Creating our own content: Rajna Swaminathan and Anu Yadav

Rajna Swaminathan and Anu Yadav light up the stage in Storytellers, a powerful, political, personal work that intertwines music and text. The artists shared some of their artistic journey with Intercultural Journeys' managing director, Carly Rapaport-Stein. Read on to hear from the artists all about their art, influences, and practice.

Carly: Anu, what's your earliest memory of falling in love with the theater? And Rajna, what's your earliest memory of falling in love with music?

Anu: The first thought that comes to mind actually is a trick I played on some schoolboys walking by my apartment building. I had recorded myself playing different voices as if in a TV show and commercial. I blasted the stereo out the window and then they laughed and threw pebbles at the window. I didn't anticipate that reaction, and was afraid they would throw bigger rocks!  They didn't, thankfully. I think what I loved about the moment – before the rock throwing – was the secrecy and escapism of hiding behind character. Little did I realize that acting and theater is not about hiding so much as revealing the truth of who you are. I thought I loved to hide onstage, but really, what I loved was letting down my guard and fear of the boxes I knew other children put me in. It was step towards being more myself.

Rajna: I used to sing a lot of nursery rhymes as a child, and loved making up my own songs while I played. I remember finding joy in belting out whatever came to mind! Later, I used to compose little melodies, and felt delighted as I worked them out on the piano, neglecting whatever Mozart of Tchaikovsky piece was assigned by my piano teacher. This inclination for composing continued into my teenage years, when I sat almost every afternoon, either with the piano or a toy guitar, writing songs to deal with some angst and the experience of being bullied. I suppose that such early experiences intermingled – at some level of consciousness – with my more formal training in Indian music. I think both of those early discoveries – finding beauty in shaping musical sounds and experiencing their catharsis and intimacy – continue to inform my music today.

Carly: And speaking of your artistic influences, I’d love to hear more about each of your cultural and artistic influences. How did you come to focus on your particular artistic tradition?

Anu: I grew up with an Indian heritage in Iowa, then Kansas, and moved to the DC area after college. Theater has always been a part of my life from an early age – to be honest, I think the arts are naturally part of what it means to be a young person. As young people, we don't identify as an artist, a painter, a musicmaker, etc, but we try different things because that is what it means to be alive. Something about theater just stuck and I've been finding a way to do it ever since.

I have been drawn to writing more from a place of performing my own text. I was frustrated with the stereotyping in theater, and raged at the idea of waiting for someone else to decide what role I should get, in plays that never really considered me to begin with. Racism, ableism, sexism, all these different oppressions play a role in what plays tend to get more production. Creating our own content can get us farther in a more liberated way.  Lately I have been also open to being in traditional theater, but there is so much more room in getting to have the tools of creating your own performance as well.

Rajna: Although Anu and I had different paths to becoming artists, there is one thing that resonates with me: creating our own content. I grew up in a very artistically inclined family – almost everyone in my extended family plays an instrument, sings, or dances. In that way, I was always on the path to having music be a fundamental part of my life, if not my profession. I have studied mrudangam, Western classical piano, and South Indian classical dance and vocal music, for various lengths of time. I gravitated toward the mrudangam because my father plays, and also because I began studying with Umayalpuram Sivaraman, an illustrious percussion legend. I was in awe of what he could do with the instrument, and I especially noticed that he was able to play in various contexts – traditional Karnatik music or collaborations with Western classical and jazz musicians –  with incredible dexterity and sincerity. I spent some years immersed in traditional Karnatik music, performing in India frequently as well. At some point, I needed to reconcile being a young American woman and how that identity morphed as I moved through different spaces in my life. In my search for answers to some difficult questions, I eventually found a second home (along with several wonderful mentors and friends) in the creative music and jazz scene in New York, and my approach to music achieved new depths for understanding who I was and how I wanted to sound. I began "creating my own content," as Anu so succinctly put it, and that's when I started RAJAS, a project that has, since 2013, been a fertile experimental sounding board. I still play in 'traditional' South Indian music settings, but that experience is now infused with an abundance of ideas that came from engaging with other musical perspectives.   

