A vainika’s journey around the world

Nirmala Rajasekar performing at Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha (Vani Mahal) in Chennai.   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan

Nirmala Rajasekar’s camaraderie is her strength, be it a concert or conversation. Her passion for music comes through when she talks. After a beaming ‘hello,’ she says almost in the same breath, “Today I am going to play ‘Innamum sandega padalamo...’ This is only the second occasion I am playing this kriti but I was moved to tears when I practised it. So soulful, believe me.”

During her stay and journey both in Europe and the U.S., Nirmala made it her goal to propagate Carnatic music, especially the veena, the Western learners’ curiosity fuelling the fire. And she works hard for that. “I have made my stay in India a six-month affair, to immerse in the musical activities and reach out to more people,” she says.

Nirmala has indeed been busy making long strides, collaborating and teaching. After her stint in Europe, Nirmala moved to Minnesota, one of the coldest places in North America. She approached the State Arts Board there for assistance under Folk and Traditional Arts to promote the veenain Minnesota and North Dakota with the help of library systems. With their assistance, she travelled lecturing and performing, often at three or four places on a given day. Later, she invited Thanjavur Murugaboopathi to play percussion for her concerts and also to talk about rhythm. This year, Nirmala’s focus is more on varnams and tillanas.

In 2020, Nirmala plans to organise and present concerts on Nature-based compositions to show that our legendary composers have gone beyond devotional and spiritual aspects to highlight the greatness of nature and the need to preserve it. She visited several senior homes, schools and colleges to introduce and promote Indian music with the support from Schubert’s Club, Minnesota. This is done mostly as a free service. “It was incredible when I realised that I had reached out to nearly 10,000 seniors and children and feel happy that I can do something through music for these two sections of our community,” Nirmala adds, “because I remember I performed in a place for elders near Kalavai at the behest of Mahaperiyava when I was just eighteen. Elders’ blessings are important to me,” she says.

With the support of the North Dakota Library Group she performed several concerts, one of them was in a chapel, which resembled its famous counterpart at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Nirmala runs a music school Nadarasa - Center for Music, where she teaches veena. With the impetus given by Cleveland Sundaram, she had organised ‘Veena Ganam,’ a special programme featuring mainly veena, vocal and mridangam in April last. Thanjavur Murugaboopathy, N. Srinivasan and Sriram Natarajan trained the students diligently and the programme was a grand success. The participants, in the six-65 age group, were from nine states. There were 30 veena and 10 mridangam players and 30 vocalists. It was attended by many stalwarts of Carnatic music from Chennai. The next edition is going to be bigger with more participants. “The veenas were brought from Minnesota by bus carefully travelling nearly for two days,” she adds.

Nirmala is one of the vice-presidents of the Global Carnatic Music Association, which was inaugurated in April 2019. She is supported by other popular musicians of the South. The association is all set to conduct a major event on January 2, 3 and 4 at Vedanta Desikar Hall, Chennai. Participants are coming from the U.S., New Zealand, West Asia and Europe. Log into for details.

Album of friendship

Nirmala speaks with enthusiasm about ‘Maithree-The Music of Friendship,’ album, which represents all genres of music. Launched in October 2018 by Innova Recordings of the U.S., the collaboration has apart from Nirmala on the voice and veena, Thanjavur Murugabhoopathi on the mridangam, ghatam, ganjira and konnakkol, Pat O’Keefe on the clarionet and saxophone, Michelle Kinney on cello (both of them are professors) and Tim O’Keefe on multi-percussion. A chartbuster, it fell short of the top position in the Grammy race, but was reviewed in the Italian, Spanish, British and American media.

A vainika’s journey around the world

Earlier, Nirmala had made two Carnatic albums with Innova Recordings — ‘Into the Raga’ (Murugabhoopathy, Raghavendra Rao, ghatam Suresh) and the ‘Songs of Veena.’ Both are kutcheri type of presentations. She singles out the ‘Song of Wonder’ as a unique collaboration — commissioned to present Sephardic music with Sephardic scholars that spanned many cultures. “This is a music of the Jews, who had migrated to different parts of the world, including Morocco, Mediterranean, West Asia and even India,” explains Nirmala, who found Sephardic music carrying shades of Indian and Hindu traditions. The album explored the wonder of life from creation to destruction. David Harris, a Sephardic scholar was the brain behind this project.

‘Carnatic Energy’ was another collaboration in 2000. It was with the famous Jazz player Anthony Cox where Nirmala created a space for the veena, voice and tabla. She had also interacted with popular guitarist, Dean Magraw, composer, arranger, producer. Another partnership was with a Chinese musician, Gao Hong titled ‘Butterfly,’ who plays an instrument called Pipa. It was an all-woman band and ‘Butterfly’ starts with something very similar to our ‘Mahaganapthim’ as Gao Hong was influenced by that kriti. It fetched Nirmala the privilege of playing in the famous Carnegie Hall. She also allies with her daughter Shruthi Rajasekar, trained in both Carnatic and Western music.

A vainika’s journey around the world

Nirmala has been conducting Tyagaraja Aradhana in Minnesota since 1995. “Now it has become just ‘Aradhana’ because we sing the kritis of other vaggeyakkaras too,” she says. She has now launched a non-profit organisation Nadha Rasa to take Indian classical music across the world. With Layyaasaaram, U.S., Nadha Rasa conducted a programme on the mridangam with Karaikkudi Mani in January last.

Nirmala does not agree that instrumental music has few takers. “My performance at the Sawai Gandharva Festival in Pune recently was attended by young people, many of whom surrounded me asking questions. In Kolkata, Tarun Battacharya, famous santoor player, expressed his happiness to offer a pure Carnatic instrumental concert to their audience notwithstanding the fact that I have done jugalbandis with Tarunji and also with Ronu Majumdar and Gaurav Mazumdar earlier,” she says.

The University of Wisconsin has identified Nirmala Rajasekar as the Composer of the Year 2019-20. She will be writing exclusive pieces for the University’s choir, jazz band and the orchestra. A first generation musician, Nirmala has crossed milestones, talent being her only credential. Her appeal to the audience this Season? “Please attend instrumental music concerts in large numbers. Remember, every instrument gives a new dimension to music.”

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 3:22:36 AM |

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