Kiran Gandhi: The Little Drummer Girl

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Kiran

“This was my year … 2013,” says Kiran Gandhi, 25, on her website. However, 2014 may be another signal year for the New York City-born drummer, currently enrolled for an MBA at Harvard Business School. Gandhi plays the drums with Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam or M.I.A. the multifaceted British rapper and R&B singer, songwriter, painter and fashion designer of Sri Lankan descent.

Since July Gandhi has played the drums at 20 concerts, her signature long black hair swinging, hiding her face as she slams the drums with a vengeance. The concerts headlined by M.I.A. have required Gandhi flying off her perch in Boston heading for Budapest, Istanbul, New York City and Chile, Argentina, and Mexico among other places. Her next concert is in April, so things are a bit slower and she’s catching up on course work, she told Desi Talk.

One entry on her website gives a taste of her grueling schedule at the end of last year – “On Halloween day this Thursday, I finish classes at noon and then will fly to NYC for the dress rehearsal. On Fri Nov 1st morning, I fly back to Boston at 6am, have classes all morning, take my marketing midterm, and then fly back to NYC at 6pm to play the first NYC show at Terminal 5 at 9:30pm. On Nov 3rd, I go back to school, have classes Nov 4th morning, fly back to NYC, play Terminal 5 again Nov 4th night, and fly back to class Tues Nov 5th morning. It will be batshit crazy and exciting at the same time. To make things even more complex, we are changing the setlist entirely from our previous shows, so I will have to be on my A game at Thursday’s rehearsal or none of this is going to work.”

Gandhi is the daughter of Wall Street investment banker and philanthropist Vikram Gandhi and social activist Meera Gandhi, founder of The Giving Back Foundation. How a privileged daughter of Indian-Americans in Manhattan ended up playing the drums is a quintessential New York story of privilege combined with a spirit of adventure mixed with hard work, plus some luck, maybe. When she was 11, her parents sent her to a summer camp — Camp Robin Hood. Bored with the usual activities, Gandhi spied a beat-up drum set in one of the rooms and was banging around on it when the maintenance man came in. He could play and he showed her how to over the next three weeks. When you are eleven years old, “you can really learn a lot because you are not thinking of anything except that,” says Gandhi. Plus “I liked the debauchery of it – it seemed so bad-ass to be playing drums when I’m supposed to be swimming or whatever,” she says. By the time she left camp she got the hang of it. Her parents were enthused by her interest and encouraged her.

Knowing how to play the drums and being a girl doing it made her something of a leader anywhere she went. In middle school, when kids are usually looking to their seniors to plan parties, Gandhi could organize them and provide the music. It was the same when she joined Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. On campus where fraternities held events “and the underlying presumption was, ‘let’s get these girls drunk,’” Gandhi and her set could have their own parties and their own music. “I saw a lot of strength in it. The act of more women drumming is very empowering. I hope more women will do it. It’s such a male dominated field.” She recognizes that one gets “automatic credit” by being the only woman who can play drums, something like a ‘Queen Bee,’ an identity she shies away from.

Gandhi graduated from Georgetown University’s Georgetown College in 2011 with a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics, political science and women’s studies. Despite it being 3 years since she graduated, the university is apparently cashing in on her celebrity. It ran a special piece on Feb. 19 about her ostensibly hoping to attract new applicants with Gandhi’s eclectic accomplishments. “Rock Star Drummer Studied Drumbeats at Georgetown,” the headline proclaims and goes on to quote Prof. Matthias Eller, who oversaw Gandhi’s independent study on math and drumming. Gandhi looked at what happens when a drumstick hits the drum and an “infinite amount of vibrating modes” and “circular vibrating shapes” occurs. She used partial differential equations, linear algebra and multivariable calculus in her independent study.

“Kiran seems to have the remarkable ability to turn dreams into reality,” Eller says. “Among all the students I have taught at Georgetown, she may be the student with the highest motivation, initiative and drive,” Eller is quoted saying on the website. Gandhi told Desi Talk Eller was a wonderful professor. “He allowed me to carry a lot of my visions in life.”

By the time she finished at Georgetown, Gandhi knew she wanted to be in the music world. She took a 3-month internship at Interscope Records in Los Angeles and went on to work there fulltime. She helped establish the first Analytics Department at Interscope and became the label’s leading analyst for two years. Interscope had just begun putting music by its artists on You Tube, Spotify and Sound Cloud, and Gandhi took on the task of developing a formula to measure success – whether it made sense to upload on these platforms and what it means to have a million hits etc.

Gandhi’s position evolved into something more — putting out several weekly reports on how the Interscope artists were faring on the web, at a time when CD sales were still to be hit by online viewers and listeners. “So we could now go to the management to show them how strong their artist was or was not performing.” Inside the company, her department could show how well it; how well digital media is doing; and answer questions on why it was good to invest in data analysis “and invest in me.”

This valuable merging of business and music put her in good stead to join Harvard, also her father’s alma mater. Today, for her MBA at Harvard, she has courses like entrepreneurial management and building startups. It hasn’t been easygoing though.

“The discipline to sit down and learn a financial model is difficult to do on a plan, getting ready to play before 10,000 people,” Gandhi said. So she prioritizes based on what she wants to really do and dumping what she calls ‘auxiliary’ activities. Playing with M.I.A. is as close to a dream job for the business major. She feels “comfortable” and describes M.I.A. as a “creative intellectual” who questions “the constructs of capitalism.” Besides, M.I.A.’s clothing line is awesome and reflects her ideology. That is why Gandhi’s most memorable concert so far was the one in Warsaw, where M.I.A. headlined Poland’s Burn Selector Festival Sept. 7. Local designers had left gifts of clothes for the band in a style emulating M.I.A.’s.

“These funky clothes – it seemed like they knew who we were, our esthetic.” That esthetic is one where M.I.A. regularly confronts even as she engages the establishment. “So even if you say, ‘I’m going to design with Versace, she will do it in a subversive way – like “M.I.A. versus Versace” — it’s like creating Third World imitations even though made by Versace.”

Interestingly, Gandhi has not yet played in a concert in India, a place she lived for 3 years while growing up. It’s something she wants very much to do she says. Asked what her future plans are, Gandhi turns silent for several seconds before responding. “The fact that I’m silent is exactly where I am at this time,” of becoming aware. But her immediate priorities she says “are getting smarter and getting better at drums.”