A large limestone head of the Buddha, from eighth-century Thailand, presides at the entrance to the third-floor galleries of the Asia Society, its impassive countenance in keeping with the calm, studious mood that usually inhabits this institution on the Upper East Side.
But these days, something messy, unruly, even transgressive, has been taking place in a gallery space just a few yards away, within the Buddha’s peripheral vision. Here, inside a white-cube room that is essentially functioning as a black-box theater, the musician and performer Samita Sinha is channeling the contradictions of the South Asian psyche around gender and sexuality, in a series of intimate shows that burst with feral energy.
The performances, which continue through this weekend, smolder — and that’s not entirely metaphorical. The show is titled This ember state, and a large pile of coal is the main item on set. A pivotal moment in Sinha’s performance occurs as she sinks herself into the coal, evoking a pyre, and specifically the myth of Sati, the goddess who self-immolated in sacrifice after her father insulted her husband, Lord Shiva.
What unfolds is at first tentative, then wrenching, then works itself out toward a serenity that feels provisional, complicated. There is some blunt nudity, as well as passages in which Sinha’s voice has a kind of primal — or is it transcendent? — anguish that feel even more naked. With spare mise en scène by Dean Moss and sound design by Cenk Ergün, the performance enfolds the audience — twenty-five people at most, on benches along the gallery walls, in subtly thickening layers of implication and intimacy.
“I couldn’t shy away from the reality of that place,” says Sinha. She means the sexual source that animates Indian culture with its dual tendencies to enshrine and abase women, and the competing repressive violence and generative possibility that ensue. She means, as well, the corresponding part of her body. Her project, the program notes, “deconstructs Indian classical music through the pussy … to re-imagine female spirit and flesh.”
“So much of my work comes from that place in the body — and in the mind, in the psyche, in culture,” Sinha says. “The physical, fleshy reality is where the charges are. The archetypes need to open from that place, literally, in order to make space. It’s what I teach in embodied vocal work: Nothing will happen without that root.”
A lifelong New Yorker — raised on Long Island, and based in Queens — Sinha has migrated her practice over the past decade and a half from the canon and discipline of Hindustani (North Indian) classical music to experimental terrain, making her as much a performance artist as she is a vocalist and composer.
The transition began around 2005, when she took part in a multimedia song-cycle project with an operatic feel by the late poet Sekou Sundiata, the 51st (dream) state. In 2012 she collaborated on a musical version of playwright Fiona Templeton’s The Medead, at Roulette; earlier this year she acted in Moss’s Petra, at Performance Space New York, the new incarnation of P.S. 122. Sinha also fronts an avant-rock band, Tongues in Trees.
But she has carried along her Indian vocal technique, and not just as a virtuoso instrument. Indian classical music has deep roots in courts and even deeper in temples; it is built, ultimately, out of the same elements as yogic practice. This is even more true of vocal performance. The Sanskrit syllables that Sinha intones early add “on”? in This ember state, and the breath work that follows, circle the void where body and sound originate.
“The tools for deconstruction are in the training,” Sinha says. “You have to sit with a phrase, isolate it, listen as closely as you can, then bring it back into the whole. The idea of taking it apart to re-create something — whether it be a body, an experience with other humans, a whole piece or form — is all right there.”
Sinha developed her Hindustani vocal technique in the traditional way, spending extended time in India in close proximity to her teachers, including singers Alka Deo Marulkar and Shubhangi Sakhalkar. She grew proficient in the repertory of ragas, but sought a different approach. “Classical music has a refinement and stillness,” she says. “It doesn’t encourage physicality. The orientation — and beautifully so — is on listening. In an inverted way, that does teach a profound embodiment, if you let that awareness in. But it’s not discussed.”
The clues, Sinha found, were in the culture — often at the margins. “I started to understand that there are musical traditions in South Asia that are quite radical and embodied,” she says. She cites Baul folk music from rural Bengal, and qawwali, the devotional, quasi-ecstatic Sufi singing. “Baul music uses the yogic understanding of the body, this vertical radiating entity. In qawwali, when you see Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you can see how the sound moves through him like a volcano.”
In her own work, despite its sexual anchoring, Sinha says she is not claiming a knowledge that only women can accede. “We work with the instruments we have, I guess. There’s something about the necessity of creating a language through the body that doesn’t feel to me exclusively female at all.”
Still, This ember state, which the Asia Society commissioned to launch a new experimental series in contemporary art and performance, arrives in a moment when the politics of gender and sexuality are highly charged. This is true in India, where sexual violence and the rise of a militant Hindu chauvinism are weaving together in troubling ways, and in the United States, where the #MeToo unpacking has unfolded against the background of vulgar Trumpian misogyny.
Sinha’s performance proposes an interior resolution, a kind of turning inside out, but she also invokes the Sati archetype fully aware of this external context.
“Part of my practice is to be alive to the sensations evoked inside of me, for example, when reading the news, and being very present with that,” Sinha says. “With what I can make with that thing, how that sensation can be turned. The myth is a point of departure to think about these ideas in a pretty wild way.”
“This ember state”
725 Park Avenue
Through April 22
The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.