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Meet Nina Shekhar

Today we’d like to introduce you to Nina Shekhar.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Nina. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
My brother took piano lessons, and I would always watch his lessons intently wishing I could play. I began taking piano lessons later myself, and eventually also began learning the flute and saxophone. I began composing very early on, writing short simple pieces. One day, my brother overheard one of my pieces and, him being eight years older and knowing more music theory than me, beefed up my little melody into a full-fledged piece. We sent this new version into a magazine and they published it, but I always felt guilty that my name was listed as the composer even though he wrote a lot of it too! It all turned out okay, though – I redeemed myself by becoming a capital-C composer, writing pieces of entirely my own creation.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Growing up as a brown girl in a predominantly white neighborhood was very challenging. Never fitting in with my peers left me with low self-esteem, and my sense of femininity was affected because I didn’t match the white limited standard of beauty popularized by the media. Similarly, being educated amongst mainly white and cis-male peers was terrifying. Sometimes people would attempt to pigeonhole me or exoticize my music, and others would reprimand me for not using explicitly “Western” idioms. I struggled for a while trying to figure out how to navigate my complex identity. It took me a long time to realize that just like how my societal hybridized identity is unique and is something to be nurtured, so is my hybridized musical identity. And my art will always be reflective of this identity – it will be brown, feminine, quirky, bold, neurodiverse, and so many other aspects of who I am simply because I wrote it. My unique cultural experiences growing up will always influence my perspective of the world, which will in turn influence my music – either deliberately or subconsciously.

I was fortunate to have so many mentors and colleagues that valued my complex identity and supported my learning. I love each of them dearly, and I am so grateful to all of them for helping me learn how to embrace myself and be open in my art.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
Identity is central to my art. Growing up as a first-generation Indian American, navigating a hybridized cultural identity was challenging but extremely fruitful in terms of unique and rich experiences. My immigrant family would eat palak paneer alongside fried chicken, and we would watch movies from both Bollywood and Hollywood. I grew up listening to an eclectic mix of Shivkumar Sharma santoor recordings, Pink Floyd and Nirvana records, and Bach preludes and Beethoven sonatas that I was learning on the piano. And I loved all of it, and my unique hybridized musical identity influenced my writing.

I also have always had a wide array of interests. When I was six, I wanted to be an artist-teacher-astronaut-musician. In many ways, I have not changed much since. I still like to keep my mind occupied with as diverse a range of interests as I did then. Much of my work is highly personal and multidisciplinary, involving self-written texts and visual art. I also pursued a degree in chemical engineering in addition to my composition degree, and intense learning in other fields has broadened my social awareness and ability to examine issues from multiple perspectives.

My primary goal is to create music that allows me to emotionally connect with listeners on a human level. Often this requires me to be extremely vulnerable and access difficult memories and cathartically tackle my own insecurities. Being a neurodiverse woman of color, a lot of my art addresses my growing awareness and love for my own identity and the challenges of living in a world that sometimes doesn’t respect me for who I am.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
For artists, the future often tends to be very uncertain, but I’m learning to love what surprises the future will bring! Most likely in the long term, I will continue my education and pursue a doctorate in composition. I also would like to travel abroad – I’ve studied some Hindustani and Carnatic music before, but I would love to study music with a guru in India. In the meantime, I’m excited to be working on a lot of projects coming up, including a commission for Portland’s Helios Chamber Orchestra, sponsored by the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, and a chamber work for the New York Youth Symphony premiering in Carnegie Hall in May 2020. I’m also working on new works for several LA-based performers, including a piece about menstruation for The Furies violin duo, and a microtonal work for the Ray-Kallay piano duo.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:

Malathy Shekhar, HEAR NOW Music Festival, Third Angle New Music

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