(Conversations with emerging artists)
By Sushma Somasekharan
Rajna Swaminathan, a USA-based musician, grew up learning the mridangam, piano, and Bharatanatyam. Eventually, she found the mridangam to be her calling and made that her focus. A disciple of sangita Kalanidhi Umayalpuram K Sivaraman, Rajna has won several awards including the Best Mridangist Award at The Music Academy Madras. Keen on bringing the mridangam to new audiences, Rajna has involved herself in several projects in the USA and in India. She speaks about her musical pursuit to Sushma Somasekharan.
Where did it all start?
My father, P.K. Swaminathan, plays the mridangam. He was my first teacher. I was five when I showed some initial interest and started learning some basics from him. I was very frustrated since my hands were so small and I was playing on a full-size mridangam. My parents simultaneously enrolled me in piano lessons, which helped to strengthen my fingers.
My father had had some initial mridangam training in India, but his dream was to study with the great Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. When I was eight years old, my parents sponsored Sivaraman sir to come stay in our house in Maryland and teach for a couple of months. After that, he made several trips to our house during which I would have daily intensive lessons with him. During my school holidays, I would visit him in India for more lessons. It was an unusual situation for me to have so much of his direct attention as a guru - as he would joke, it was more of a ‘sishyakulavaasam’ than a traditional ‘gurukulavaasam.’ I was truly lucky to have learned from him in such an intensive way.
After my arangetram, however, the formal lessons with my guru ended and he encouraged me instead to learn and observe on my own - both from his performances and from my own experiences with different artists. This was a difficult but necessary turning point - it was about discovering the subtleties of music that could not be taught but had to be understood through experience and developing a mature artistic voice.
How has your educational background helped your understanding of music?
I studied cultural anthropology, focusing on researching the roles of culture and identity in music and other performing arts, particularly in cross-cultural situations. Pursuing cultural studies academically has definitely influenced the way I think about the music I make and how it contributes to different communities. I have tentative plans to continue my academic career after a couple of years, but it will still revolve around music research and composition.
Do you recall your first performance? What are your early memories of performing?
Although I don’t remember my very first performance, I do remember that my first few attempts at performing involved accompanying musicians in local and regional Tyagaraja aradhanas and other Carnatic music festivals in the US as well as accompanying a few dance productions. I began performing for music and dance when I was about 11 or 12 years old.
When I was 13 I had the great opportunity of touring 26 cities in the US with my guru and a special ensemble - including the jalatarangam, violin, ghatam, and Kerala percussion instruments chenda and thimble. The tour involved concerts at several universities and other primarily Western venues. In every performance, I would accompany one song - Samajavaragamana - with my guru playing the khanjira. It was my first experience performing at prestigious American venues such as the Smithsonian (Washington, D.C.) and Asia Society (New York).
I took off nearly 2 months of school to be part of the tour. The experience was memorable, and really pushed me to contemplate taking up music as a profession. I knew after that tour that this was what I wanted to do: perform for and educate Western audiences in order to increase global and contemporary awareness of the mridangam and of Carnatic music.
Do you play for dance too? How different is the experience from that of a conventional Carnatic kutcheri?
I play fairly often for Bharatanatyam performances, and opportunities to do so are abundant in the US. I generally restrict myself to professional performances rather than cater to the growing arangetram phenomenon that has become a popular fad here. Over the past 4 years, I have been working with Ragamala Dance, a professional Bharatanatyam company based in Minneapolis. Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, the co-artistic directors, senior disciples of Alarmel Valli, have created a contemporary space for Bharatanatyam, and collaborated with several visual and performing artists over the past two decades to create work that communicates the art form to Western audiences without diluting the movement vocabulary.
Working with Ragamala and dancers like Mythili Prakash, has been a significant part of my artistic growth. Although the traditional style of playing for dance is very different from accompanying a Carnatic kutcheri, I have tried to integrate the two styles by using phrases in my guru’s bani to accompany the dance in a ‘musical’ way. Playing for dance requires an ear for rhythmic complementarity, an ability to harmonize and internalize parallel cross-rhythms. This is different from a kutcheri, where the tendency is toward unison and linear development of improvisation—with the mridangam and violin mirroring and anticipating the vocalist’s phrases. Furthermore, it induces a sort of synesthetic sense; that which is purely sonic in a kutcheri becomes much more visual, physical, and dynamic in a dance setting.
Playing for dance has made me think of music in terms of visual shapes and energy dynamics, a quality that has enriched my overall style even in other contexts like kutcheris and jazz performances. Anthropologically speaking, music and dance evolved together, and it is difficult to ignore their intersections and interdependence. This connection between sound and locomotion has become more evident and important in my creative process.
Have people been supportive of you pursuing the mridangam, which, you would agree, is a male dominated industry?
Yes. I’m lucky to have grown up in a generation that is more open-minded and egalitarian than was customary a few decades ago. This is not to say that I have encountered no resistance. Sometimes resistance or discrimination is subtle - through the specific set of opportunities that become available to a woman, or even through the nature of musical interactions. On the whole, however, my experience has been a positive one. Even in the jazz scene, which is fairly male dominated as well, I have been lucky to have important people support my career and artistic growth.
Did you ever feel that you were not taken seriously because you were a female percussionist?
I don’t think this has ever really been a major issue for me. I might have faced mild skepticism, but most people (in the many situations I’ve performed in) have adopted a meritocratic attitude and judged me by my actual playing. I do, however, get the occasional comment that I “play well for a girl,” as though there is a separate standard for women’s music. Others have asked if I sing as well, as though that should be my natural inclination. Ideally, I wish my gender would neither boost nor limit audiences’ perception and expectations of me. Ultimately however, it often does both, and hence balances out.
Do you feel disadvantaged because you’re not based in Chennai? Has living abroad given your music and percussion a different perspective?
Although Chennai is the mecca of Carnatic music, it is not the only place where one can perform, gain experience, and grow. Yes, there are certain artistic trajectories that are only possible if you settle down in Chennai, devoting yourself to touring with musicians in India, and perform in the December season.
Yet, as I have learned over the past few years through my involvement with different kinds of musical projects, artistic possibilities do exist independent of Chennai, are perhaps exclusive to musical scenes in the US and the West in general. We live in a rapidly globalizing world, and opportunities are now available almost regardless of our location. This is why it is possible to become proficient in Carnatic music without living in India.
However, the sheer need to look for opportunities outside of the standard kutcheri circle (which, in the US, is not financially viable as a sole source of income for a professional musician) makes your perspective on music radically different. This is slowly happening in India as well, I’m sure, but the coexistence in the US of Indian music with musical forms from other cultures engenders a very different point of view on the meaning and practice of Carnatic music.
What are your aspirations with regard to the mridangam?
As a result of not being particularly immersed in the Chennai Carnatic music scene, I have sought out several different musical nests for myself in the US. My goal has always been to bring the mridangam and Carnatic music to new audiences, and the best way to do that is to be open-minded, honest, and community-oriented with one’s music. I really believe in the ability of music to bring people together and build bridges. I feel that the directions my career has taken in the past couple of years has allowed me to do this in my own way, and I hope that I can continue to do so. I aspire to be involved in more cross-cultural projects as a composer and improviser, and to teach musicians from other genres about the Indian musical perspective while learning from them simultaneously.
Above all, I hope that I can integrate all of these diverse experiences to develop artistically and grow as a human being. The artists I have most admired have all found a way to do this in their own circumstances, and have all given back to the community as well. The exact manner in which my career will unfold may be unknown, but I am fairly confident of these underlying principles, which echo the philosophies of my guru, my parents, and my other mentors and collaborators.