CalArts President Ravi Rajan in the "sub-level" basement where student graffiti abounds.

Ravi Rajan: California Institute of the Arts president

When Ravi Rajan started his final year of high school in Norman, Oklahoma, it looked like his career path was firmly in place. He would attend college with the goal of becoming a pediatrician. However, during his senior year Rajan’s mindset changed, sending him down the path that brought the Seattle-born musician to the Santa Clarita Valley in 2017 to become the fourth president of California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

First generation

Rajan was born to parents who immigrated to the United States from southern India.

“My dad came to this country as a graduate student,” said Rajan. “At the time the only way to get into the United States was on a student visa. He was working as a physicist on atomic energy in India. My older sister and my mom supported the idea of coming to the U.S. They wanted to forge a new path. He came as a graduate student in atmospheric science, meteorology.”

While the elder Rajan was establishing himself at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, his wife and two daughters waited to join him in the U.S. During that time, his younger daughter died at age 4 from a chronic respiratory condition.

“I wasn’t born yet,” Rajan said. Rajan’s mother had to bury her daughter, alone, while her husband stayed in the United States.

Rajan was born after his reunited family moved to Seattle when his father was at the University of Washington. The family moved to Norman when he was a year old.

“I am a product of the public library and public schools in Norman,” he proudly said. “The area is not unlike Santa Clarita.”

CalArts President Ravi Rajan stands by a portrait of Walt Disney, located near Rajan’s office. Disney conceived the idea of a “community of arts” built around real-life experiences of working artists. That vision became CalArts.

A need to create

In elementary school, Rajan played the viola until he heard the New York Philharmonic play “The Rite of Spring.” The classical piece is well-known for featuring the bassoon in its score.

“I went to the sixth-grade band director and told him I wanted to play the bassoon,” he said. “I remember the look on his face, it said, ‘In my entire career, no one has ever asked to play the bassoon.’”

In high school, Rajan decided to join the jazz band. “I had a friend who played trumpet, so I picked it up and learned to play,” he said.

Then in his senior year, he switched instruments focusing exclusively on the trumpet in both the orchestra and jazz band.

It was during this time Rajan was learning about the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. From 1918-1937, the Harlem Renaissance was a blossoming of African-American culture, particularly in the creative arts.

“The arts really caught hold of me. I realized I needed to express my thoughts and ideas to really understand the world by creating things as an artist,” he said. “It became clear to me all of a sudden that I needed to be an artist. I wanted a career in the arts.”

Rajan had already sent his applications to colleges that focused on medicine. However, he enrolled at the University of Oklahoma where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in music education. ‘It had good music and education programs,” he said.

Yale

After college, Rajan taught music in the Norman public school system for a year before attending graduate school at Yale.

“I could have made the decision to stay in Norman as a teacher, but I felt I needed to explore more,” he said. “I loved teaching, there is nothing like seeing the change that is possible when working directly with students.”

Besides, Rajan had long been captivated by New York City.

“I loved the humanity and the arts and the theater, so Yale seemed like a good choice because it was on the train line to New York,” he said.  

Rajan earned a master’s in music from Yale while exploring other areas of the arts, including theater directing and working on a digital media center for the arts.

New York

Yale offered Rajan a job after graduation, but New York City beckoned.

“I was playing some Broadway shows,” he said. “I thought if Yale wanted to hire me, I could probably get a job in New York. I packed up, moved down the train line and got a job doing media design at Rockefeller University, a medical research university.”

Rajan offered private trumpet lessons, and continued playing trumpet in on- and off-Broadway shows. He played in a variety of bands and also was a member of the Tony Awards nominating committee.

Sept. 11

Rajan lived in New York City less than a year when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought down the World Trade Center.

“It was tough. I remember it was a glorious day going to work at Rockefeller University, not a cloud in the sky, like a Southern California day,” he said. “It was 70 and sunny and beautiful. I got to work, had my coffee, went in and sat down and pulled out the projects we were working on.”

