April 3, 2001
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The Rediff US Special/ Arun Venugopal

An Ounce of Bronze in an Ocean of Snow

Alaska is 586,412 square miles in area. You can put several American states into that space, quite a few countries as well, and still have room left over. Alaska is big. And Alaska is desolate.

So in 1970, when Dr M S Nagabhushan Rao (better known as Nag Rao) ventured out to the western-most town of Nome, known to locals as the Edge of the World, he couldn't but feel an odd tinge of pioneer pride: I am the first Indian to ever set foot here.

Dr Rao had just moved in from Washington state, lured by the sociology department at the University of Alaska, based in Fairbanks. This was years before the behavioral scientist was to rock the academic establishment of the state, and well before he began broadcasting his provocative talk show and Indian radio program. For the moment, that day in 1970, Dr Rao was simply an ethnic anomaly: an ounce of bronze in an ocean of snow.

Or so he thought. Before he had the chance to savor his world-conquering status, out there on the icy fringes of the Arctic, Dr Rao discovered another Indian had preceded him. A man from Kerala, he was told, who had already set up a thriving little restaurant. "In Nome!" he exclaimed, the disbelief still fresh in his mind. "It was incredibly funny."

These days, of course, there are Indians and Pakistanis all over Alaska. Go to any Pizza Hut in Fairbanks, he'll tell you, and you might find an Indian buffet, courtesy the desi management. But Dr Rao was indeed among the first... an academic drawn to the booming state economy. Following the construction of the Alaskan pipeline, which generated billions of dollars for the state (and a tidy annual dividend for residents), a great deal of money was pumped into education, attracting Ph Ds from around the world.

Most of the Indians who arrived were petroleum engineers. Dr Rao was an exception. He had taught at the University of Mysore from 1958 to 1966 before moving to America. It wasn't long before he became the head of the behavioral sciences program at Fairbanks, a position he's held for the last 24 years.

Life seemed to be just grand for Dr Nag Rao. In the 90s, firmly ensconced in academic circles, he was persuaded to host a talk show -- a mundane enough program about university affairs entitled Speak Up and Speak Out with Nag Rao. Eventually, he started playing little segments of Indian music -- five minutes here, five minutes there. But the talk was where it was at: It was an opportunity for Dr Rao to hold forth on the grievances he shared with his peers.

"The faculty and students didn't have much say in how the university was run," he recalled of his early statements. He quickly discovered that his opinions resonated well beyond his immediate circle. Academics in the 49th state, he noted, felt that they were disenfranchised, and lacked any sense of unity or collective power. Dr Rao helped inaugurate a movement towards unionization, and he was soon thrust into the spotlight, for better or worse. "I got labeled the Commie from India," he said. "I didn't mind. I didn't care. The faculty were really getting ripped off."

According to Dr Rao, the $150,000 salaries that were being doled out to university presidents were a colossal waste. Many of these administrators, drawn from the East Coast, had no stake in the actual welfare of Alaskans, but were simply interested in sticking around long enough to swing a pension. "They get a good fat retirement from it and leave," he said, adding, "They go and retire in Hawaii. They're living off the money they get from Alaska. If they come here they should do something."

People seemed to agree with the outspoken professor, whose campaign slogan, Five and Fly, became a state catch phrase ("You come here for five years, rip us off and fly away"). In quick succession, a number of university presidents, chancellors and top administrators lost their jobs. And that wasn't all.

"In Alaska, when you say snowballing, it has many meanings," said Dr Rao. In this instance, it referred to the strong support that Rao's unionization platform was garnering, helped in large part by his numerous personal appearances.

"I had to travel all over the state," he noted. "I was kind of a political personality." Ultimately, there was no question what the state's voters wanted. They voted overwhelmingly in favor of academic unionization, and before long Dr Rao found himself courted left and right, in the most literal sense.

"I was invited to run for state office by both Democrats and Republicans," he said, "but I'm still not a citizen. After 36 years, I feel like a US citizen but my heart is still in India." He acknowledges, however, that his anti-establishment ways are unlike those of most Indians, with their passive, accept-and-move-on approach. "I've never been that way," he said. "I was always kind of a troublemaker, although my family was afraid I'd get hurt."

But when it comes to his burgeoning music programming, Dr. Rao has been anything but divisive. Music of India with Nag Rao, his three weekly hours of Indian music and culture, is popular with Indians and non-Indians alike.

"Many people call in and hum a tune because they don't know the words," he noted of his less-exposed listeners. His program has regularly been number one in its time slot, amazing for a city with less than a thousand Indian families. But he's quick to add that he ventures beyond music, whether it's devotional or popular.

"I just don't play songs," he said. "I talk about India a lot." He makes it a point to explain various Indian holidays, whether it's Ugadi or Holi or Independence Day. He even ran an Indian Christmas show, a wake-up to anyone who thinks India's just about holy cows and swamis.

In many ways, though, Dr Nag Rao is just another local, a tried-and-true Alaskan who isn't put off by the fifty-below-zero winters. That's what four-wheel-drives and snow tires are for, he'll tell you. Alaska clearly isn't for the humble and the meek. "It's like another planet," he said. And that's just the way he likes it.

The Music of India with Dr Nag Rao

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