Rajna Swaminathan is an acclaimed mrudangam (a barrel-shaped South Indian drum) artist, composer, and scholar. Rajna has been described as “a vital new voice” (Pop Matters), creating “music of gravity and rigor… yet its overall effect is accessible and uplifting” (Wall Street Journal). In her music and research, she explores the undercurrents of rhythmic experience and emergent textures in collective improvisation.
One of only a few women who play the mrudangam professionally, Rajna received her creative foundation on the instrument from her father, P.K. Swaminathan, and mrudangam maestro Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. While Rajna spent much of her youth performing in the Karnatik music and bharatanatyam (South Indian dance) scenes across the diaspora and in India, her music has also been informed by her study of Western classical piano, an affinity for Indian film music and other popular musics, and extensive collaborations with improvisers in New York’s creative music scene. Rajna’s scholarly work also intersects with her musical study and informs her creative perspective: she holds degrees in Anthropology and French from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently at Harvard University, pursuing a PhD in Music — Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry — a doctoral program founded by her mentor, pianist-composer Vijay Iyer.
Rajna’s creative voice blossomed through a search for resonance and fluidity among musical forms and aesthetic worlds. Her ensemble RAJAS has been a prominent medium for her expansive compositions, which involve a lattice of rhythmic, textural, and modal approaches. The group’s sound has been described as “unlike any other on the scene” (New York Times), having “wedded beauty by courting chaos, with the methods of loose-knit latter-day jazz at the service of a recognizably South-Asian melody and pulse” (Financial Times). Rajna's debut album with RAJAS, Of Agency and Abstraction (Biophilia Records, 2019), features Rajna (mrudangam, voice), along with Miles Okazaki (guitar), Anjna Swaminathan (violin), Stephan Crump (bass), María Grand (tenor saxophone), Ganavya Doraiswamy (voice) and Amir ElSaffar (trumpet).
In addition to her projects, Rajna performs extensively in ensembles led by Vijay Iyer, Amir ElSaffar, María Grand, Ganavya Doraiswamy, and Aakash Mittal. As a composer-performer for dance and theater works, Rajna has toured widely with Ragamala Dance (Minneapolis), and collaborated with playwright/actress Anu Yadav. Rajna is also an experienced educator, and has taught as faculty at the Banff International Jazz and Creative Music Workshop, Jazz Camp of Philadelphia, and KoSA International Percussion Workshop, among others.
Rajna is a member of the We Have Voice Collective, along with Fay Victor, Ganavya Doraiswamy, Imani Uzuri, Jen Shyu, Kavita Shah, Linda May Han Oh, María Grand, Nicole Mitchell, Okkyung Lee, Sara Serpa, Tamar Sella, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Tia Fuller. The collective seeks to shift the cultural landscape of the performing arts, bringing awareness to issues of inequity and creating safe(r) spaces.
Rajna’s recent commissions include Chamber Music America New Jazz Works (2019-2021), LAPhil Green Umbrella Series (2020), and a composer fellowship with the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music (2020).
Photo credit: Adrien H. Tillmann