CHENNAI: My son calls my veena the eldest child of the family. Wherever I go, the instrument is my priority,” says vainika Nirmala Rajasekar. Collaborating with and performing for world-renowned musicians, this computer engineer-turned-full time musician has plucked the right strings of melody to put the stringed instrument on the map. Her efforts have now borne fruits as Nirmala has been commissioned by the University of Wisconsin as the chosen composer of the year 2019-20. She will be writing exclusive pieces for the University’s choir, jazz band and the orchestra.
A veena and vocal artiste, Nirmala has been performing for the past 40 years. She believes in the universe and her gurus’ blessings. These, she says, have made her what she is today. “I began playing the veena at the age of six. I am also a vocalist. From Mylapore to England, Switzerland and the US — my knowledge about music has enhanced,” she says. Over the years, Nirmala has collaborated with several musicians to create compositions that go beyond the boundaries of Carnatic and western music.
The vainika’s first brush with world music was in the early 90s when she was called to record for the Library of World Artists for the BBC. “Till that point, I was used to only performing with a mridangist. But at this recording, there wasn’t one. The team told me they could provide me with a tabla player.
I performed for an hour, while also learning a thing or two about Hindustani music. My interest in delving deep into music increased,” she shares. Later, in Zurich during the same period, where she also taught music, she had a student who was a pianist. “I learned about western notations from her. Slowly, I also started scratching the surface of western music,” she shares.
East meets west
At the beginning of the new millennium, Nirmala quit her job, moved to the US, trained in reading western notes, and started a band called Carnatic Energy. “I had some amazing bandmates — Anthony Cox on bass, V Srinivasan on mridangam and Marcus Wise on tabla,” she says.
This set the base for her future collaborations. “I believe that being a Carnatic musician is a blessing. The grammar of our classical music is so old and so perfect, that even with the different versions, it helps us understand and adapt to world music,” she says.
Nirmala and her family settled in Minnesota, where, over the years, she improved the Carnatic music scene. She began working with more western artistes, especially those who were into jazz and new music. While traditionalists and purists in the field of music might not agree with this fusion, Nirmala is not one to hesitate to experiment with instruments. She has one rule — keep the ragas pure. “I am not fond of the word fusion.
I would call it collaboration, because when I compose for a western instrument, I see to it that the gamaka (oscillation) is as pure as it is supposed to be. I don’t tamper with the ragas either. So, when I make notes for a western instrumentalist, I also send a voice recording along with it so that they understand the notes,” she shares. Nirmala consults her teachers, and musicologist BM Sundaram before starting a collaboration, and then does her research.
Two years back, Nirmala was appointed as the director on the board of American Composer’s Forum. Her works toward popularising the veena have given her the opportunity as the chosen composer. For the project, Nirmala’s daughter Shruthi Rajasekar joins her as a co-composer. “I am working on the theme of elements of nature. Stalwarts like Muthuswami Dikshithar have written about the panchabhutas, but my take is modern where I present my belief of taking care of the earth in these times. This commission shows that Carnatic music can be presented differently as long as the principles are not compromised on,” she says.
The music of friendship
Last year, Nirmala collaborated with Thanjavur K Murugaboopathi on mridangam and konnakol, Pat O’Keefe on clarinet and saxophone, Michelle Kinney on cello and Tim O’Keefe multi-percussion for Maithree The Music of Friendship. “This was something that started as a kutcheri and then evolved into an album. All the musicians have composed here,” she says. The album was a chartbuster in the US and had also cleared two rounds of Grammy Awards, but couldn’t make it to the top six. The team will go on a US tour in 2020. She wishes to bring the musicians to Chennai soon after, especially for a Margazhi performance.