Rajna Swaminathan is an acclaimed mrudangam (South Indian percussion) artist, composer, and scholar. In her music and research, she explores the undercurrents of rhythmic experience and emergent textures in collective improvisation. Described as “a vital new voice” ( Pop Matters), Rajna’s creative trajectory blossomed through a search for resonance and fluidity among musical forms and aesthetic worlds.
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 legend Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. While Rajna spent much of her youth performing in the karnatik music and bharatanatyam 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 compositions draw on a deep knowledge of South Indian rhythm, polyrhythmic sensibilities from jazz and African diasporic music, and the melodic essence and harmonic potential of Indian ragas. In 2013, she founded the ensemble RAJAS, writing expansive, boundary breaking music for herself and like-minded improvisers, spanning multiple musical approaches.
Rajas is a Sanskrit word describing the human energy that compels us toward action, creation, and change, and the ensemble members embody this spirit in their creative, open-ended approach to improvisation. Rajna’s debut album with RAJAS, Of Agency and Abstraction (Biophilia Records, 2019), has been lauded as “music of gravity and rigor… yet its overall effect is accessible and uplifting” ( Wall Street Journal) .
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 founding member of the We Have Voice Collective, which seeks to shift the cultural landscape of the performing arts, bringing awareness to issues of inequity and creating safe(r) spaces. Rajna holds degrees in Anthropology and French from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Music (Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry) at Harvard University.
Some recent commissions include Chamber Music America New Jazz Works (2019-2021), Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella Series (2020), Bang On A Can Marathon (2020), and National Sawdust Digital Discovery Festival / JACK Quartet (2020).