Thrilling, Purposeful Veena Music from Nirmala Rajasekar at This Year’s Drive East Festival

by delarue

Last night’s headline performance at this year’s Drive East Festival – the New York edition of one of this hemisphere’s most exciting annual Indian music and dance events – featured Saraswati veena player Nirmala Rajasekar and her kinetic quartet. This time out, Rajasekar – heir to an eight-generation legacy of veena players who also sing – was in a particularly emphatic, rhythmic, purposeful mood. She made breathtaking yet extremely terse use of the instrument’s low register, judiciously ornamenting her often spacious phrases with voltage-spiking upward slides as well as vigorously bending, shivery ornamentation. The material spanned the centuries, from ancient carnatic themes to the late 20th century “Recent, to us, means the last hundred years,” Rajasekar grinned.

The group behind her – Balaji Chandran on ghatam, Srinivasan Venkatakrishnan on mridangam and her daughter on vocals – supplied a rippling, kaleidoscopic backdrop. They got the concert going with a goodnatured take of a Sri Thiruvotriyur Thyagyyar composition utilizing raga Sahana, rising from a thoughtful, spare alap to a jaunty doublespeed romp.

Mother and daughter sang a salute to Ganesh by Sri Papanasan Sivan, utilizing raga Tilang, over a clickety-clack swing that was practically a clave.  The high point of the concert was a thrilling, dynamically rich take of Sri Shamya Shatri’s Mari Vere Gathi, on raga Anandha Bhairavi, a theme that originated in folk music. Singing without a mic, Rajasekar wrung every ounce of suspense from its allusive, often brooding modes, through an uneasily steady introduction through insistent peaks, to a delicious series of downwardly stairstepping riffs.

Much as this was about adrenaline, it was also about sly rhythmic jousting, a trope that the group would work to the point where they’d almost run out the clock, at the end of a rainmaker rage by fellow veena player and composer Shri Muthuswami Dikshidhar. Sometimes coyly, sometimes strikingly, Rajasekar interpolated snippets of other ragas, especially early on before she led the percussionists on a seemingly endless tour of rhythmic ideas.

The group closed with a brief but dramatic and often fiery ode to bravery and then a tantalizingly short, benedictory outro spiced with the shadowy, vigorously ornamented lows that Rajasekar had been working so memorably throughout the evening. For those on the west coast, she’s playing the San Francisco edition of the Drive East Festival at the Goode Performing Group Annex at 401 Alabama St. on Aug 25 at 8:30 PM; tix are $23. And the New York festival concludes today, Aug 19, at LaMaMa at 66 E 4th St. with dance starting in the afternoon and then a 5 PM concert featuring carnatic music for bansuri with the Flute Raman Trio. You can get in for $21.