Carly: You’ve both pursued artistic connections across genres. Have you also used your art to explore connections across people from diverse backgrounds?

Anu: Yes, years ago I was able to travel to India, South Africa and Brazil to learn about theater towards social change in different communities. Just recently, I traveled back to India and reconnected with a street theater troupe, Jana Natya Manch, in Delhi. In the US, I've created devised theater with various groups with a lot to say about racism, housing, healthcare, wages, in their lives, as well as with organizers, activists, educators, and with ages varied from toddlers to seniors. The greater diversity of people I get to work with, the more I learn about how to be inclusive, thoughtful, and just widen my heart for myself. It's a generous gift.  

Rajna: When I first encountered polyrhythmic music rooted in West African and Afro-Cuban traditions, I was immediately humbled. I was mentored in polyrhythmic techniques by saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman, who has done a fair amount of research into rhythmic perspectives around the world. Inspired by his approach, I became keen on finding ways for musicians of different backgrounds to coexist in an improvisational context while engaging rigorously with one another's perspectives. New York was an ideal place for such encounters to take place. This informed how I developed RAJAS, but it applied internally to me, too, as I tried to inhabit various musical spaces with the mrudangam. As a freelance musician, I sought out situations where I could interact with different musical approaches as well as different artistic media, including dance and theater. Learning to play for and with people from many different walks of life has been an incredibly enriching experience. It pushes me to think about what music is and what is does for people.

Carly: What does it mean to you to be a part of Intercultural Journeys' 2016-17 season Homeland: Cultural Migrations through Artistry?

Anu: It means more experimentation and exploration and discovery.  Rajna and I have worked together on my solo play MEENA'S DREAM, and it was a very different project that culminated over a few years. This is more about working in her form of improvisation, and in tandem with her musical process. We are going back and forth and creating something in a shorter time frame, with shorter pieces of text, as well as weaving it between music that her band will create, inspired by some of my writing.  

Rajna: I am excited to perform with Anu again, and also to engage more deeply with the community in Philadelphia. RAJAS will also feature musicians that I deeply respect and love playing with: Rafiq Bhatia, Aakash Mittal, Anjna Swaminathan, and Ganavya Doraiswamy. I look forward to the music taking on new meanings and associations, and I hope the whole workshop and performance process can be a way for us to process recent events and collectively heal. I am especially touched by the efforts made by the Intercultural Journeys team to make this a meaningful and transformative experience.

Carly: What projects are you excited about completing next?

Anu: For a few years I have wanted to write and produce sketch comedy and kept getting scared or waiting for someone else to hold my feet to the fire. Just recently, I finally wrote sketches that were presented in a workshop reading at Mosaic Theatre Company as ISM: A TRAGICOMEDY, working with an all women of color cast and creative team. It was tremendous. I'm excited about the development of that piece, as well as getting to tackle some of the topics around racism, sexism and economic crisis in ways that allow us all to laugh, as well as learn more deeply about each other.

Rajna: The next thing coming up is a double bill with Miles Okazaki (who has also been a longstanding member of RAJAS), presented at MIT's Ampersand series in March. The performance is accompanied by specially curated visuals. I always enjoy having a chance to perform in Cambridge, where I have lived for the past 2 years while working on my PhD at Harvard. I am also touring with eminent Karnatik vocalist T.M. Krishna in April. I have been studying vocal music with him over the past couple of years, and have been inspired by his incredibly creative and experimental approach to the Karnatik tradition. In general, I look forward to the many creative discoveries ahead, and hope to keep learning and finding more honest ways of engaging with the world as a musician and human being.

Carly: Thanks to both of you, and I’m looking forward to the workshop and the concert!