They arrived in the Twin Cities facing uncertainties, but carrying with them a rich past and profound aspirations. Decades later, they have left as much of a mark on the state’s culture as the state has changed them. With India’s Independence Day coming up Thursday, here’s a look at four local artists of Indian origin.
When Nirmala Rajasekar moved to Minnesota in 1995, she wasn’t sure how much time she’d be able to devote to the veena, the seven-stringed, fretted instrument that caught her attention as a child.
Now she is acclaimed as one of the world’s top players, having performed in several countries. When she is not touring, Rajasekar can be found teaching at the Naadha Rasa Center for Music in Plymouth.
“There was no ‘a-ha moment’ when I realized I could do something here. It was a process,” she says. “My dream is to put the veena out there, just like Pandit Ravi Shankar did with the sitar.”
Her uniqueness lies in how seamlessly she collaborates with western classical and jazz musicians, several of whom contributed to her 2018 album “Maithree: The Music of Friendship.”
Born in the south Indian city of Chennai, Rajasekar, 52, gave her first solo performance at age 13. But her husband’s job took the couple to Germany, London and Switzerland before they settled in the Twin Cities.
She juggled the veena with her own computer engineering job, studies for a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and motherhood (she and her husband, Raj, have a son, Neeraj, and a daughter, Shruti). It took time for Minnesotans to become familiar with the Carnatic classical music of southern India — and for her to adjust to Western audiences.
People didn’t know when to applaud, for example. “Nobody knew when the piece was even done,” she said. “Back in India, we are used to instant gratification. The artiste gets reactions during the performance.”
Rajasekar became a regular at the Minnesota State Fair and the annual Festival of Nations. Now she is part of the diversity team at the American Composers Forum in St. Paul, which released “Maithree.”
She says things have changed for the better in her time here. She no longer has to explain what Carnatic music is. “Secondly, I discovered that every place has bad weather in some form or another.”
Three decades seems like enough time to clear up a misconception. But apparently not, where Indian cuisine is concerned.
“I am still going around telling people that it does not involve hundreds of ingredients, but a handful of ingredients used in different ways,” says culinary educator Raghavan Iyer, author of six cookbooks and consultant with global corporations such as Target and Bon Appétit.
Iyer, 58, did not know how to cook when he enrolled at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall to study hotel and restaurant management. It was 1982.
Cut to 2019. Iyer’s books — including “Indian Cooking Unfolded,” “The Turmeric Trail” and “660 Curries” — have contributed immensely in making Indian cuisine accessible and approachable.
“I strive toward making it something that will confirm into the average American home kitchen,” says Iyer, sitting at a coffee shop by the Loring Park apartment where he lives with partner Terri Erickson and their son Robert.
He is often told that he does fusion cooking. Growing up in Mumbai among six siblings in a Tamil Brahmin family, the household kitchen was all about blending of cuisines. He did not know any other process. “I remind people that India has been doing fusion cooking for 6,000 years,” says Iyer. “The Indian cuisine underwent changes with every invasion. It is all a mix of that.”
His next book will expand Iyer’s exploration of curries. “This one will be about the curries from around Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa and Caribbean Islands,” he said.
Iyer is reluctant to characterize his achievements as such. When pressed, he points to the way he built relationships here: “If you don’t have those essential building blocks of working with people from varied backgrounds, you are set up for failure.”
Ranee Ramaswamy said the Twin Cities Indian community numbered only about 100 people when she arrived in the Twin Cities in 1978, “not knowing what my future here would be.” As that population began to blossom over the next decade (to roughly 38,000 as of 2016, according to St. Paul-based Wilder Research), so did her dance career.
Trained as a child in South India in the traditional dance form of Bharatanatyam, Ramaswamy found herself drawn to Robert Bly’s book “Mirabai Versions,” in which the famed poet translated songs by the 16th-century Hindu saint Mirabai.
Bly projected her as a strong woman — an image Ramaswamy could relate to. Told by a friend that Bly was a Minnesotan, Ramaswamy met with him and said, “Would you read the poetry if I dance to it?”
“Why not?” said Bly.
His 1991 collaboration with Ramaswamy and her elder daughter, Aparna, “was nothing short of a milestone,” she said, sitting in the spacious studio of Ragamala Dance Company, which she founded a year later. “People came to see Robert but loved the dance performance. That was how we started educating the audience here.”
Aparna is the company’s co-artistic director and her younger sister Ashwini, who also is a dancer, handles the company’s publicity and marketing. The mother-daughter trio is prepping for their next big project, “Fires of Varanasi,” which will premiere in 2020.
“If Ranee was thirsty for experimentation, they [Minnesotans] were hungry,” Aparna said of her mother. “They embraced her as they were curious about the form and how it blends with other cultures.”
The elder Ramaswamy has won numerous fellowships along with the McKnight Foundation’s prized Distinguished Artist Award, and serves on the National Council on the Arts. “It came as a surprise,” she says of the latter distinction, to which she was appointed in 2012 by President Barack Obama.
“Unlike Chicago, New York or California, which have huge population of East Indians, Minnesota was waiting with open arms for someone like me,” she said.
Zaraawar Mistry was fine — happy for the most part — writing and acting in stage productions, big and small, in the Twin Cities. He did that for almost a decade after finishing his MFA in theater from the University of California, San Diego in 1991.
But somewhere the storyteller in him was desperate to present tales from his growing-up years as a Parsi in India — stories that were part of his psyche. Originally from Iran, the Parsi are Zoroastrians, a religious minority in India.
“Over time, I began exploring my own background, culture, and ended up gravitating toward solo works,” says Mistry, 56, who has written and performed in four solo plays.
As his first solo work, he chose “Sohrab and Rustum,” which intertwined an Iranian folk tale about a warrior and his son with the story of a modern Parsi family in Mumbai. The show premiered in 2000 at the now-shuttered Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis.
Mistry’s instinct was right — the story resonated with the audience. He has done roughly 40 shows in eight venues in Minnesota, Houston and New York, including “The Other Mr. Gandhi,” a one-man play rooted in the disappearance of his father, an air force pilot, during the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
As an actor, he has performed at the Guthrie Theater, Children’s Theatre Company and Mixed Blood Theatre and collaborated with Ragamala Dance Company. When not scripting plays, he works as a coordinator at Springboard for the Arts, the St. Paul-based community development organization.
In 2006, he launched Dreamland Arts theater in St. Paul’s Midway area with his wife, Leslye Orr. It is a venue for his own productions as well as a resource for budding performers. “There are not many places like where anybody can approach and say: ‘I have got this idea ... ’ ”
Beyond self-expression, his quest is to change the perception of India.
“People forget that India is a fantastically diverse country. It is not monolithic. Through my stories, I try to bring that out.”
A journalist in India, Danish Raza spent the summer at the Star Tribune as an Alfred Friendly Press Partners Fellow.