May Artist Spotlight: Carnatic Composer Nirmala Rajasekar

* Hi Nirmala! Thank you for taking the time out of your day to do this interview. We're excited to learn more about your art form. Can you tell us what it is?

The art form I practice is the classical music of South India known as Carnatic music.

* Can you tell us more about Carnatic music? What instrument do you play?

Carnatic music is a 2000 + year old oral tradition. I am both a vocalist and a Saraswathi veena player (vainika). There are many kinds of veenas in India. The Saraswathi veena is 7-stringed instrument from South India. The instrument is thought to be, again, greater than 2000 years old; as old as the music itself –one of three oldest instruments from the India subcontinent (the other two are the bamboo flute and the two headed drum known as mridangam). It is the national instrument of India and is the forerunner of the Sitar, which pundit Ravi Shankar played and popularized in the West from the 1960s.

* Do you remember when you first became interested in music? How did it happen? Did you have any big influences?

I began training in Carnatic music at the age of 6. I have been told by my parents that I would always want to perform, even from the age of 2 or 3, inviting my friends and family to watch my ‘performances.' Some of the greatest influences of my life have been the environment in which I grew up, the South Indian city of Chennai and its cultural background where young children were encouraged to follow their interest in the arts, even from a very young age.

* What do you enjoy the most about performing?

The opportunity to share something so beautiful and precious-an ancient art form and an ancient instrument that is very much present and kicking alive in the 21st century - with audiences around the world.

* What do you hope participants or audience members of your programs learn or come away with?

I hope they are both enticed by the art form and informed about the instrument. I also hope that they leave the space excited and energized by the genre and wishing to know more and listen to more of it.

Being a COMPAS artist has been a blessing. This roster has opened doors to new avenues and given me varied experiences.

* What projects or programs have you been working on recently?

Currently, I’m right in the middle of recording my first collaborative album (I have recorded several solos albums since 1998), titled Maithree, The Music of Friendship. Maithree brings together some fantastic musicians from Minnesota and India, who are performing a variety of instruments including the saxophone, clarinet, cello, mridangam (the two-headed drum of the Carnatic tradition) and a variety of percussion from around the world, with yours truly on Saraswathi veena and voice. Maithree features several original compositions created by me and my collaborators. It also has new arrangements of well-known songs from many genres, including some from Indian classical music and Irish music. I would be thrilled if you all could join me in the CD release Maithree which is planned for fall 2016. Maithree is being made possible from a 2016 Artist Initiative Grant of the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Upcoming activities this season also include: Musical workshops for my students and the general public in Minnesota during the months of June and July and a month-long visiting professorship at the invitation of the Tamil Nadu Music and Arts University, in Chennai, India (August, 2016).

* You’ve been on the COMPAS roster for several years now. What is it like to be a COMPAS artist?

Being a COMPAS artist has been a blessing. This roster has opened doors to new avenues and given me varied experiences. In addition to school residences, I have performed in venues that I would have never otherwise seen myself in.

 * Why do you think arts education is needed in our community?

To me, arts education is vital in the curriculum of all students as they move through the formal school system. Growing up in India I was able to experience music training through a private setting, as public arts education was not readily available in India at that time.  My schooling undergraduate and master’s education (I completed a computer engineering program for my masters), were enriched greatly by the values which music brought to my life. My music education gave me an overall sense of worldliness, even from an early age, and was the perfect complement to my science education. I hope all students are given an opportunity to experience and study the arts and realize first hand its value in their lives and that arts education will continue to take importance in our school systems.

 * Does living in MN have any influence on your work?

Minnesota is a treasure trove of creative people in the arts working in an environment of knowledgeable and appreciative audiences. I have lived and worked in Minnesota for twenty years now. I find that being in this community, over many years, has led me to work with many incredible artists from various genres. I have been blessed to embrace many fulfilling experiences, - with the celebrated poet Robert Bly, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the St. Paul Civic Symphony, Ragamala Music and Dance Theatre, Katha Dance Theatre, Chinese pipa virtuoso Gao Hong and many other world-class artists. Minnesota also boasts a rich tradition of being a stronghold of many phenomenal composers, some of whom I have had the pleasure of working with as well. It has been a very rewarding experience to be artist residing in Minnesota. Thank you.

 * How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?

I think that being a naturally curious person allows me to pursue creativity nonchalantly, even in the blandest settings. It seems that I am always thinking of ways to bring in fresh perspectives to life. Whether teaching a class or cooking a dish, I feel that I am always inspired to try new thoughts, methods and paths. One of my dictums is to wanting to do better. This drives me in my search for new ideas – so I can improve whatever I am doing be in teaching, performing, or presenting.