Turning Up the Volume: Nina Shekhar (composer, flutist)

Turning Up the Volume is a collection of interviews that focuses on the individual stories of up and coming musicians in American classical music. These interviews explore topics of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability as they apply to historically underrepresented artists. But most importantly, Turning Up the Volume is a platform for these musicians to share their experiences in their own words.

The second installment of Turning Up the Volume is with Nina Shekhar, a Morton Gould award winning composer and flutist. Shekhar’s pieces have been performed by a variety of esteemed groups and musicians, including ETHEL, Tony Arnold, and Third Angle New Music. Additionally, she offers a diverse perspective being at the intersection of multiple identities. As an Indian-American, a woman of color, and a neurodiverse person, Nina Shekhar is a minority within a minority in classical music. And in this interview, Shekhar presents her own unique experiences and insights establishing herself and her musical voice in this environment.

Have people treated you differently due to your minority status in the classical music world?

Yes, it’s interesting how many biases are present even in our so-called “liberal” music community. Classical music has historically been a very privileged field that has limited the voices of underrepresented people. I feel like the new music world often tries to correct this, yet I noticed that many of the biases are still present today. Many new music concerts and panels of women in music include no people of color, even though they are trying to address diversity. Sometimes, I felt like I was passed over because people didn’t take me as seriously as a musician being an Indian-American woman. This is both a professional and a social problem–“my otherness” affects all aspects of my life.

I remember once being asked by someone to take a personality test. Even though this person didn’t know me well, they insisted that my test results were wrong because they couldn’t believe that my results suggested that I was creative and emotionally sensitive, even though I’m a composer, which is an inherently creative profession. I also remember other instances when I felt less inclined to speak up in male-dominated environments because I knew that they would not listen to my ideas, even when discussing the importance of women in music. I understood that they wanted to leverage their privilege, but it’s also important to know when to quiet our own voices so that underrepresented voices can be heard for themselves.

Being a woman of color is its own unique identity with its own challenges. I often see the phrase “women OR people of color” when discussing diversity, but I don’t know where I fit into that phrase as a woman of color. That phrase also excludes many other minorities, like LGBTQ+ people, non-binary people, mentally and/or physically disabled people, and others who are also marginalized. Diversity is a very nuanced issue, and we have to make sure that everyone’s unique voice is heard.

Have you ever felt obligated to use Indian cultural elements in your compositions because that’s what people expected of you?

Yes, some people have wanted me to explicitly use elements from specific raags or traditional Indian classical instruments in my music. And for a period of time, I put the obligation on myself because I felt like I was neglecting my cultural identity and not being “a responsible cultural ambassador.”


Nina Shekhar–Photo by Focus Point Studio of Photography

How have you handled this expectation?

I struggled with this for a while. I realized eventually that my personal identity is very complex–I’m at the intersection of being an American, being an Indian-American, being a woman, someone who’s neurodiverse having struggled with mental illness, and many more identities. I have a hybridized identity–I grew up watching movies from both Hollywood and Bollywood, and I ate french fries alongside palak paneer.  

And similarly, I have a hybridized musical identity, having been influenced by Western classical, Indian classical, rock, pop, and jazz music. My personal identity influences every perception of the world that I have, and that will always influence my music. While I think exploring one’s identity in their art can be a really cathartic process, it is my decision to make if I want to deliberately use characteristics of Hindustani or Carnatic music in my writing, or not to. We don’t make composers who are white men write about their “whiteness” or their “masculinity” in their music, why should we make minority composers write about their “otherness?” True equality requires both social and creative equality.  

Do you feel like you are fighting people’s stereotypes of Asian-Americans and perceptions of persons with O.C.D.?

I have noticed among Indian-American composers that we tend to take more creative liberties than Western composers who try to use both Indian and Western idioms. We have a huge wealth of musical styles to draw from. And interestingly, I find that we’re often more likely to experiment with breaking traditional rules, maybe by floating between different raags or playing with rhythms uncommon to Western music.  

With regards to O.C.D., people assume we’re perfectionists or very systematic and logical–which falls into the same Asian-American stereotype. What people forget is that the root of O.C.D. is emotion, anxiety, and compassion. I want my music to connect with people, which requires sharing empathy with them. O.C.D. has allowed me to be more authentic in my music.

Being a minority is quite special. There’s no way that we can personally understand the nuanced experiences that everyone else faces. But we can understand what it feels like to be overlooked for our “privileged” counterparts. I think this makes us compassionate and socially aware.

Can you talk about the evolution of your self perception?

All people, regardless of gender, can be very self-critical. But women seem to place more emphasis on physical appearance due to the media’s portrayal of us. Race can exacerbate this because of the limited standard of beauty shown. I grew up hating my hairy legs, my bushy eyebrows, and my darker skin color–all of which are generally distinctive features amongst Indians. Ironically, some of these features are considered “masculine” features by Western standards, so this hurt my sense of femininity.  

O.C.D. made things more difficult. Mental illness is different than a physical ailment because it’s not external. It’s part of you, which makes it hard to separate what is you and what is the illness. I would perform these compulsions which would make others uncomfortable, and such basic tasks that were so easy for other people felt impossible for me. The intersection of all my identities left me with virtually no self-esteem.

But I’ve slowly started to realize how important and special neurodiversity is. We always focus on the negatives of O.C.D. or other mental “disorders,” but we forget the immense empathy that our unique minds give us. In my music, the careful attention to detail from O.C.D. makes my writing more precise. One of my professors who has previously struggled with depression calls this the “gifts of depression”–nobody chooses to have it, but having that different way of thinking makes you a more compassionate person overall.

In terms of my race, finding other people who are minorities helped a lot when I went to college, but I struggle with my appearance still. The slowly increasing prevalence of Indian-American public figures is helping to change my negative self-perception. I’m trying to separate what part of my self-esteem is socially derived and what comes from me, and to remember that the part coming from society may be based on inaccurate stereotypes.


Nina Shekhar–Photo by Malathy Shekhar

Do you have any ideas on moving forward in the classical music world?

In today’s extreme political climate, we often think that racism and sexism only comes from the other side, not our own. But we are all flawed humans who are the product of a flawed society. We fear the unknown, which means we often fear those who are different than us. The key is to accept our inherent biases and work to overcome them. Everyone wants to be listened to, respected, and feel like they matter.

When someone makes a bigoted comment towards me, I’m upset and angry that they see me as a caricature rather than a multi-dimensional human being. But the longer I think about it, the harder it is for me to hold a grudge against the person–it just makes me feel so much worse. Compassion is so important to me and has guided my work as an artist and my everyday experiences. I feel like most of these problems stem from a basic lack of compassion in today’s society.

One of the main criticisms people make about promoting diversity is that somehow the quality is diminished–that we should pick the “best” pieces regardless of who writes them. The problem with this statement is that the standards by which we judge “quality” is inherently skewed. We judge things based on white, male-centered standards. Encouraging diversity doesn’t mean diminishing quality, it means rethinking what we value in each other’s work from different perspectives.

But this requires us to actually want to rethink our values. Diversity for the sake of diversity is meaningless. No one wants a token spot. I don’t want be given a token spot somewhere if people aren’t going to take my music seriously. I want to be respected, appreciated, and listened to–just like everyone else.