Meet Nivedita ShivRaj, a Flushing-based musician who hails from Chennai, India. A composer who plays the veena, a South Indian string instrument, Nivedita is also a teacher, trained Bharathanatyam dancer, and through Queens Council on the Arts, a recipient of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Greater New York Arts Development Fund for Individual Artists. Nivedita’s two productions, Veena Melodies and Veena Isai Thendral, unite classical music with western rhythms and technology. Her performances lead her to eclectic venues from Flushing Town Hall to temples to the New York Botanical Garden.
So, tell us what you’re currently working on?
New, original compositions based on Indian ragas, the melodies used in Indian classical music. It’s for a multi-cultural project mixing styles—like the saxophone and guitar of jazz with the tabla—to be performed by a world music band.
You’re the granddaughter of esteemed vocalists and the great-granddaughter of a music composer once honored by the King of Venkatagiri. Music is part of your cultural legacy. Were you always interested in carnatic music as a child?
I’ve been doing this since I was six. I’ve had fifteen years of regular training, and have always been passionate about playing and performing. My dream was to become a concert musician, but playing music wasn’t a very welcome career in India. In an Indian family studies are given the utmost importance, but I remained equally interested in music while maintaining my academics. When I moved to the U.S. in 2000, I worked in accounting and finance, but I was always performing.
When did you decide to say goodbye to the financial world and concentrate on music full-time?
When the number of my students started increasing, and I started spending more and more time teaching and composing, my husband said I should concentrate on my music and pursue it, and so I did, in 2003.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in all the opportunities to work with other musicians and blend our styles. Even though their music might be different, there are always a lot of similarities. The exposure to different cultures is like a community experiment. The ideas are plenty here.
Why do you feel compelled to do what you do?
Passion is behind this, in creating new pieces and music. But I like the challenges, too. Every piece I compose there is a challenge to convey feelings strictly through the instrument, with no help from lyrics. In my music, I’m taking the best aspects of my life and culture—what I grew up with and what I learned.