MacArthur ‘Genius’ Vijay Gupta on a traumatic childhood and finally being ‘seen’

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LA Philharmonic violinist Vijay Gupta recently won a MacArthur “genius” grant, which are given to people who show “exceptional creativity in their work.” Gupta is known for launching Street Symphony, a nonprofit that brings classical music to Skid Row, homeless shelters, and the LA County jail.

The MacArthur is often an achievement of a lifetime for many people. Gupta is only 31 years old. So what does the grant mean to him? He tells Press Play, “With the secret nomination process, so many people must have been nominators. Therefore, it’s almost this kind of secret army of people who trusted and believed in me for years. Now this is like an investment of trust -- for me to be all of who I am.”

The award came during a tough transition in his life. He was getting divorced, which he says already brought up existential and spiritual questions. “It’s a really vulnerable time. And yet, to be given as much trust and faith and belief, it’s overwhelming,” he says.


From an invisible childhood -- to being understood on Skid Row 

Gupta’s parents immigrated to New York from India in the 1970s. He grew up in Poughkeepsie, where he says they were the only brown family for a 15-20 mile radius. 

“I learned how to cope with never being fully seen -- from a very, very young age. And certainly along with not being seen as a different race, I also wasn’t seen for being really talented at playing the violin. So I started playing when I was 4. But a lot of my local music teachers either said, ‘we can’t handle him,’ or said, ‘you need to go to New York City,’” he recalls.

However, he was put on display. As a 7 year old, his father booked him on Oprah. “I was always seen as the ‘prodigy.’ And seen as being this really bright, shiny person. But as a result, I was never allowed to be angry. I was never allowed to be sad. I was never allowed to be tired. I had to be on. So I learned how to be on. I made my whole life out of that. And that’s even a question now. What does it mean to begin to take care of myself for the first time?”

Gupta says that when he began his work on Skid Row, people there saw who he was and what he was feeling. “I would go into Skid Row and have a whole program planned out, and there’d be folks sitting in a shelter or clinic saying ‘Uh uh uh uh, we’re not doing that today. Because we can see you’re hurting. What’s going on?’ ”

Finding his own way 

Now with the MacArthur grant, and his work with Street Symphony and the LA Phil, he finally gets to choose how things will be different. Reflecting on his childhood, he says, “The choice was never extended to me to choose how to be excellent.” 

He suggests that being able to choose his own excellence now -- making the rules -- is a daunting gift. 

Are his parents proud? 

Gupta’s parents immigrated to the U.S. when they were young. His father was 23 and his mother was 17. His dad peeled potatoes in New York City kitchens and worked the baggage claim at JFK airport. He built a travel agency from scratch, and sent both his sons to Juilliard. His dream was to Gupta in front of the world’s greatest musicians, including Indian conductor Zubin Mehta.

He booked Gupta -- at age 9 -- an audition with Mehta in Tel Aviv. “My dad actually sat out in the hall during my audition. He didn’t wait for me backstage. Because he wanted to see Mehta’s reaction. That to me -- now -- is very telling. Because there was so much on the line for him. I realized it wasn’t that he was living vicariously through me. I was his life. And that’s loaded. That has a lot of stuff for a 9-year-old.” 

When Gupta joined the LA Phil at 19, his dad told friends back home that Gupta was hired by Disney Corp., not Walt Disney Concert Hall. “Because that way, his friends would be more impressed. So go back to ‘being enough’ and what that actually means. And he chased that wound his whole life,” Gupta explains.

Gupta’s dad died in his mid ‘60s. 

Gupta says he reached out to his mom 20 minutes before the MacArthur announcement. They hadn’t talked in years. “I sent my brother and her an email just saying, ‘I know I wouldn’t be here without you.’”