Margazhi Festival

Strings that sing

amma with kalpakam patti   | Photo Credit: mail pic

Her enthusiasm is phenomenal, matched only by her love for the veena. Bhakti for her guru(s) runs as a silver thread through the conversation. Nirmala Rajasekar sees the hand of Destiny in the moments that have proved to be turning points in her life. She thanks the Almighty for bestowing on her the divine talent and taking her to the right mentors at the right moments.

Born in a family that has no musical ancestry, Nirmala has made a mark with the veena, an instrument not easy to master. Anyone can play the instrument but the talent lies in giving it soul, she was constantly reminded by her guru Kalpagam Swaminathan. “That’s what I try to do,” says Nirmala, who uses all her resources, including her vocal prowess, to strike a rapport with the listener. Her graph does not have dramatic upswings but shows a steady climb from a normal learner and practitioner to a world renowned vainika, whose cap has many colourful feathers.

As a six-year old she held her grandfather’s hand and proceeded to the music class, when other children were playing. “Sensing my yearning he would say, ‘Go for the class, I’ll give you ten paise.’ Soon, I got involved in music and didn’t need any bribe. That way grandpa passed on his passion,” she muses. “My parents, in their own way, nurtured me but never pushed me.”

“Veena is our national instrument. It is a treasure. Come for concerts and support the veena.”

Nirmala’s initial teachers were Devakottai Narayana Iyengar and Kamala Aswathama. Her father’s bank job took her to Bangalore where tutelage began under Channamma and later her disciple, E.P. Alamelu. The Bangalore Gayana Samaj had organised a music ensemble and she went to play the veena. The next morning there was a knock on the door and outside was ace violinist A.D. Zachariah, who had conducted the orchestra the previous day. To her puzzled father, Zachariah said, “I want to teach your daughter a song.”

“It was unbelievable. He taught me ‘Namaste Paradevate,’ a rare varnam in Devaranji, and a few more. Back in Madras after a few years, Nirmala had to pick up the thread. But with whom? “For about three months, I didn’t have a guru and used the time to listen to a lot of music.”

Her father, an ardent fan of S. Balachander, brought home the maestro’s LPs and in the process, was doing something that would play a crucial part in his daughter’s musical journey. “SB’s music mesmerised me. I listened to it constantly and before long, had imbibed it,” says Nirmala. “This, however, did not in any way impede my learning when I was accepted by Kalpagam Swaminathan,” she adds.

“My guru, a great vainika herself, encouraged my love for Balachandar’s music, so much so that my ties with the genius flourished until his demise,” informs Nirmala. She recalls the incident when she got an opportunity to present a concert with Balachandar as chief guest. Speaking after the programme, SB analysed her concert. “About Neetimati, I don’t want to say anything because…” he paused plunging the girl into despair. He completed saying “… that would be complimenting myself.” And he went on to shower praises on the guru leaving Nirmala on cloud nine.

According to Nirmala, what followed was even more thrilling. Balachander asked her to join ‘Raaga Yaagam’ he was conducting for budding musicians, every Sunday. “It was bliss to learn from two stalwarts at the same time without any conflict. I was not even aware of the enormity at that time. It was just awesome and I made the most of it.”

As icing on the cake came the Central Government scholarship that took her to New Delhi, where the brilliant T.R. Subramaniam became her vocal mentor. “A fruitful association of 20 years began. Along with my students, we had a wonderful time whenever he visited Minnesota.”

Nirmala’s eyes turn moist when she speaks of Kalpagam Swaminathan. “I owe her everything. She taught me not only art but values. I realised later that she had shaped me into a complete woman, ready to take on the roles of a wife and mother without losing my identity as an artist. The song that I learnt each Vijayadasami was precious to me, a tradition that continued for 26 years. Her precision and accuracy were unparalleled.”

Nirmala remembers her guru’s patience. “Without so much as a grimace, she would play again and again until I got the note right. That tolerance was itself chastising,” she recalls. “And her humility. After every concert, she would ask with genuine concern, ‘Was the kutcheri ok’?”

Chosen by the Bush Foundation among 750 applications across varied fields, the first Indian to win this honour, Nirmala made a documentary on her teacher and presented it to the Foundation. Seetharama Sarma is another doyen she mentions with fondness. “He taught me vocal music and the link continues with my daughter attending classes whenever she is here,” she explains.

Marriage to a software engineer took Nirmala to the U.S., where she runs her school, Nada Rasa. She gave up her IT job to spend more time with her children and music. “I’m enjoying every minute of it. I never thought I’d be away from India so long. My heart is here and my mission is to take the veena to every nook and corner. I don’t miss any performing opportunity and my students participate in all events and competitions.” According to her, that keeps them motivated. But arangetram will happen only when she feels the student is ready. The vainika is on the board of several schools, where music is part of the syllabus. Nirmala introduces Carnatic music to the students. She felt rewarded when her presentation of Panchatantra was well received. She marvels at the dedication of both parents and students.

“Minnesota is the coldest place in the United States and they come driving for hours to attend class. Sometimes, they stay overnight, we watch a film, and class begins at dawn the following day.” Nirmala finds the return of adults to classes a heartening development.

An ‘A’ Grade AIR artist, Nirmala raises the bar by trying not to repeat songs. Repetition of a couple of ragas is an allowance she made recently. She loves vivadi ragas but handles them with care. “My guru never fought shy of them but instead has taught me to play them never losing sight of aesthetics,” she supplies.

Accepting the Swara Raga Sarangyar award from the Panchamukha Anjaneyar Festival Committee recently, she made a fervent plea: “Veena is our national instrument. It is a treasure. Come for concerts and support the veena.” That sums up her goal.

“Panditji made the sitar famous. The veena should attain that status and I'll work for that,” she says and adds in a lighter vein, “You know, at the U.S. airports, those staff, who earlier used to say, ‘Oh, the sitar,’ now chorus, ‘Oh! the veena lady.’ I consider that a small victory, for the instrument.”

Click on the respective venues to read about concerts performed there.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 4:27:43 PM |

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