Carnatic music master Nirmala Rajasekar passes on love for music

Teaching Carnatic music
Nirmala Rajasekar plays her vina during a music lesson at her home in Plymouth, Minn. Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. Rajasekar, who was raised in southern India, has been playing music most of her life and now teaches the ancient Carnatic music to a variety of students.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Nirmala Rajasekar's childhood was filled with the Carnatic music of her native southern India. As a toddler she remembers being a performer in search of a microphone.

"Cucumbers, gourds — I stood on tables when I was 2 years old, singing away," she says. "I think I always liked to sing."

By 13 she was a solo performer on the vina, having taken lessons from Carnatic masters since she was 6 years old. Now she's a master of the vina, a stringed instrument that's a forerunner of the sitar.

Now an adult, she's passing her love for music onto students at her home in Plymouth — and her daughter. She even dropped out of a doctorate program studying artificial intelligence to play a tradition in which sheet music merely serves as a guide for improvisation, and musicians bend and explore the spaces between the notes. The lessons and rehearsals once confined to a basement studio now sprawl into a first floor family room.

• To hear Rajasekar play, click here.

Rajasekar's daughter Shruthi, 16, sits close to the front during a recent rehearsal. Born and raised in Minnesota, she started to learn about her mother's Carnatic music tradition through osmosis and recently debuted as an Indian classical musician.

"I used to perch at the top of the stair case and listen to the classes," she says. "That's how I actually learned my initial lessons." She also studies western classical music — piano and voice — a talent she will share after a bit of coaxing from mother.

Rehearsing musical storytelling
Nirmala Rajasekar, left, leads students through a performance rehearsal at her home in Plymouth, Minn. Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. Rajasekar and her students are performing musical storytelling from the Panchatantra, an ancient Indian collection of fables, during a family celebration Nov. 14, 2012 at the Plymouth Library.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Even though she plays a very traditional instrument, Shruthi has a wide range of musical tastes.

"I myself listen to pretty much everything," she says. "I get that from my mother because, surprisingly, she does listen to every single genre out there."

However, Shruthi says the music that feeds her soul is from the Carnatic tradition, and her mother happily supplies sustenance.

"The notes of music as they all come together, as we all come with the rhythym, as we all do it with the unison of the strings of the thampura, we all become one," she says.

Rajasekar and her students, the Naadha Rasa ensemble and other Twin Cities musicians will play in the Diwali Family Celebration at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Plymouth Library.

Then Saturday, she leads a community tribute to Indian classical music composers in Maple Grove at the Hindu Society of Minnesota.

Both events are free and open to the public.