At a modest house in Plymouth, the best veena player in North America goes about her busy schedule. Amid teaching a select set of students and organizing her global concert itinerary — including a stop Sunday at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis — Nirmala Rajasekar finds time to head into the practice space at the back of the house for hours at a time.
"The one constant is practice," she said in an interview last week. "The veena demands complete submission. My children used to call the veena 'the older sister' because we always needed to take care of it."
The veena is a long, hollow-necked instrument with a pear-shaped body. It has four melody strings and three drone strings over a board with 24 frets. It is a majestic yet cumbersome instrument, played from a sitting position. In Rajasekar's hands, it emits a beguiling blend of staccato rhythm and liquid flow. Twanged notes pearl into a gleaming resonance, quickly tagged by more sinuous, lingering sounds, interwoven with notes precisely plucked thanks to her deft wrists and fingering.
Sunday's Cedar Cultural Center concert celebrates the release of "Maithree: The Music of Friendship," a new album featuring an ambitious meld of cultures, musical textures and sonic spice. It features a quintet with locals including cellist Michelle Kinney; Pat O'Keefe from the new-classical ensemble Zeitgeist on clarinet, saxophone and cowbell; and Pat's brother, Tim O'Keefe, a master of percussion on African, Middle Eastern and South American instruments.
The fifth and sole nonlocal member is Thanjavur K. Murugaboopathi, another international star in the South Indian Carnatic genre of classical music. He plays the mridangam, a percussion instrument that hypnotically meshes with the veena in a manner similar to the tala drums and the sitar in North Indian music.
Along with band originals, the "Maithree" song list includes a 17th-century Irish jig ("Mary O'Neill"), a Turkish folk dance ("Nihavent Oyun Havasi") and plenty of material from the Carnatic tradition. But the treatments are strikingly fresh. "Nanati Baduku," for example, is a raga written for a 13th-century poem, with the cello and clarinet departing from traditional lines of percussion, veena and vocals.
"I call it a handshake," Rajasekar said with her customary enthusiasm and wide smile. "We all bring in music, and then we spend a lot of time talking and showing each other how it goes. How do you improvise on this? Where can you improvise? We want to be authentic to the music, but we also want to reach across, so we discover where we have license to do it."
Rajasekar was sitting on her couch last week waiting for the locals to show up for rehearsal. Murugaboopathi, who hails from the city of Chennai on India's southeast coast — Rajasekar's birthplace and the global epicenter of Carnatic music — was a houseguest.
Rajasekar was a prodigy back in Chennai, performing solo veena concerts at age 13. But her husband is a successful industrial engineer whose work took the couple out of India — first to Germany, then England, Switzerland and finally Minnesota. As she followed him, Rajasekar was leading a triple life, a working computer engineer with a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, a mother of two and a dogged Carnatic veena player.
She arrived in Minnesota in 1995, just a few months after her husband, expecting it to be like all the other locales. "But I found out how much there is in Minnesota — it is the true feeling of maithree" — which means friendship in Sanskrit.
Soon she ran into the tabla player Marcus Wise, and started playing with him and guitarist Dean Magraw. Wise connected her to poet Robert Bly, who commissioned her to write music for his translations of Indian poet Mirabai, for which they recorded an album and went on a brief tour in 1996.
Then she formed a band with jazz bassist and cellist Anthony Cox, playing original music under the name Carnatic Energy. She connected with the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum. And local musician Jan Gilbert spurred a collaboration around the theme of sacred water, for which Rajasekar wrote a string quartet that was played in New York.
Meanwhile, she continued to travel to Chennai annually for the Carnatic Festival season. Murugaboopathi warned her that Chennai residents would never forget that she left them for America. But she remained fiercely dedicated to the Carnatic tradition. She became a teacher and artistic director of Minnesota's Naadha Rasa Center for Music, tutoring students via the oral instruction that is essential to the Carnatic way. She kept practicing and accepting Carnatic music opportunities across North America.
By 2006, Rajasekar felt emboldened enough to quit her computer job. Within months, she won a prestigious and lucrative Bush Fellowship. "It is my humble belief that the music takes care of its people and that the universe was watching," she said.
More than a decade later, she spends months each year touring the globe — she'll again perform extensively in India, from December through February 2019 on this tour. During festival season, she will be scheduled in the choice morning or evening slots rather than midday, when most people choose to nap. Even Murugaboopathi concedes she is regarded in India as "one of the top five or six" veena players in the world.
Through it all, she has kept the spirit of maithree alive outside of Carnatic concerts. Whether operating within Carnatic's firm classical structure or one of her many offshoots, her passion and energy remain a constant.
"Nirmala plays in a way that is very emotional, very spiritual," said cellist Kinney, who also plays with Rajasekar in a band called Butterfly (also featuring Chinese pipa player Gao Hong). "Nirmala is incredibly technically brilliant, but also the emotional power is not secondary to the technical proficiency. It is right there. It makes for a very moving experience."
Britt Robson writes frequently about music and basketball for various local and national publications.