World-renowned musician and Kalaimamani Awardee Nirmala Rajasekar is a dynamic Carnatic veena player, vocalist, composer, and educator. She is celebrated around the globe for her exquisite tone, vibrant musicality, captivating stage presence, and sensitive artistry. A passionate educator, Nirmala is at the vanguard of artists working to make the world a more equitable place for all.
Nirmala Rajasekar is one of the premier Saraswathi veena players in the world today. A dynamic and vibrant musician, she performs in the leading venues in India and around the world, including Sawai Gandharva Mahotsav (Pune), the Music Academy (Chennai), Carnegie Hall (New York), United Nations (New York) and the Rumi International Festival (Turkey). An established vocalist and well-known composer, Nirmala is seen internationally as a "Carnatic Ambassador" and leader in forging new paths on the Saraswati Veena. She is a recipient of the Kalaimamani Award from the Government of Tamil Nadu, the highest honor in the arts.
Born in Chennai on December 11, Nirmala began her performing career at the age of 13. She trained with veteran Gurus Devakottai Shri Narayana Aiyyangar, Smt. Kamala Aswathama, Smt. G.Chennamma, Smt E.P. Alamelu, and Shri A.D. Zachariah, before coming under the guidance of veteran Vidhushi Prof. Smt. Kalpakam Swaminathan, with whom she studied for nearly 30 years. Nirmala has also been mentored by Veena Maestro Dr. S. Balachander in several aspects of music and in the presentation of lectures and demonstrations. Nirmala has studied vocal music with Gurus Shri Prof. T R Subramanyam, Shri B. Sitarama Sarma, and Shri Calcutta K.S.Krishnamurthy. She has had the good fortune of receiving guidance from violin legends Shri M.S. Anantharaman (in concert presentation methods) and Shri Lalgudi Jayaraman (in the study of his Varnams and Thillanas). She continues to be guided by eminent musicologist and composer Dr. B.M. Sundaram in her research projects, a journey that began in 2006 with the story of Shakuntala from Abhijnanashakuntalam, the great Sanskrit play by poet Kalidasa. Her music highlights the rich parampara of her Gurus. Her unique and creative presentation style has won her many followers across the world.
Nirmala has performed at several world-renowned venues including Siri Fort (New Delhi), Carnegie Hall, United Nations (New York), Sawai Gandharva Mahotsav (Pune), the Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha, Kalakshetra (Chennai), Gayana Samaja (Bengaluru), Chembur Fine Arts (Mumbai), Kolkotta Performing Arts Festival (Kolkotta), Rumi International Festival (Konya, Turkey), Musee Rietburg (Zurich, Switzerland) and many other venues in India, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Indonesia and Singapore. She is regularly featured in the world-famous Chennai Music Festival in December, performing solos and Jugalbandhis with Carnatic and Hindustani legends. She has performed for world luminaries such as His Excellency the President of India late Dr. Abdul Kalam and Jazz great Ornette Coleman. Nirmala has been on the panel of artists of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations since 1987. She has performed for Sangeet Natak Akademy events, such as the Maharana Kumbh Parishad in Udaipur.
A celebrated composer, Nirmala has written traditional and collaborative music for orchestras, bands, choruses, theatre, and chamber ensembles in Indian and Western classical music. In 2020, she was chosen for the distinguished honor as the Annual Commissioned Composer of the University of Wisconsin, River Falls. Now in its 54th year, the program features the top composers in modern history, many of whom are Pulitzer Prize winners. Nirmala is their first Indian-woman composer composer, and their first ever composer from a traditional art form. In 2019, she pioneered the Veena-Gaanam ensemble at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana featuring 70 performers on veena, vocals, and percussion. Nirmala has received grants and funding from organizations including the Jerome Foundation, New Music USA, American Composers Forum, and Meet the Composer. She has been commissioned by leading arts organizations, universities, and ensembles across the USA and India, including the American Composers Alliance, Schubert Club, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Carnatica (India), Chennayil Thiruvaiyaru (India), Kalakshetra (India), the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, Zeitgeist New Music Ensemble, St. Olaf College, the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning, University of St. Thomas, EcoArts Festival, Walker Arts Center, Ragamala Dance Company, Khambatta Dance Company, Aniccha Arts, Katha Dance Theatre, Pangea World Theatre, Playwright Center, and LDQ Film Productions.
