Renowned south Indian musician makes Plymouth her home

Nirmala Rajasekar is one of the top performers of the veena.
Nirmala Rajasekar is one of the top performers of the veena - a South Indian stringed instrument - in the world. She makes her home in Plymouth, but spends three to four months each year on tour.
Courtesy Reymash Photography

Nirmala Rajasekar sat cross-legged on the floor of her home studio in Plymouth, her veena lying across her lap. It's a large instrument, made up of two gourds joined by a neck with 24 frets. A carved dragon head crowns the top of the neck.

"So you have the four strings up here, and the three strings down here," she said, explaining that the instrument "can make the most lovely, amazing magic."

Rajasekar likes to call the veena the great-grandmother of instruments. It's been used in south India to accompany vedas, or Hindu chants, for more than 2,000 years. It's an intrinsic part of Carnatic music — the classical music of south India — and Hinduism. Saraswathi, the goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science, is typically depicted playing the veena.

"There could not be a better instrument in this world," Rajasekar said. "I am biased, I admit, but I speak with the truth of what I believe, that this is the best — as good as it gets!"

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Rajasekar's latest CD, "Maithree: The Music of Friendship," was produced by Innova Recordings, the music label of the American Composers Forum. It features Rajasekar collaborating with a group of musicians from different backgrounds, including cellist Michelle Kinney, who has worked and played with Rajasekar for over a decade. She describes Rajasekar as a rock star:

 Cellist Michelle Kinney and clarinetist Pat O’Keefe.
Nirmala Rajasekar's latest album, "Maithree: The Music of Friendship" is a collaboration with several other musicians, including cellist Michelle Kinney and clarinetist Pat O'Keefe.
Courtesy Reymash Photography

"It's mind-boggling — she's a virtuoso, but also ... presents herself on stage and in the world without the usual attachment of diva behavior. She's a wonderful human being, and that comes through the music as well."

Kinney said that on "Maithree," the musicians took an Irish song, "Mary O'Neil," and gave it a whole new life.

The album also features Indian musician Boopathi playing the mridangam, a traditional percussion instrument. Boopathi said Rajasekar is one of the world's premier players of the veena. He compared her to the famous sitar player Ravi Shankar.

"He introduced sitar, north Indian sitar, to the Western audience. Nirmala [is] doing the same for the veena," he said. "It's a huge service to south Indian music."

Nirmala Rajasekar and the late Kalkapam Swaminathan.
Nirmala Rajasekar studied for nearly thirty years under the guidance of her guru, the late Kalkapam Swaminathan.
Courtesy Reymash Photography

Rajasekar grew up in Chennai, India, and became fascinated with the veena when she was only 6 years old. Her parents signed her up for lessons, and soon she was performing.

But then she married. She followed her husband to England and then to Minnesota, where he works as an IT professional. She too, worked in IT while raising two children, performing and teaching the veena on the side.

"In some ways I think I was very naive," she said. "I always thought 'music will happen.' I never had a plan to make it happen, so I think the universe has been extremely kind with me."

In 2006, Rajasekar made the leap to performing and teaching full-time. She now regularly tours for several months of the year across the United States, India and elsewhere, lugging her large and heavy veena with her. When at home in Plymouth, she heads up an international school for veena students.

Nirmala Rajasekar demonstrates playing the veena
Nirmala Rajasekar demonstrates playing the veena in her home studio in Plymouth, Minn. on Thursday, Oct 18, 2018.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

"I believe I have to pass on what my teachers did. My teacher was 89 when she passed, and she taught right up to the end," she said. "I just feel like that's what I want to do for myself. As long as I have my hearing, and as long as I can play and sing, I just want to keep singing, playing, performing, teaching — and that's my only dream for myself. And if the world would give me that, then I'm the luckiest human alive."

Nirmala Rajasekar and friends present "Maithree: The Music of Friendship" at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Cedar in Minneapolis.