A life devoted to understanding the sound of the ancients

Plymouth teacher shares India’s rich musical heritage 

Plymouth resident Nirmala Rajasekar is a woman deeply devoted and invested in teaching, learning, sharing and performing the centuries old art of South Indian Carnatic music.

Rajasekar was born in Chennai, a southern seaport formerly known as Madras, in India. She came to America more than 20 years ago, and has called Plymouth home for the majority of that time.

“I never thought I would live in Minnesota, and that’s the honest to god truth. We didn’t ever think this would become our home, and that’s what it is now,” Rajasekar said. “When I travel, I always think of this place as home. I did not care for the winter at first, I still don’t, but I love it in Plymouth.”

Growing up in Chennai, Rajasekar became engrossed and mystified by classical Indian music, specifically with the traditional stringed instrument the veena.

Nirmala Rajasekar teaches students at Nada Rasa Center for Music in Plymouth. (Photo by Brian Rosemeyer – Sun Newspapers)

Widely considered the national instrument of India, the veena is the most ancient stringed instrument of the country; Rajasekar claims it to be more than 2,000 years old. It is typically about 5 feet long and features 24 metal frets embedded in hardened bees-wax mixed with charcoal powder.

Rajasekar first came in contact with the veena in Chennai, and she draws the comparison that her birthplace is to Indian Carnatic music what Hollywood is to the American film industry.

She began studying the veena and classical Indian styling when she was 6 and began seriously playing the veena at 13.

Rajasekar recalls the profound allure the instrument evoked in her.

“There was a dragon head on one end; that could have been it,” she said. “Or maybe it was the goal to tame this big instrument. But I really think it was the tone. The tone was actually calling to me.”

She studied with her teacher Kalpakam Swami Natham for 30 years, until Swami Natham’s death in 2011.

All the while the veena and Carnatic music remained a major fulfillment in Rajasekar’s life, and she followed it where it took her.

“I always thought I was going to be this huge veena player who everybody knew and loved to listen to,” said Rajasekar. “That was all I really wanted in life, the simple dream of being the best. But more so, I am passionately in love with [the veena].”

As she grew up, Rajasekar found herself in England pursuing a doctorate in artificial intelligence. When her husband was offered a job in America, Rajasekar followed and began a 16-year career in IT.

While working her IT job, Rajasekar said she struggled to balance family, work and her passion for music.

She would raise her children (Neeraj, 21, and Sheruthi, 16) and pursue her IT career during the day and at night she would cloister herself in her practice space with her veena, practicing early into the a.m. hours.

Any other free time she had was spent on teaching Indian Carnatic music and the veena to a growing number of pupils.

Everything came to a breaking point when Rajasekar began feeling the draw to spend more time with her children and more time with her true passion.

“I was teaching, I couldn’t give up that,” said Rajasekar. “I was performing, I couldn’t give up that. I was working and I couldn’t give up that; or maybe I could.”

She left the company she worked for and began devoting more hours to teaching and performing.

Rajasekar began teaching formally, she guesses, five or six years ago when she opened Nadha Rasa Center for Music, based out of her Plymouth home.

Through Nadha Rasa, which translates “sense of tone,” Rajasekar guides roughly 60-80 students around the country and around the world in Carnatic music.

Rajasekar guides students through a vocal piece from the upcoming Embracing the Beloved concert. Nirmala (far right) sits with her class at Nada Rasa (Clockwise from right: Priya Kamajan, Sumitra Rao, Ram Prasadh, Pauithra Ram, Sriram Natarajam, Rajasekar’s daughter Sheruthi and David Harris). (Photo by Brian Rosemeyer – Sun Newspapers)

She said Carnatic music study is an oral tradition. It has survived for many centuries and she believes it is her responsibility to keep it alive. She sees it as preserving it for generations to come.

“I just feel compelled to teach,” she said. “And I teach a wonderful community of people. I like whom I teach, and I care about them deeply. I learned everything from Swami [Natham]. She never treated me as a student; this relationship is much more giving.”

Rajasekar has recently returned from touring India with her music. She performed 14 concerts at the Winter International Music Festival and took up a residency in New Delhi at the American International School.

She said that she is eager to resume performing and teaching in Plymouth and the greater Twin Cities area.

In the spirit of teaching, Rajasekar recently wrote a grant to the Minnesota State Arts Board funded through appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature and funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.

With the grant she is hosting free workshops on melody and rhythm in Carnatic music. The first workshop was in November of last year in Plymouth.

Rajasekar will host a workshop 6:45-7:45 p.m., Wednesday, March 6, at Golden Valley Public Library. A second workshop will take place 6:15-7:45 p.m., Tuesday, March 12, at Hosmer Public Library, 347 East 36th Street in Minneapolis.

At the workshops participants will fill out questionnaires that ask why attendees chose to come and what they would like to know. Rajasekar will discuss the questions and deliver a lecture about Carnatic music.

Special guest, percussionist Thanjavur Murugaboopathi, will travel from India to perform and speak with Rajasekar at both workshops.

“[Murugaboopathi] is a star, he’s a much, much sought-after artist,” Rajasekar said. “He’s a phenomenal artist, but he’s also just a good human being.”

The workshops cost nothing to attend, and are open to all ages.

Following the workshops, Rajasekar will perform Spirit of the Veena at Hamline University 8 p.m., Friday, March 15, at Sundin Hall, 1536 Hewitt Avenue in St. Paul. At 7:15, p.m., prior to the performance, Rajasekar will deliver a presentation about how to listen to Indian music.

Rajasekar will continue her work with Embracing the Beloved, a new collaboration between Rajasekar, David Jordan Harris and Maryam Yusefzadeh, 6-8 p.m., Saturday, April 20, at Hindu Temple of Minnesota, 10530 Troy Lane North in Maple Grove.

Embracing the Beloved will feature Indian Carnatic, Hindustani Classical, Sephardic and Persian cultural music and traditions.

Harris will perform music of the Jewish faith from many different cultures and says the program is designed to provoke public dialogue about multiple faiths in the work through unique means.

“The arts are a different channel for having this conversation,” Harris said. “It produces a different audience and a different openness. When music is in front of them, peoples’ hearts open up.”

Embracing the Beloved will also be performed at other Jewish community centers and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester in months to follow.

Rajasekar said collaboration such as that in the workshops and in Embracing the Beloved is a vital aspect of how her life and veena playing have been formed.

“Collaborations open your mind to another world,” she said. “These collaborations help me learn my own art form with the breadth and depth I never knew existed in it.”

Through all her work in teaching, performing and learning Carnatic music Rajasekar said she has built and nurtured a very real bond to the philosophy and practice of music.

“My religion is music,” she said. “If you find a place that you can be comfortable in, that’s your religion. As long as it’s not detrimental to your body and spirit, go for it. We found that to be so true that we, as humans, have so much to be grateful for.”

She continued to say that she appreciates music from all cultures and time periods, though she finds Indian Carnatic to resonate more fully within her own being. She expressed how grateful she is that music remains the driving force of her life.

“We are very fortunate, as a race, to have something like music binding us all,” she said.

“The very sound, the first sound, even if it’s the whale of a baby, I think is musical. From that moment to the very last breath, which is singing, it’s there. Let’s cherish it and let’s become more and more aware of the different kinds of music in the world; each one of them has so much beauty.”


Contact Brian Rosemeyer at [email protected]