Harish Saluja: Dedicated service for 30 years connecting Desis to their musical roots
by Kris Gopal, Upper St. Clair, PA and K S Venkataraman, Murrysville, PA

Harish SalujaIndian music — film songs (contemporary and old), classical music, both Hindustani and Karnatic — transmitted through Public Radio WDUQ on FM 90.5 every Sunday evening between 7 to 9 pm is with us for over three decades. The program, appropriately named Music from India, is with us for so long that we all take it for granted as if it is a swayamboo (self-born). The creative minds behind Music from India, one of the DUQ's longest running programs, are Dr. Vijay Bahl and Mr. Harish Saluja who take turns in hosting the program week after week.

They volunteer not only their time and but also their personal music collections — over 2000 albums, CDs and tapes — bought from their own resources for our enjoyment. Talk about generosity! Their only remuneration is the satisfaction and pleasure they derive in sharing with others their joy.

We wanted to learn firsthand about this program. We met with Harish Saluja, one of the two co-hosts of the program over dinner in a Thai restaurant.

Saluja's personality came right through within the first few minutes of our meeting. He is bright, witty, animated, charming, flamboyant, and quick in his repartees.

Harish comes from an eclectic family in Punjab, India. Many of his cousins and uncles are physicians. Lala Lajpat Rai, the Lion of Punjab, who taunted the British during their colonial heydays in India, is his grand uncle.

Harish received his mining engineering degree from Kharagpur IIT in mid 1960s, and was inspired by a mixture of nationalism and social liberalism. While working in the coalmines of eastern India, he saw the ugly underbelly of India's mining industry. Along the way, he also picked up Bengali and chaste Urdu. He learned Sanskrit in school; he is so fascinated with Sanskrit that he even recited many slokas, explaining their meaning and import.

Recalling how he was interested in Indian music, Harish became quite nostalgic and emotional remembering his mother: "My mother was trained in Hindustani classical music, and was a good singer. Growing up in a home environment filled with classical music, I imbibed the essence of it even though I was not formally trained in it. My mother is my inspiration for my interest in music."

He vividly recalls as if he experienced it only yesterday, "I once heard M.S. Subbulakshmi rendering Shyama Shastri’s Saroja-dala-netri Hima-giri-putri. I was new to Karnatic music, but I was spellbound with both Shyama Shastri's lyrical skills and MS's musical virtuosity. Later I learned about the fundamentals of Karnatic music, and recognized the common origin of the two great Indian classical music traditions. I even know the arohan and avarohan of the raga Shankarabharanam in which MS rendered complex musical constructions."

Harish arrived in the United States in 1971 and settled in Pittsburgh. In 1972 the woman who hosted the Music of India, only a half-hour program then, could not host the program, and WDUQ contacted the India Association of Pittsburgh if they could suggest someone to fill in at short notice. The India Association organizers, who knew by then Harish's passion for music, asked Harish if he could do it.

Harish recalls: “I knew nothing about radio broadcasting, but I loved music. I thought this is the best chance for me to try to share with others the joy of listening to Indian music. Since I was the only person in charge of the program, I had full freedom to select the pieces.”

After the program, WDUQ received many calls, and as the cliché goes, the rest is history. Later, in 1985, Dr. Vijay Bahl, equally in love with Indian music, joined Harish to share the hosting responsibilities. With increased interest among listeners - both in the Indian Diaspora and also from the America mainstream - the program was expanded to two hours from 7 to 9 pm on Sundays.

The program is a homage to the music of the Indian subcontinent ranging from popular Hindi film scores to Indian classical music, with particular attention paid in crediting the lyricists, music directors, along with the singers.

We learnt that preparing for the weekly program takes lot of time. Saluja weaves his radio program around a theme, global or national events, festivals, seasons… … Once he (or his co-host Vijay Bahl, a practicing physician) settles down on the theme, they start weaving songs around that theme. But to make a collage of a nice program from among their private collection of over 2000-albums, they should have excellent memory, a well-organized and cataloged database, and an easy retrieval system to conserve their time. Remember, this is their hobby, and they have their professional affairs to take care of.

Harish says, “I carry several papers in my pocket all the time, and often, as I am driving to work I jot down the songs. I am constantly filling the blanks around the theme till I am able to fill up the slots. I arrange and re-arrange the music around the allotted time and then record them to be broadcast. Since the program is broadcast on Sundays it is taped.” He says he wants variety. “I also incorporate enough classical music to satisfy all music lovers. It is a balancing act, and it consumes lot of time to produce the two-hour program.” When asked what motivates him and his co-host Vijay Bahl to do this program year after year, Harish passionately says, “My goal is to influence the world at large, or at least the immediate environment in which I live. I am committed to promote culture, and I don't want to wait for others. I come from a wonderful world of India, and I want to propagate the good of the country.” When he says this his eyes gleam with pride and his voice rises with emotion. He really seems to be committed to this.

After talking about many other inane things, we asked him, “What frustrates you the most in producing this program week after week?”

He paused for a long time collecting his thoughts. Carefully choosing his words, he lamented over the lack of support by the local Indian community: “During those times, I and Vijay literally have to beg listeners on the radio for donations. Given the affluence of our community, it saddens me that they fail to promote this event.” The Music of India is a noncommercial program and the funds necessary for its broadcast are collected during the National Public Radio’s fund drive conducted twice a year.

Music is not Harish saluja's only passion. He is also an accomplished painter and his paintings have been exhibited in New York and Europe. His painting are on Modernist tradition and is said to express music - raga. His paintings show a pattern and repetition like notes of raga. He has also done a "palette Jazz" in his jazz series paintings.

He is also a film producer and director. He recently produced The Journey which received recognition in several world film festivals. His next project is a movie Chasing Windmills. He has an eclectic taste in wine and he told us he has a nice collection of wines in his cellar and could be called a connoisseur. When asked about his purpose of life he does not hesitate to answer that his purpose in life is not to get rich but to do some good to others.

The Indian Diaspora in Pittsburgh should be very pleased that one of its members not only has such a artistic instincts, but also creates for others the joy of listening to Indian music week after week.