Princeton senior Shruthi Rajasekar has been named a 2018 Marshall Scholar. The Marshall Scholarship seeks to promote strong relations between the United Kingdom and the United States by offering intellectually distinguished young Americans the opportunity to develop their abilities as future leaders. The scholarship covers the cost of two years of graduate study in the UK at a university of the recipient’s choice.
Rajasekar, a resident of Plymouth, Minnesota, is one of 43 awardees for 2018. A music major studying composition and voice who is pursuing certificates in musical performance and cognitive science, Rajasekar will go to London to work toward a Master of Arts in the new Opera Making and Writing program at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama during her first year abroad. During the second year, she will pursue a Master of Music in Ethnomusicology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS). She plans to use the degrees to help her meet her long-term goal of writing an opera set in India.
A performer and composer in classical Western and Southern Indian traditions, Rajasekar said she was in rehearsal for Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” in McAlpin Rehearsal Hall when she received the news, just a day after her interview with the scholarship selection committee.
“I was truly stunned to receive the news,” she said. “I'm still overwhelmed and deeply grateful. I very briefly called my family before returning to class. I definitely didn't want to interrupt the rehearsal, so I quietly shared the news with one of my beloved mentors, Gabriel Crouch, and Stephanie Tubiolo, the new associate director of choirs. After class, I told some dear friends and mentors.”
Crouch, a senior lecturer in music and associate director of the Program in Musical Performance, said: “Shruthi has made an incredibly deep impression on the entire singing community at Princeton not just for the beauty of her soprano voice, but for her intellectual curiosity and immense creativity, and for the humility with which she wears these gifts. She will make an extraordinary Marshall Scholar, and her humanity and talent will uplift her new surroundings in London just as they have here in Princeton.”
The daughter of Nirmala Rajasekar, a professional Carnatic musician, Rajasekar grew up steeped in the idiom of Southern Indian music. She has shared her cultural heritage broadly with the University community while studying to become equally adept in classical Western music as a performer and composer.
In fall 2016, Rajasekar studied for a semester at the Royal College of London, which has a partnership with the University that offers Princeton students the opportunity to spend the fall semester of their junior year at the prestigious conservatory. She said she’s excited to return to the UK as a Marshall Scholar. At Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she plans to shape her composing skills. Once at SOAS, she will turn her focus to a deeper study of classical Indian music.
“The way I understand and appreciate any kind of music is through this dual lens, probably because they are both related to the fundamental parts of my cultural identity, too,” she said. “I have my own hybrid musical language, so no matter what I write, it's naturally coming from that place, but in my independent work at Princeton, I have begun to consciously draw from one or the other idiom. I hope to further develop that deliberate process in the UK.”
During her sophomore year, Rajasekar founded Princeton Swara, which promotes Indian classical music through education and live performances. Concerts have drawn world-renowned visiting musicians including bansuri artist Ronu Majumdar and mridangam player Thanjavur Murgaboopathi.
Rajasekar is a member of the Princeton University Glee Club and the Princeton Undergraduate Composers Collective, and served as an officer for both. Last year the Princeton University Sinfonia played an orchestral piece she wrote, titled “Polite Society.” Another work, “Audava Thillana,” was commissioned by the Princeton Piano Ensemble.
She is a member of the Edwards Collective, a group of students who live together in a residential community in Mathey College that celebrates the humanities and creative arts. Rajasekar's community service has included a week-long trip to Philadelphia to understand how the arts function in an urban setting with the Pace Center for Civic Engagement.
She also has spent significant time studying abroad. She received a 2017 Alex Adam ’07 Award, administered through the Lewis Center for the Arts, and spent eight weeks in Chennai, India, studying the music of Tamil cinema.
She participated in the PIIRS Global Seminar at Vienna’s Sigmund Freud Museum for six weeks in summer 2015, studying the history of fin-de-siècle Vienna, and she participated in the Princeton-In-Munich program at the Goethe Institut in June 2016 to learn advanced German.
After the Marshall, Rajasekar plans to return to Minnesota and spend a year completing and producing an opera. Eventually, she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in intercultural composition and become a full-time composer, performer and teacher.
She already has tested her skill at blending musical idioms with results that have transcended aesthetics and that point to her future potential as an artist, said Wendy Heller, the Scheide Professor of Music History and chair of the Department of Music.
Heller cited Rajasekar’s work on “Polite Society” in her recommendation to the Marshall Scholarship selection committee, writing: “What was so remarkable about this piece was the way in which Shruthi juxtaposed and merged Western and Indian music in a way that led listeners to consider both their similarities and differences. In so doing, she provided the students in the orchestra and the audience not only with an exquisitely beautiful piece of music, but a profound lesson in how both to honor and transcend cultural boundaries.… That this came at a moment when there was an enormous amount of anxiety on campus about immigration policy and other political issues made her composition that much more significant. Shruthi not only loves music deeply, but sees it as a way of doing good in the world.”