Medha Asthana

Janaury 17, 2024

Abigail Arnold | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

 Geeking Out With…is a new feature in which we talk to GSAS students about their passions. You can check out past installments here.

Medha Asthana is a fourth-year PhD candidate in Anthropology. They are currently in the field in North India, researching queer individuals raised as daughters and their relationships with different generations of women in their families. Their research examines kinship, gender roles, and care as it relates to deviance from gender norms, and what it is like for self-identified small-town queer people who still live with their families, as opposed to those who live in bigger cities. They joined Geeking Out With… to talk about their passion for music.

This interview has been edited for clarity.


How did your passion for music develop?

I’m not a specialist or expert in music–I consider myself very much a generalist, although I was in choir and used to play an instrument. As a kid, music was always a very important part of my life. There are many stories from my childhood about me bursting out singing loudly, and I used to write songs as a kid. But as an adult, I also started using music more as a tool.

When I was in college, I did a spring break program in Costa Rica. It was my first school study abroad trip, and everyone in the group became very close and was sad to leave. I remember saying goodbye to our host. I had kind of become the DJ of this group, and in the van on the last day, I had this instinct to play “Young Forever” by Jay-Z. I could see that it made everyone get emotional and start tearing up; it changed the dynamic and what we were experiencing. In another instance, I had moved to India to live with my partner at their family’s house. We were sitting at the table, and their mom was listening to a 1980s Indian disco song that I had asked to play. I could see a tear running down her face from nostalgia. So I’ve realized that I get to connect to people through a curated intuition around music. In these situations, I was helping to curate music that enhanced my life experiences.

How do you use music to connect with others?

I think music becomes a soundtrack that I add to life scenes or stories. As an anthropologist, I’m tuned in to people’s dynamics. Here in India, a lot of people are outgoing or expressive and lean into performance. Whenever we hang out, people play music and say, “Let’s sing! Let’s dance!” You don’t have to know “how to dance” –people just break out dancing however they want, almost like a stereotypical Bollywood movie. I pick specific songs that people react to, or I ask people to share very intentionally–I ask someone who loves to dance to pick a song, and they get that opportunity to share with us. While music is very personal, I use it analytically too. I bring things out of people by asking them to share music.

So music is something that you incorporate into your academic practice?

Yes! My research work is very intertwined with my personal life. The people I’m working with in my research are part of my queer community, and they also live in the city where I was born (Lucknow) before I immigrated to the United States. Any anthropologist will tell you the line between subject and interlocutor can be blurry– relationships are complicated and we are working together, rather than having a one-way dynamic. And music comes in and can reveal things about people and the moment.

I’d also like to incorporate music into my teaching practice. For my capstone at Brandeis’s summer reading-writing pedagogy institute, the topic I chose included using music as a tool. I was thinking about how to make the idea of higher education and critical thinking more accessible, especially at access-oriented institutions where students may have been discouraged from learning in their own ways by the system before starting college. I came up with an in-class activity where students find an interview with one of their favorite musical artists and analyze it critically, thinking about the artist and why they enjoy them. It lets people analyze something they love without the high stakes of complex theoretical concepts. My fellow Anthropology PhD student Gowthaman Ranganathan and I presented at the Brandeis Anthropology Research Seminar (BARS) about pedagogy, and my fellow grad students came up afterwards and shared their interest in the activity I’d come up with. Music is a feeling, an intuition everyone can connect to. It can be used in teaching critical thinking, reading, and writing and in fieldwork as a humanistic approach of connecting everyone. I’ve used my passion to move towards experiential learning.

How has your relationship to music evolved over time?

At first, I just loved singing and playing songs. As I grew up and graduated from Radio Disney to my iPod, my taste evolved. Now, I curate a lot of playlists from different genres. And a lot of my relationships have been built on music and people saying we should jam together! I have a friend from college who’s a DJ; we brainstorm different playlists together and give each other recommendations. He says he thinks of me as a DJ because I curate different music and share it with people. I don’t know if I’ll become a turnstyle DJ, but I’m pretty active on Instagram in curating music and creating moods–for example, I’ll make a playlist of alternative R&B soul to create a nighttime mood. For me, it’s all a big process of analysis and synthesis. I’ve been doing some concert and album reviews for fun too. It’s an all-encompassing project for me.

I’ve also learned to be a little less judgemental of my taste and others’ taste. There are so many opinions about what is “good music,” and a lot is super subjective. As a high schooler, I may have thought, “Why do you like this pop artist? That’s not indie enough!” Now I’m much more interested in the real reasons why someone likes something, which speaks to my instincts as a scholar. What about the music is really drawing people in? I think my relationship to music has become more generous, more forgiving. I think of music as a really powerful thing and a vessel. I love asking people what music they listen to because it’s a reflection of them. I would definitely put it on a questionnaire for a date. And if someone doesn’t listen to music, that’s also okay! That’s also information.

What other experiences in your life have helped cement your love for music?

There’s usually an understanding that a lot of factors lead to someone developing and sustaining a passion. For me, my culture and immediate family really helped. I would wake up every Saturday to my dad playing Sufi music. One time, when my family was visiting my parents’ friends, they asked my parents to sing. I’d never seen that before, and getting to see my dad and my mom both pull up a song that they loved and sing it in front of all of us helped me see them in a new way. The ubiquity of music around me in different ways helped sustain it as a passion, even though it’s not necessarily my parents’ number one hobby and they are not musicians.

When you’re not enjoying music, teaching, or researching, what else do you like to do?

I love consuming pop culture. I am a big fan of TV and movies and of reading reviews. None of it is “low” or “high” culture: it’s all just cultural production. I like checking out the newest interesting SNL skit. I think “trash reality TV” is really insightful about our culture. For example, during the pandemic The Circle and Love is Blind, both reality shows about people who couldn’t see each other, came out. I also liked watching how different shows tackled their covid seasons! I especially love romantic comedies–I think we’re seeing a decline in them now, but I would really recommend Bottoms, which is about a lesbian fight club. It’s written from a 2023 perspective, but it plays like a 1990s teen sex comedy.

What advice do you have for other students exploring their passions?

I would advise approaching your passion with a lightheartedness and playfulness. Especially as people in advanced education, we have a tendency to want to be the best, be perfect, and master things, but you don’t need a doctorate in your passions. I’m a big proponent of beating perfectionism, which is also something the pedagogy institute taught me. A lot of us who grew up getting gold stars can have trouble developing new hobbies if we’re not good at them right away. Allow yourself grace and don’t try to become a professional; try to engage in a life-giving way so it can be sustainable and fun. I’m glad I haven’t become a DJ because music is just for me and the experiences I have with people–I get to decide how to engage with it and when.