because of the amount of love they have shown Indian audiences, are Martin Garrix, DJ Snake, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Hardwell and Armin van Buuren.

Do you plan to expand the festival to add other genres into the mix as well as more activities?

We have already expanded into different formats like Arena, Campus, Club, Reload and things like merchandize & academy. In terms of genres, we have been dabbling with genres like rap, hip-hop and pop, however our focus remains on electronic dance music.

What can someone expect from the festival as first-time goers?

Apart from a state-of-the-art production & line-up, one can expect a special experience, meeting interesting people from all over the world, and embarking on a creative journey of the theme for the year.

How does the festival help local musicians from Goa as well as the surrounding areas in India?

This year we had set up for the first time a special stage and village in the festival only for Goa which gave a platform to local Goan artists. But beyond that a huge focus for us has always been to showcase domestic home-grown talent and indeed 60-70% of the line-up each year is locally sourced.

[Read Related: Brown Boy Interview Series: In Conversation With KSHMR]


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What was the experience like this year in 2022 and how is it different from previous years?

The biggest difference was that this was the first time the festival was back to its full scale since the pandemic hit after 3 long years. It was a fantastic release for everyone there. Our theme was “the future is now” and this was reflected across the festival experience and particularly in the main stage design – termed “Cyberpunk City” which received rave reviews from all.

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What was it like having the legends Black Coffee and Afrojack this year as well as the DJ duo Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike?

Afrojack and DVLM are both Sunburn & India veterans, it was amazing having them back crushing the main stage after very long. Black Coffee for us was something very new and exciting, to have a special artist and a unique sound like that close the main stage on day 2. However it was very well-received and took our experience to the next level.

As you have had the artist Avicii back in December 2011 how do you feel he revolutionized Electronic Dance Music?

Avicii is one of my all-time favorite artists and his show in December 2011 was actually my first one working on Sunburn so will always be extra special. There is no doubt that he revolutionized EDM by taking massive risks and introducing an entirely new sound which a lot of others then followed, but no one as well as he did.

How does it feel to be in charge of one of Asia’s biggest Electronic Dance Music Festivals?

It feels great, we have a very young but ambitious and hard-working team and our primary focus is to continue delivering the best possible experiences for our fans, artists and partners. India is such a vibrant and exciting market that I cannot help but be pumped about what the future holds.

Do you feel Electronic Dance Music is a misunderstood genre?

More so in a country like India possibly yes, where people who are not exposed to these experiences sometimes have preconceived notions about EDM festivals and the like. Oftentimes those people are also in a decision-making capacity and can directly affect the industry. However, things are certainly improving as the industry overall gets bigger and gets more acceptance.

What does music mean to you, Karan Singh?

Music provides a sound-track to life, it is something which is always there!

How do you choose to react when you receive negative comments about the Sunburn Festival?

Well, you have to be able to differentiate between those which are just trolling and those which are constructive or fair criticism. The latter is very important as it helps us to look at ourselves and continually improve, we are still a long way from where we eventually want to be.

Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?

I hope it allows us at Sunburn to reach a wider audience of the desi community around the world and hopefully get some more people to fly down to Goa for Sunburn Festival 2023 which I can promise you all will be the best one yet!

Artist Testimonials:

Dimitri Vegas Like Mike

We have had a long connection with India. The first time we played here was more than a decade ago. Going from clubs to being a regular feature at one of Asia’s biggest electronic music festivals which is now an institution in itself. It’s been an exciting evolution to see how Sunburn has grown over the years. The fans at Sunburn are some of the most insane and every show is a special one. We’ve always had an incredible experience at Sunburn.

DJ Snake

Honestly, the energy I feel when I am in India is one of the most amazing things. I would say the culture and energy is what keeps me coming back! India is like a second home to me, just like Sunburn. I feel so comfortable and welcomed here. I’m always excited about coming to India and playing at Sunburn, experiencing new cities, meeting more of the people, hearing more of the music, and seeing more of the country that has influenced me so much.


Sunburn has helped dance music artists world over to tour India and connect with their Indian fans and I’m always excited about performing at the festival.


I’ve a long history with the Sunburn team. They are a great team to work with and they also give the fans amazing experiences. As an artist, I want to be a part of providing fans with lifelong memories and so we all share the same vision.

Alan Walker

Sunburn is one of the pioneers of the dance music festival scene in India and has been instrumental in creating a truly world class platform that supports the dance music industry and all of its stakeholders. I’m always excited about touring India with Sunburn.

Photo Courtesy of DNH Media

By Arun S.

Arun fell in love with music at a young age by way of his middle school music teacher Mr. D. … Read more ›