Rajna Swaminathan

Florence Price Fellow


“Rhythm is my primary medium of creativity, as a percussionist, improviser, and composer. Rhythm can encompass all aspects of earthly temporal experience: anticipation, simultaneity, serendipity, déja-vu, groove. I am especially drawn to understanding rhythm cross-culturally in its manifestations in South Asian and Afro-diasporic musical and choreographic processes... In my view, rhythm, at its core, springs from the desire for alignment among bodies.”

— Rajna Swaminathan

Rajna press photo - credit Jaimie Milner.jpg

Rajna Swaminathan is an acclaimed mrudangam (South Indian percussion) artist and composer. Rajna studied with the renowned mrudangam maestro Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, and is one of only a handful of women who play the mrudangam professionally. She performs regularly with several Indian classical musicians, most notably her mentor, vocalist-scholar T.M. Krishna. Rajna has performed at 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 regularly gives workshops on the South Indian rhythmic perspective, such as 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. Rajna’s ongoing dissertation work (both academic and creative dimensions) centers on questions of time, virtuosity, and ethics in music-making, particularly as they pertain to queer of color and diasporic creative positionalities.

Since 2011, Rajna has been studying and collaborating with eminent musicians in New York's jazz and creative music scene, including Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, and Amir ElSaffar. Culling from her experience incorporating experimental and polyrhythmic methods from creative music into her artistic practice, Rajna formed the ensemble RAJAS. Her compositions for the ensemble -- drawing on hybrid sensibilities from Indian music, jazz/ creative music, and Afro-diasporic polyrhythmic processes -- allow for collective exploration of new textural and improvisational horizons at the nexus of multiple perspectives. RAJAS has performed at prominent venues such as

the Lincoln Center Atrium, The Jazz Gallery, The Met Breuer, and Alwan for the Arts. In addition to featuring Rajna as a composer and mrudangam artist, RAJAS frequently features: Miles Okazaki (guitar), Anjna Swaminathan (violin), Stephan Crump (bass), María Grand (tenor saxophone), Ganavya Doraiswamy (vocal) and Amir ElSaffar (trumpet). The ensemble’s debut album, Of Agency and Abstraction, is due to be released in fall of 2018.

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 soloist Mythili Prakash. Rajna has also worked with playwright/actress Anu Yadav, scoring her solo show, Meena's Dream (with Anjna Swaminathan and Sam McCormally). The soundtrack to this production was released as an album, The Worry Machine (2015). Rajna's most recent collaborative project with Anu is called Storytellers, and combines music performed by RAJAS with potent spoken narratives dealing with the experience of racism, sexism, colonial trauma, and diasporic identity.

Along with her sister Anjna Swaminathan and father, P.K. Swaminathan, Rajna is a co-artistic director of Rhythm Fantasies, Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes Indian art music and dance in spaces that encourage education and enrichment through cross-cultural collaboration.