Leaving your comfort zone half a world away.
—by Devon Haupt
There may have been a little more to the initial e-mail I received, but that was what I got out of it. I laughed. Why would anyone want to do such a crazy thing? So I showed it around, and got a surprising response from my husband, “You should do it!” he said. A few more e-mails back and forth, a visa application, and a round of immunizations against things like polio and typhoid, and I was on my way to an eight-month performance contract in Mumbai.
From the moment I landed, it has been one adventure after another. Going through customs with a harp cart in a giant cardboard box is not an experience I want to repeat! My first performance was two days after I arrived, and on a borrowed harp. If you think harp rentals are bad in the U.S., try getting one in India! The harp’s entire second-, third-, and fourth-octave strings were missing. And just to make things interesting, the fifth-octave A was strung with wire.
The event was a birthday party for the wife of the richest man in India, held on the lawn of a palace in the state of Rajasthan. I had my own green room with “Harpist” on the door, and they even rigged spotlights for me on top of the palace. There were over 1,000 people working the event, from florists to waiters to tango dancers. I was set up on the lawn and welcomed guests with Bollywood music on the harp. Although I was long gone by then, the party went on until after 5:00 a.m.!
Working for an agency certainly has its ups and downs as well. I love that I get to focus on just making music, while they handle the logistical details, marketing, and client contacts. Unfortunately, they are not trained musicians and don’t understand how I can’t “just jam” Bollywood music for two hours with a saxophonist I’ve never met. I still have to move my own harp, but that’s more of a choice, as there are always plenty of people willing to assist in exactly the wrong ways. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to shout at some well-meaning person (and attempt to do so in Hindi) to stop pushing the harp off the cart as I lug it up a flight of stairs.
One unexpected aspect of performing in India is that appearance is far more important than sound. Clients here are paying for a certain “look”—the more Western, the better. I’ve lightened my hair and have to wear copious amounts of eye makeup and a tiara. I’ve become used to guests climbing up on the stage or stopping me as I walk through the venue to have their picture taken with me. At some events, it has gotten so bad that my manager actually had to step in and say, “No photos, please. No phone numbers, either.” Talk about feeling like a celebrity!
The performances I’ve done here are wide-ranging, from a harp and flute duet on the beach of a resort hotel in Goa to a stage show at a Sangeet (a pre-wedding party with music) on an island in Udaipur. Yes, I had to figure out how to get the harp on the boat for that one! I’ve been flying all over India, with the harp going by road. It was a little terrifying the first time I had to entrust it to a driver I didn’t know, but it has arrived safely at every performance, which is an impressive track record when you consider the condition of roads here and the seemingly maniacal driving habits of Indian drivers.
The harp is an entirely foreign instrument in India. Everyone who sees the instrument is impressed by it, but most don’t even know what to call it. I’ve had many people interested enough to stop and ask lots of questions about the harp (once they know that’s what it is called) and of course have their picture taken next to it!
There have been days that were hard to spend away from home. To combat my homesickness on Christmas Eve, I took the harp out into the market right outside my flat. I set up and played a mix of Bollywood and Christmas songs for people walking by. It was an amazing experience, and I had people singing along, stopping in the middle of the road, and even offering me a contract with a different entertainment agency here. The people of India have been so welcoming and helpful, which has made living here much easier than I expected.
I had received e-mails like the one that brought me here many times before, but had always dismissed them. Now, I couldn’t imagine not having taken this opportunity to see a new part of the world, live in a culture vastly different from what I’m used to, and introduce the harp to people who have never even heard of it before. If you get a “come play harp in a bubble” e-mail, don’t just laugh—it might just be a ticket for the adventure of a lifetime! •
Devon Haupt is a professional freelance harpist based in South Bend, Ind. Since October she has been living and performing in India on an eight-month contract.