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September 13, 2001

Pharmacology prof is driving force behind Indian performing arts center

Since coming to Pitt in 1962, Balwant N. Dixit has risen from the rank of research fellow to full professor of pharmacology. He has served as a department chairperson, associate dean and (from 1976 to 1978) acting dean of the School of Pharmacy.

But among lovers of classical Indian music and dance, Dixit is best known as the driving force behind the Center for the Performing Arts of India — "the most imaginative and broad-reaching [Indian] performing arts cultural exchange program in North America," according to one Delhi newspaper.

Sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, who played at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock during the 1960s and probably remains India's best-known musician in the West, said Dixit is "foremost" among promoters of classical Indian music in America.

Since its founding in 1985, Dixit's center has sponsored more than 1,400 concerts and 250 workshops by leading Indian performing artists at universities and colleges throughout the United States.

The center's next concert in Pittsburgh is scheduled for Sept. 29 in the Frick Fine Arts auditorium. For details, see advertisement on page 7.

The Center for the Performing Arts of India is part of Pitt's Asian studies program but it receives no University funds. All of the center's work — financial and immigration matters, travel planning, concert scheduling and promotion, housing and feeding of musicians — is done by Dixit and a handful of other volunteers, including his wife, Vidya.

In preparation for major concerts, the Dixits and their son, Sunjay, have been known to get up at 4 a.m. to mail brochures and concert tickets prior to Dixit's workday at Pitt, and then resume their promotional work after dinner.

Funding for center presentations comes from fees (host universities are charged $1,500-$3,000 per event, depending on the artists and activities involved), ticket sales and grants.

"I have to generate every dollar the center gets," Dixit says. "Fortunately, as Indian music becomes more popular and the center's reputation grows, I find that I can generate much of this money by making phone calls."

The center grew out of a 1985 exchange program between Pitt and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). Dixit coordinated a series of performances, workshops and lecture-demonstrations by Indian musicians as part of that year's Festival of India in the U.S.A. Subsequently, the ICCR and the Indian Embassy in the United States initiated an ongoing collaboration with Pitt, and the Center for the Performing Arts of India resulted.

Since then, the center has formed a consortium with some 80 colleges and universities, presenting concerts by legendary Indian musicians such as Shankar and tabla player Alla Rakka, as well as brilliant young musicians. Guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who won the 1994 Grammy award for Best World Music album for his collaboration with American guitarist Ry Cooder, made his U.S. debut in a Dixit-organized concert tour.

q Dixit's life story, like the classical ragas of his native country, follows a traditional pattern: Young Indian student comes to an American university as a research fellow, joins the faculty and becomes a U.S. citizen.

But also like Indian classical music, Dixit's life has been full of improvisation.

"I originally wanted to be a physician, but while I was attending college my father died in an accident," Dixit recalls. "My family had no savings, so I had to drop out to help support my younger brothers and sisters. But what kind of work could I do that would bring in money? I decided I would become a tailor."

The medical student-turned-tailor earned enough money to resume his studies a year later at Baroda Medical School in India. (Dixit's tailoring skills still come in handy. He's sewn, usually on short notice, costumes for numerous Indian folk arts performances in Pittsburgh.) He came to Pitt's pharmacy school in 1962 on a one-year research fellowship. With help from his department chairperson and a well-connected Pennsylvania legislator, Dixit obtained permission to stay on and complete his doctorate. In 1965, he joined the Pitt faculty as an assistant professor.

"In those days, because of the immigration laws still in effect then, it was very rare for someone from Asia to get a faculty position in the United States," Dixit points out.

Today, Oakland is home to hundreds of native Indians as well as numerous Indian restaurants and groceries; a sprawling Hindu temple is as close as Monroeville. But in the early 1960s, Dixit recalls, "Asian culture" here consisted largely of Cantonese restaurants.

"There was nothing, not even a sign of Indian culture here back then," he says. So Dixit, together with Indian students studying at Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne universities, co-founded Pittsburgh's India Student Association. Through the association, Dixit organized cultural activities on local campuses and got involved with the Pittsburgh Folk Festival. Dixit sent away to India for books on how to play the tabla, the traditional northern Indian drums, and began accompanying Indian musicians and folk dancers at local performances.

He has since stopped drumming in public. "Today, I can find much more talented tabla players than me!" Dixit says, laughing.

Despite undergoing open heart surgery a decade ago, Dixit, 69, says he feels fit and doesn't plan to retire from Pitt or the Center for the Performing Arts of India anytime soon.

He would like to see an endowment established, or a funding commitment from the University, to ensure the center's long-term survival. But neither is imminent, he says.

"In the meantime, as long as I am physically fit, I can still work 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week, no problem," Dixit says. "Age is not a problem for me right now."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 2

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