It was then a co-worker delivered the news, a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

“We didn’t know what was happening at the time,” he said. News reports tried to make sense of what was happening when a plane hit the second tower. Rajan and his co-workers, despite being miles away were able to go to the top of a building and see the World Trade Center in the distance.

“We could see smoke billowing out of the towers. We were up there for a while, people had radios on so we were listening to the news, then all of a sudden, one of the towers disappeared,” he said.

There was confusion on what had happened, then realization a tower had collapsed.

Rajan said there was no immediate noise from the collapse. “You heard sounds much later, you saw much more smoke, then you heard people screaming,” he said.

As transit into and out of NYC was shut down co-workers became worried how they would get home and pick up children from school. “Many cell phones didn’t work well,” he said. “People had a lot of concern about practical life problems, but it was also a scary situation.”

Rajan lived about 5 miles “up the island” from Rockefeller University. With no trains running Rajan started walking home. “Just as I got to Central Park a taxi pulled over and asked me which way I was going,” he said. The driver told Rajan he was headed in the same direction and offered Rajan a ride.

“He didn’t charge me,” he said. “It was an interesting moment in New York. It was deadly quiet. You saw people walking, but there was no noise, no honking. It was eerily quiet and there was that smell, the smell of the burning towers, it was really bad.”

Rajan played a Broadway show not long after the attack. “I was coming out of the subway at Times Square walking toward the theater and a guy looked at me and started calling me bad names,” he said. “It was shocking because nothing like that had ever happened to me in New York.”

The incident started Rajan thinking. “It helped me to distil that I wanted to work with young people,” he said. “When that happened to me, I felt young people are the opportunity. When people are afraid, they do things like that, I wanted to work with young people to help them be exposed to different experiences and people.”

SUNY-Purchase

Rajan said the Sept. 11 tragedy gave him “a moment to think about what I wanted to do and why.”

“Society was hurting in a peculiar way and I saw how people were changing,” he said. “It seemed like it was time to focus on the things important to you.”

He applied at State University of New York at Purchase doing the kind of media work he was doing at Rockefeller. “I felt compelled to make the move at that point and it was great decision,” he said.

During his 16 years at SUNY-Purchase Rajan served as director of art and design, associate dean of the arts and dean of the school of the arts.

CalArts President Ravi Rajan in front of classroom A113 that has “reached legendary status as an Easter egg in every Pixar film,” according to CalArts. The classroom used to be the home of graphic design and animation students.

CalArts

After six years as head of the arts department at SUNY-Purchase, Rajan found himself looking for a new opportunity. “I had been in a different position about every five or six years,” he said. When the phone rang with an offer from a recruiter to apply for the CalArts position Rajan jumped at the chance.

“I said yes, absolutely, because of what CalArts is, because it is such an important school and had such a great faculty, students and alum,” he said. “It was enticing and it had a reputation and a value-set that agreed with me. Especially in terms of being experimental and innovative.”

Rajan sees the community of Santa Clarita and CalArts as having a shared set of values with an emphasis on the arts. “With the history of William S. Hart, all the films and television that has been made here, there is an appreciation for the arts in Santa Clarita,” he said.

Meeting Lucy

Rajan met his wife, Lucy, when preparing for his master’s dissertation recital at Yale. A friend who had agreed to sing in a recital lost her voice, so she recruited her roommate to sub for her.

“My recital was for trumpet and soprano,” he said. “After we met, we were friends for a long time. She got singing gigs in Italy and spent a lot of time going around the world. About four years later, she came back and lived in New York so we started dating.”

The couple knew each other for almost a decade before getting married. They celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary on Aug. 24. Two sons —  Leo, 9 and Liv, 6 — round out the family.

The American Dream

When Rajan reflects on his career he thinks of where his parents started.

“They both came from small villages with shared wells,” he said. “That’s how my parents grew up. They went from shared wells to having your kid become president of one of the world’s most important art schools.”

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