Honors & Awards:
Many institutions have recognized Nirmala for her contributions; some of them are listed here: in 2006, the doyen of Carnatic Music Dr. Balamurali Krishna, who supported her work for several years, conferred upon her the title "Naadha Kala Vipanchee." She has received several awards from leading organizations - The Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Bangalore Gayana Samaja, Chennai Cultural Trust; Vocational Excellence Award (Rotary Club International), Veena Sudar Oli, Women of Substance Award 2014, Veena Kala Vithakar (Veenalayam Toronto), and a Lifetime Achievement Award (India Association of Minnesota). The Delhi Telugu Academy recognized Nirmala as "Prathibha Puraskar." Nirmala was conferred the "Swararaga Saragyar" Award from his Holiness Shri Andavan Swamy by Shri Panchamukha Anjaneyar Festival, "Asthana Vidwan" by the Hindu Society of Minnesota, and "Gandharva Vidhyadara" Award from Irai Pani Manram Chennai. At the famed Cleveland Aradhana USA, Nirmala was awarded the TRS Memorial Award for excellence in teaching. She is a recipient of the Kalaimamani Award from the Government of Tamil Nadu, the highest honor in the arts. Nirmala has been awarded numerous grants and fellowships by leading American organizations. She is the first Indian musician to receive the Bush Fellowship and the McKnight Fellowship.
Nirmala has been featured on TV and Radio around the world. An A grade artiste of Indian Radio and Television since 1990, she has been seen and heard in several concerts for All India Radio's National Programme of Music, Doordarshan's National Programme of Music, South Zone concerts, and broadcasts for the Chennai, Bombay, Bangalore and New Delhi stations.
Nirmala has recorded extensively over the four decades of her career, and has received international acclaim for her multiple albums. Her recording with the 3-time Grammy-award-winning group "Sounds of Blackness" won "Outstanding World Music Album of the Year" from the NAACP Image Awards in 2012. Her music is in BBC's Library of World artists, and she has been featured multiple times on ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation and PBS Television in the USA. Her work has been produced by various leading labels, including Sangeetha (India), Charsur Digital Works Station (India), Innova Recordings (USA), Shruthilaya (India), and Tompkins Square (USA). In Oct 2018, Nirmala released her latest collaborative album “Maithree: the Music of Friendship,” featuring veena, cello, clarinet, saxophone, voice, mridangam and Middle-Eastern percussion. This album has received worldwide recognition, including a starred review from the premier world music magazine Songlines, UK and has been among the top world music albums in several countries, including Italy and Spain.
Leadership, Research, and Educator:
In addition to performing and composing, Nirmala is a leader in initiatives of research in music, social causes, and service. She leads organizations that support performing musicians, composers, music educators and creators. Nirmala serves as a Vice President of the Global Carnatic Musicians' Association, an organization created to be a unified voice for Carnatic musicians. In 2022 Nirmala was elected as Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Composers Forum, a national organization for composers and music creators in the USA; she previously served as Co-Chair. She is the first India-born woman to serve in this position.
As a researcher, she has presented papers, lecture-demonstrations, and masterclasses for many organizations including Sri Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha (Dec 2018), Layyasaaram Institute of Fine Arts (Oct 2019), Karnataka Gana Kala Parishat Vidwat Sadas Bangalore: Golden Jubilee (Feb 2020), Kutir (Oct 2020), and IFAASD (April 2021). Her works "Sacred Water," "Embracing the Beloved," "Song of Wonder," and "Elemental Spirit: Respect and Responsibility" have all been developed from many months and years of research and study.
Nirmala is a passionate educator who believes in passing on the art to the next generation with sincerity and dedication. She established the Naadha Rasa Center for Music and has served as its artistic director for the past 27 years. Her students are accomplished veena players, vocalists, and composers. As a teaching artist, she has conducted residencies, workshops, and classroom teaching sessions for numerous institutions, including SPICMACAY, Princeton University, Young Audiences America, COMPAS, and Minnesota State Arts Board.
In September 2019, Nirmala founded "Naadharasa," a charitable organization for the propagation of Indian classical music and the Saraswathi veena. Since its inception, Naadharasa has supported the January 2020 Yuva Utsav of young performers from several disciplines in Chennai, and workshops on Carnatic rhythm. During the pandemic, Naadharasa has raised funds to support the families of COVID-19 victims.