When most people think of an opera singer, they might conjure images of overweight white men or bulky women in Viking hats. However, if you saw Northwestern’s recent production of The Merry Widow, you might have been surprised to see St. Brioche or Njegus played by Zeshan Bagewadi, a thin, lanky Indian-American singer with a big voice and a penchant for defying stereotypes.
Besides his unexpected talent as a classical opera singer, Bienen senior Bagewadi founded a chapter of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) at Northwestern. In IMAN, Bagewadi saw the opportunity to break down more stereotypes for Muslims like himself, as well as help the community as a whole.
Bagewadi is currently a vocal performance major, specializing in classical opera. He’s one of the few Indian-American students in the opera department. Bagewadi has always had an interest in Indian classical music, having studied under the prominent Hindustani classical vocalist Dr. Nagaraja Rao Havaldar. Growing up in a Muslim household, he learned to speak and read Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. Urdu poetry is commonly composed into songs called ghazals, and since childhood, Bagewadi wanted to learn to sing them.
After searching around for a suitable guru (teacher), Bagewadi met Havaldar at a local concert. He asked to be Havaldar’s student, and was given an impromptu audition. “I sat down on the floor, grabbed a harmonium and started singing a ghazal,” Bagewadi says. “After a minute or so he said, ‘Okay, we’re good to go.’”
During winter break of his junior year, Bagewadi received school credit for studying with Havaldar for a month in India. “I feel very blessed to study two great forms of classical music, Hindustani and classical [Western].”
Besides performing at various campus events, winning Afropollo 2007 and singing in opera productions, Bagewadi performs at various Indian cultural events in Chicago. His name circulated around the community to IMAN, which invited him to perform for an event during his junior year. Inspired by the organization, Bagewadi and five others founded a Northwestern chapter, NU IMAN, last year. The founding members wanted to create a group for Muslims that improves the image of their religious community while helping the less fortunate.
“We realize Northwestern is sort of a protective bubble, and out there a lot is afflicting the disenfranchised people in poverty-stricken areas,” Bagewadi says. “The great thing about Chicago IMAN, the group we draw inspiration from, is that they are instrumental in not just putting a Band-Aid on these problems, but they are really going out and making long-term changes.”
IMAN is a nonprofit organization working for social justice. Among other programs, IMAN helps immigrant communities overcome barriers, promotes arts and culture in urban neighborhoods, provides mentoring to disadvantaged youth and hosts Community Cafés to help support Muslims in the arts. As engaged organizers in the community, the volunteers of IMAN also help break down American stereotypes of Islam.
“In the media, [Muslims are] not portrayed as people that care about the larger community around us, that we’re kind of insulated,” Bagewadi says. “For IMAN, the people who are beneficiaries are… people in our own backyard who are suffering, and they’re not just Muslims.”
For NU IMAN, creating a sense of unity for Northwestern’s religious organizations is another main goal. “We want to partner with other religious groups and organizations,” says Weinberg senior Syed Akif Irfan, the president of NU IMAN, who knew Bagewadi as a family friend before he came to Northwestern. “Sometimes we forget that all religion is concerned with helping people… if we focus on that which is similar instead of what’s different, a lot of misunderstandings and hate can diminish.”
Bagewadi is already seeing the effects of NU IMAN on the neighborhood. While volunteering at a food kitchen in Rogers Park, one woman mentioned she was really touched that Muslim people were coming to help them out. “She said, ‘I never knew that Muslim people cared.’ I was really happy that day, because we’re showing people we do care and we’re Americans just like anybody else,” Bagewadi said.
One of NU IMAN’s current projects is organizing a Community Café, like the one where Bagewadi performed and was first exposed to the Chicago organization. NU IMAN plans to invite local artists from the Chicago area to Northwestern. They also hope to use the Café Finjan model that focuses on Muslim-Jewish partnership and community building.
“Right now, especially, in the world with all the tension and hatred between different peoples, it’s important to build bridges,” Irfan says. “Something like community service is a great medium that we can use to build.”
