Rajna Swaminathan is an acclaimed mrudangam (South Indian percussion) artist and composer. She is a protégé of mrudangam maestro Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, and tours regularly with several renowned Indian classical musicians, most notably her mentor, vocalist T.M. Krishna. Rajna is one of only a handful of women who play the mrudangam professionally. She has performed in several prestigious venues and festivals, including the Smithsonian (D.C.), Kennedy Center (D.C.), Asia Society (NYC), Lincoln Center (NYC), Walker Art Center (MN), Music Academy (Chennai), Shanmukhananda Hall (Mumbai) and The Esplanade (Singapore). Rajna also regularly gives workshops on the South Indian rhythmic perspective, most notably at the Banff International Jazz and Creative Music Workshop and the Percussive Arts Society International Convention. Rajna holds degrees in Anthropology and French from the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Music (Creative Practice & Critical Inquiry) at Harvard University.
Since 2011, she has been studying and collaborating with eminent musicians in New York's jazz and creative music scene, performing extensively in various projects led by Vijay Iyer, Amir ElSaffar, María Grand, and Ganavya Doraiswamy. Culling from her experience incorporating the experimental methods of creative music into her artistic practice, Rajna formed the ensemble RAJAS, which collectively explores new textural and improvisational horizons at the nexus of multiple musical perspectives. The ensemble has performed at prominent venues such as the Lincoln Center Atrium, The Jazz Gallery, The Met Breuer, and Alwan for the Arts. Rajna's debut album as leader of RAJAS, Of Agency and Abstraction, will be released in the spring of 2019. The album features Rajna (mrudangam, voice), along with Miles Okazaki (guitar), Anjna Swaminathan (violin), Stephan Crump (bass), María Grand (tenor saxophone), and guest artists Ganavya Doraiswamy (vocal) and Amir ElSaffar (trumpet). Rajna's most recent project, Mangal, emerges from her dissertation research, and is a foray into creating a novel and dynamic notational discourse that attends to diverse aesthetic and ethical priorities in improvised music.
Rajna is active as a composer-performer for dance and theatre works. Most notably, she has toured widely with the acclaimed Ragamala Dance (Minneapolis) as well as with bharatanatyam dancer Mythili Prakash. Rajna has also collaborated with playwright/actress Anu Yadav, scoring her solo show, Meena's Dream (in collaboration with Anjna Swaminathan and Sam McCormally). This music was released as a soundtrack album, The Worry Machine (2015). In 2017, Rajna and Anu premiered Storytellers, a performance that combines music (performed by RAJAS) with potent spoken narratives (written/performed by Anu) dealing with the experience of racism, sexism, colonial trauma, and diasporic identity.
In her capacity as a cross-disciplinary artist-scholar, some of Rajna's research interests include: critical and experimental perspectives on temporality, ethics, and virtuosity in music, particularly as they erupt in queer/diasporic creative trajectories; the politics of 'art music' as an aesthetic category in the wake of colonialism and its residual nationalisms; the stubbornness and elasticity of music/sound perception and the embodied improvisations that animate it.
Photo credit: Jaimie Milner