By Cynthia Gross
Acclaimed Indian classical violinist and educator Nistha Raj is an overcomer. After surviving a difficult childhood, the 2013-2014 Strathmore Artist in Residence discovered her niche in the D.C. music scene and has never looked back. Nistha Raj’s ability to meld traditionally distinct genres, including Hindustani, hip-hop, jazz, and rock, conjures a renaissance of Indian classical music in a powerful way that is accessible to contemporary audiences.
Learn more about Nistha Raj’s inspiring story with contributing writer Cynthia Gross, including what attracted her to the nation’s capital, how family has played an integral role in her journey, and her recommended Indian classical music starter kit in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Born and raised in the United States, Nistha Raj was introduced to western classical violin at age 9. Early on, she realized that her formal training provided a welcome connection to her Indian heritage. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Houston, Raj traveled to her homeland, where she completed an intensive training program in New Delhi at the Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya under the tutelage of Sharat Srivastava who hails from the lineage of legendary artists Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar.
Raj discovered the D.C. area quite by chance. “My mother passed when I was 25, so I really had no ties left in Houston,” she shared. Raj’s older sister was attending American University, which led Raj to relocate to the nation’s capital. “You make your plans, and God laughs,” she reflected with a chuckle.
“I came to D.C. thinking I would be here for a little while to figure out next steps, and D.C. became home to me, a place of stability.” Raj discovered a wealth of talent in the area scene and liked the size of the city compared to larger places like New York. “I can escape to nature in a few minutes or less, and of course, I met my husband here, which solidified things.”
Nistha Raj cites her mother as an early influence, including her fondness for 60s and 70s Bollywood music at a time when the genre was steeped in Indian classical tradition, as well as Bhajans, or spiritual music. “For me, it was worship and an introduction to Indian classical music that encouraged me to dig deeper to find the source of the music we were listening to,” she explained.
Family runs deep in Nistha Raj’s story. Raj has an unbreakable bond with her older sister, Geeta Raj. “My tie to my sister is strong,” she shared. “She’s pretty much the only immediate family member I have.” Despite the fact that her sister is 3 years her senior, Nistha notes that Geeta raised her while they grew up in a single parent household, looking after their mother who suffered from mental illness. Geeta is now an artist herself, as well as a children’s book author and entrepreneur.
“My sister has always supported me and taught me how to be a strong, independent woman,” Raj shared. “She cared for me, protected me, and pulled me out of situations that were not good for us. Looking back on all of the obstacles we had to overcome – not having a lot of financial support and opportunities – I say, ‘wow, I came through that.’ Things could have gone a different way.” To anyone who is facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle of their own, Raj said she wants to “inspire people that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
The ability to find light in darkness is what makes Nistha Raj’s music so compelling. Her 2014 debut album, Exit 1, provided a platform for Raj to process fully trauma and grief, ultimately finding restoration. Raj’s sold-out release show at Strathmore’s Mansion remains her proudest moment to date. Betty Scott, Raj’s Strathmore mentor, was in attendance.
“It was almost like giving birth to a baby,” Raj noted. “I had music from every experience I went through come out of me. The energy that was created that night on stage and having my mentors and family there supporting me [is unforgettable].” Raj’s musical partner, Grammy nominated hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon, shared the stage with her that night, and their collaboration has grown over the years.
“He’s so wonderful to work with,” Raj shared. “We come from disparate backgrounds, and it is so special to see that we can bring people together. Music is one language, and we can find a way to meld melody and rhythm together.”
In addition to managing her solo career, Raj is founder of Soulfege Music Studio, which provides immersive music training for children. Raj is also co-founder of District of Raga, a renowned monthly concert series dedicated to Indian classical music, an effort she leads with Avi Shah, as well as a member of the Kennedy Center’s Culture Caucus, a collective of D.C. area individuals and organizations that curate community and drive social impact.
“Some days, I wish I had a 9-5 job, where I could just leave it,” Raj joked. However, she notes that music is what ties everything together. “As an entrepreneur, the reward is that I get to support artists and give them a platform. I get to see students learning and see the smiles on parents’ faces, and that’s my joy.” Raj also gives a shout-out to her husband who is always by her side – from supporting her at events, to managing the merch table at shows, to being a sounding board.
For individuals interested in exploring Indian classical music, Raj shared the following starter kit.
— (1) Legacy by Ali Akbar Khan and Asha Bhosle contains various styles of Hindustani classical music and is a great introduction for getting your toes wet.
Here is a description of the album:
“The coming together of two stellar talents– master-sarodist Ali Akbar Khan and singing diva Asha Bhosle– in an unprecedented collection of eleven ancient, 16th-18th century songs from the Court of Emperor Akbar, handed down through family and lineage. They are presented in forms of prayer, tarana, hori, kheyal, dhrupad, and sadra, with the added richness of the sarangi, sitar, cello, and harmonium. Swapan Chaudhuri on tabla and pakawaj.”
— (2) Any of Ravi Shankar’s recordings, including his cross-genre collaborations with artists like Philip Glass and The Beatles.
“I’ve always been drawn to Indian classical music, but deep down, my desire was to make it accessible to wider audiences,” Raj shared. And that is exactly what the talented artist continues to do. Nistha Raj is a gift to the DMV music scene, and if her career to this point is any indication, her future has no choice but to shine bright.
Join District of Raga’s mailing list for the collective’s to-be-announced tour dates in support of the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Summer Series, and stay tuned for new music from Nistha Raj who is excited to return to the studio in the coming months.
Maryland-based singer-songwriter Cynthia Gross seeks to inspire an awakening to all we are and all we can become. With a passion for language in all of its forms and more than a decade of experience as a professional ghostwriter, she is a light seeker who understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.
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