NU IMAN is working closely with its Chicago counterpart, and by next year they plan to finalize official recognition and funding from the larger organization. Although the Northwestern chapter is just getting off the ground, it has already partnered with IMAN to create the U at NU program, where high school students participating in other IMAN programs were invited to spend a night at Northwestern with a host student. “To some of these kids, college is like a lofty goal,” says Bagewadi. “We want to show them what it’s really like.”
Bagewadi will remain involved with NU IMAN after he graduates this spring, since he is staying at Northwestern as a graduate student in music. However, he does hope to “pass the torch on” to a new executive board, while still attending events and supporting the organization. Otherwise, he will be pursuing his singing career.
“I plan to make my career singing on opera stages,” he says. “Something I bring to the table because of my ethnic background is that I’ve also gone to India and studied Indian classical music…it’s marketable because you don’t see American-born Indian Muslim opera singers.”
While classical opera is not the typical field that most Indian parents expect their children will pursue, Bagewadi says that his parents were the ones who pushed him into it. Bagewadi’s parents, both Muslim immigrants from India, had musical dreams of their own. “Unfortunately because of their upbringing… they were never able to pursue it,” Bagewadi says. “Because of that, I feel like my parents have lived vicariously through my sisters and me. They wanted us to pursue something they couldn’t.”
While Bagewadi dabbled in oboe and piano as a child, he demonstrated his potential as a future singer even as a baby. “When I got excited like any other baby boy, I would yell or squeal and I’d be unusually loud,” he says. “You can even see in my pictures, I had a huge vocal tract. When I started learning to talk, I talked really loud, and it took many years for my mom to get me to talk softly.”
His strong voice comes as a surprise to many who have preconceived notions about opera singers. “I like to think I defy stereotypes with my size, or lack thereof,” he laughs.
It’s a good time to break stereotypes. Bagewadi’s fellow Indian-American classmate, Raja Burrows, sees their ethnicity as an asset in their industry, citing recent Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire as evidence of a trend.
“I think of myself as very lucky in performing roles, being Indian, because it’s the hip minority right now,” says Burrows, who plans on making a name in pop music or Broadway in New York City next year. “Now, if you want to show your group or product is cosmopolitan and globally conscious, you put an Indian person in there.”
Both Burrows and Bagewadi were in The Merry Widow, switching roles every night. They played the prissy French diplomat St. Brioche and the bumbling Indian servant Njegus. Burrows credits Northwestern for having “colorblind” casting. “The opera department here is open and accepting of all ethnicities,” he said. “If you have the goods, you have the goods.”
Professor Jay Lesenger, director of the opera department as well as The Merry Widow, says Bagewadi’s talents lend him to the show. “He has a lot of potential and raw, natural material. Very good, beautiful sound, and rather large sound as well. He’s young and just beginning to develop, and it’s fun to watch.”
Bagewadi was especially excited for the role of Njegus, the Indian servant, which requires more character acting than typical opera roles. “I’m a bit of a clown myself,” he admits with a hearty laugh. That sounds like a pretty accurate statement from someone who put a bar of Irish Spring soap in the family VCR as a child.
“To this day, I still say sorry to my mom for all the stupid [stuff] I did,” Bagewadi says, chuckling. “She’ll just laugh—that’s the great thing about moms, they love you so much unconditionally that you do the stupidest things and they’ll forgive you for it.”
A self-proclaimed momma’s boy, Bagewadi cites his mother as one of his heroes, along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “My father explained to me, the reason my parents were able to come and succeed as immigrants is because of what Dr. King and his associates did, and we owe it to him, to his struggle, to acknowledge him every year,” says Bagewadi. He felt especially blessed to pay tribute to his two heroes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when he sang a Negro spiritual for Northwestern’s official “day on” events this year, which also happened to be his mother’s birthday.
As his days as an undergraduate wind down, Bagewadi looks back on his days at Northwestern with satisfaction.
“I’m glad I came to Northwestern instead of a music conservatory. It makes me a more well-rounded person, which is important to me. That’s why I like sports, singing, and I try to be intellectual,” Bagewadi said, making a face. “Being a Renaissance man is a great thing to aspire to be, and it’s damn hard, I’ll tell you that… but Northwestern allows me to try.”