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A Dramatic Finale

Shruthi Rajasekar ’18 plays the veena, a South Asian stringed instrument, in her Minnesota home studio. Rajasekar is a 2018 Marshall Scholar, now studying ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London.
Photo: Sara Rubinstein

Even before she traveled to Vienna to study abroad in the summer of 2015, Shruthi Rajasekar suspected she was headed toward a major in music. But it was a breathtaking performance of the opera “Salome” by R. Strauss at the Wiener Staatsoper in the city that truly sealed the deal.

By Poornima Apte

In her six-week cultural program at Vienna’s Sigmund Freud museum as part of a Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) Global Seminar, Rajasekar took in two more operas: “Don Giovanni” and “Rigoletto.” “In Vienna, I got to engage in these cultural enrichment exercises that included music and I got to see it from a different perspective,” says Rajasekar. 

That abiding interest in music has led to an impressive body of work, which has won Rajasekar much recognition, including a 2017 Alex Adam ’07 Award, administered through Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. Rajasekar has also been named a 2018 Marshall Scholar. As part of the prestigious scholarship, Rajasekar will travel to the United Kingdom, where she is expected to further her studies in the field. Rajasekar is spending the first year of her Marshall Scholarship studying ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London, and she plans to pursue a second degree in music in London the following year.

The Marshall Scholarship will not be Rajasekar’s first time in the U.K., either. In her junior year at Princeton, she spent a semester abroad at the conservatory at the Royal College of Music in London. Entry to the program was through grueling auditions with Princeton performance faculty in the Department of Music. Once there, Rajasekar was steeped in the rigorous practice of music. She remembers being taught Italian, German and French so she could polish her diction. “I learned two or three pieces a week, which was incredible,” Rajasekar says. “Up until then I was learning two or three pieces a semester.” Another challenge she overcame: living and cooking by herself. She stayed far from campus and commuted one and a half hours each way. Rajasekar jokes that she must have had a gut feeling about the Marshall because she still holds on to her Oyster card, a ticket to easy transportation around London. 

Rajasekar traces her love of music to her childhood in Plymouth, Minnesota. Her mother, Nirmala Rajasekar, is a renowned musician in the Carnatic style, with roots in South India. Especially impressive was the way her mother would collaborate with artists from other genres. “She is very much a traditional veena [South Asian stringed instrument] artist, but she learns from her environment, she doesn’t shut it out,” Rajasekar says of her mother.

This lesson stuck. Soon Rajasekar started to incorporate the theories from the voice lessons in Carnatic music she learned as a child and “noodled around” on the piano to compose music, a way of learning from her own environment. Even participating in a choir was a revelation. “The idea of everybody being on different parts and carrying different responsibilities ... that carries a lot of trust, including in yourself, and I grew to love that so much,” Rajasekar says. 

As an Indian American learning both Carnatic and Western styles of music, Rajasekar worried early on about being faithful to each. “I am very conscious of the fact that just being Indian doesn’t necessarily lend authenticity to what I do and the same thing cuts the other way too,” she says. But, she argues, it ultimately boils down to asking, “Are we doing the most faithful work that we can do?” One has to understand that music evolves too, she adds. “What I do is not meant to be a thumbprint of what was being performed thousands of years ago.” 

As homage to both Carnatic and Western music traditions, Rajasekar has composed Western choir music, introducing singers to the concept of raga, a framework for melodic structure in the Carnatic style. At Princeton, she composed “Audava Thillana,” commissioned by the Princeton Piano Ensemble, which again infused both traditions of music. For her senior thesis, she composed “Gaanam” — the Sanskrit word for singing — which she also performed with the Princeton University Glee Club. 

Dedication to theories also led Rajasekar to pursue a certificate in cognitive science at Princeton. “To me, there seemed so many parallels between this and how we build and apply theory in different musical disciplines — both are like insight into the inner workings of critical machinery,” she says. 

That devotion to learning has traveled with Rajasekar around the world. She has studied under the guidance of Indian music gurus and, as part of the Alex Adam ’07 award, spent eight weeks in Chennai studying the music of Tamil cinema.

The popularity of the genre became apparent to her on a trip to the Tamil Nadu countryside when she stumbled on a raucous celebration of the harvest festival, Pongal. A dance competition was in full swing and one of the best performers danced to a popular movie song. “The importance of such music in rural communities is understated,” Rajasekar says. “It really touched me that the dancers were dancing enthusiastically to a mass-produced song that most critics would dismiss as not heartfelt.”

Rajasekar remembers a time when even going to school at Princeton away from home in Minnesota felt intimidating. Now she can’t imagine a life without travel. “The only hard thing about being abroad is that you leave a little piece of your heart in every place you visit,” she says.

Fellowship Advising and the Study Abroad Program are housed within the Office of International Programs. For more information about study abroad and postgraduate fellowships, visit www.princeton.edu/oip.