When Rajashree Rao moved to the United States to pursue her engineering technology career in the late 1990s, she forgot to bring an important piece of her culture: a stringed instrument called the veena.
Later, she realized that having her instrument would provide a strong tie to her homeland, and so she brought it back with her after visiting India in 2000. “I felt I needed to bring some of my heritage to Minnesota,” she explains. “The veena is one of the oldest musical instruments, dating back to 1500 B.C. Very few people know about it outside of India.”
But Rao is doing her best to change that—and to stay connected to her country of birth.
When Rao and her husband moved to Minnesota in 1997, they were among a relatively small number of people who had immigrated to the Twin Cities area from India. Originally from Kerala, the southernmost state in India, Rao was working for an information technology company when she received a job offer from a company in Iowa. Recently married, she and her husband decided to make the move to the United States. “It was actually scary at first,” Rao says. “It was hard to leave all our family and come alone here, but we were both very happy for the opportunity to come and work here.”
Rao and her husband, both engineering graduates, had worked for companies that provided technology development for American businesses including GM Appliance and JC Penney. “It struck us as exciting to have the opportunity to come to the States and work directly with these clients when we had only maybe consulted with them before,” she says.
The couple first moved to Iowa before being transferred to Minnesota, where they made their home in West St. Paul and worked for US Bank. “We had no idea what part of the United States Minnesota was at that point,” she says. “It was a totally new experience for us. Everyone kept telling us how cold it was there.”
Rao and her husband have called Minnesota home ever since. The family ended up settling in Eden Prairie, where they’ve lived for 11 years. The couple has two sons, ages 9 and 15.
In addition to her full-time job as director of technologies at Ameriprise Financial, Rao stays connected to her homeland by giving veena lessons. Rao learned to play the instrument as a child. “I appeared in a lot of music competitions in India,” she says. “I also played for the All India Radio and did several concerts in India.”
Now she teaches the instrument to both adults and children around the metro area.
Shakopee resident Sailaja Vallamkondu is the mother of one of Rao’s students. Her daughter Veda began taking veena lessons at the beginning of last summer. Vallamkondu always dreamed of playing the instrument herself as a child, and now wants to offer that opportunity to her daughter. “The veena is a sacred instrument, and it is always important to preserve the culture and divinity by imparting them to children,” Vallamkondu says. “The veena also brings in a lot of tranquility at home.”
Although she does not have her own veena yet, Vallamkondu says her daughter practices for an hour each week as directed by Rao. “Indian culture has many values that keep families together and lead loving lives,” she says. “I want my daughter to be protected all her life, for which I believe culture plays a very important role.”
Rao says teaching helps her learn the veena better herself. She currently has five students, which is the most she can manage while working full-time. “This is an instrument that’s really tough to learn, and so it demands more individual, one-on-one class time,” she says. “My weekend is pretty much full with teaching those classes.”
Rao says the community has been very welcoming to her and her family, which made sharing her culture through music very easy. “People here are extremely nice,” she says. “The people in our community have always been interested in where we come from, and our culture. They’ve made us feel so welcome.”