At the Asia Society, Samita Sinha Sings the Body Electric

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.

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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.”


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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
Asia Society 
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.


The Marvelous Monk With a Camera Examines the Paradox of Fame and Humility

Nicholas Vreeland has a shaved head and a famous last name. The first, obvious and gleaming, advertises his humility and his life as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. The second, subtle and refined, suggests just how hard that humility was to come by.

Diana Vreeland, Nicky’s grandmother, was the editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1963 to 1971, and her understated, impeccable vision made dandies of her offspring, especially Nicky; even after renouncing worldly pleasures, he polishes his Birkenstock sandals until they gleam.

This paradox is the subject of the marvelous documentary Monk With a Camera. Polishing shoes is practical; they last longer. Nicky has a harder time locating such tangible value in photography, the one vestige of his old life that he cannot forsake. “Would you like to meet my girlfriend?” he asks early in the film. Nicky is referring to his camera, with her “beautiful…eye.” But an eye for detail and delicacy — noticing and valuing an ant, which he feels must be protected from the destructive force of an errant human foot — is as much Buddhist ethos as good editorial instinct.

Nicky’s photography is meditation; while living at a monastery in India, he creates spare studies of his room, his desk — and the sale of those simple photos allows the monastery an unusual, financial transcendence. Because of Nicky’s powerful connections, the monks can build otherwise unaffordable living quarters. Is photography an appropriate pursuit for a monk? Can a white man with so opulent a background honor a true Buddhist ethos in the West?

Monk With a Camera hints at answers, but imposes nothing. Like a good photograph, or a wise abbot, it only presents the evidence and allows us to arrive at truth.


Soulful Doc Algorithms Showcases Visually Impaired Indian Teen Champions

Three visually impaired teenage boys from India who play chess at the championship level are the subject of this slow-moving yet soulful documentary.

Anant, age 16, and Darpan, age 15, are totally blind, while the gregarious 12-year-old Sai is partially sighted. Filming in black-and-white, first-time filmmaker Ian McDonald tracks the boys over a three-year period, as they compete first in Blind Chess competitions in India, and, later, in matches in Sweden and Serbia. Algorithms doesn’t have a narrator, which suits the hushed intensity of the chess matches, where the players’ hands dart and dive with exquisite precision among the kings, rooks, and pawns.

Each child has devoted parents who’ve placed great trust in mentor Charudatta Jadhav, who went blind as a teenager, only to become a local chess legend. The depth of his obsession with creating an Indian world champion becomes clear in the film’s final third, when the boys compete in Greece.

Rather abruptly, McDonald lets Jadhav’s viewpoint take over the film, to the detriment of the three boys, whose fates, after the big match, we never learn. That’s frustrating, because the artistry with which they confront everyday life, as well as the chess board, is deeply moving.


Marguerite Duras Kills Film All Week at Lincoln Center

Among the fascinating
born when the French New Wave and the nouveau roman swapped precious fluids, the films of novelist Marguerite Duras are beautiful, monstrous sleepwalkers, creeping through modern emptinesses and doped on remembered conversations. In a real sense, they feel like movies made by and about dead people — narrative experiences from limbo.

Already the author of nine relatively conventional novels when she wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Duras felt the winds blowing, and as her fiction became sparser and more enigmatic alongside fellow rad fictioneer-turned-auteur Alain Robbe-Grillet, she decided to make the move to film, first with versions of her plays La Musica (1967) and Destroy, She Said (1969). Both films were stylishly austere and poised, ballets of zombie-like disattachment, but the latter, included in this selective Walter Reade retro, comes off as her New Wave manifesto, her version of Last Year at Marienbad, with ample Beckettian contradictions, luxury-hotel intimations of doomsday, and a saturated sense of
ennui. For us meat-eaters, it might be the thickest cut on the table.

From there, her cinematic sensibility became even more restrictive, frozen, and radically implacable. Despite the presence of French cinema’s Brahman caste, from Delphine Seyrig to Jeanne Moreau to Bulle Ogier, the characters are petrified figures in the landscape, and around them the films don’t really move — they float like smoke in a sealed room. Nathalie Granger (1972) is Duras’s first out-and-out anti-film, a strangely comic visitation with two nearly mute women (Moreau and Antonioni vet Lucia Bosé) who live with two children (one of them with behavioral problems at school), and whose chilly life of waiting and numbness is interrupted only by news of rampaging homicides in the neighborhood and a call from Gérard Depardieu’s baffled door-to-door salesman.

Shades of Chantal Akerman, Duras
cut the fat until her film silently bled, but it’s practically orthodox compared to the aesthetics that followed. India Song (1975), her most beloved film, is another look-backward tale of romantic disaster and cross-purposes, set almost entirely in the French Embassy in Calcutta (but shot in French estates) and starring Seyrig as the compulsively promiscuous wife of the ambassador (Michael Lonsdale). Duras crafts an opulent frieze of poised intentions and desires so repressed the actors don’t dare move a muscle.

The famously unsignifying Marienbad looks like Noah by comparison. Here is where Duras shifts almost entirely toward narration to relay story, employing multiple voices articulating inner and outer ruminations over the often immobile cast, as if the filmmaker has decided she trusts only language, and not the rest of cinema’s arsenal. (Duras’s general intent, she has said, was to “murder” cinema.) India Song is as haunting and dreamlike as it can be soporific; once Lonsdale’s cuckold begins (and never stops) howling in agony off-screen, it coalesces into a kind of anesthetized horror film.

Le Camion (1977) indulges in synced
dialogue a good deal more, as an aimless truck drive through wintry Parisian suburbs is intercut with Duras and Depardieu sitting in her study talking with little
urgency about a script they never end up filming. Cinema is hung, drawn, and quartered. Le Navire Night (1979) and Agatha et les Lectures Illimitées (1981) both return to India Song‘s voiceover strategy, but even more ascetically — Duras’s camera roams empty landscapes and posh interiors, barely glimpsing immobile actors, while soundtrack personas limn a sometimes complex past history of lost love and
betrayal. (When, in Le Navire Night, we see Dominique Sanda suddenly brush out her enormous blond locks, it has the shock of violence.) Though coming close to
romance-fiction material, the films could hardly be less pulpily satisfying.

In every instance, as in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Duras’s storytelling obsessively details the fallout of ruined romance — she was the Empress Dowager of Regret. Her films were always rarefied cocktails happily sipped by the cognoscenti, and she was routinely feted at Cannes and Berlin, and nominated for Césars. However forbidding, they pumped her cult, as did the high-profile adaptations, by the likes of Resnais, Peter Brook (1960’s Moderato Cantabile), and Tony Richardson (Mademoiselle, from 1966), all of which are showcased this week as well. The Lincoln Center series also includes several of
Duras’s shorts and, rather quixotically, Jean-Luc Godard’s rapturous Every Man for Himself (1980), in which Jacques Dutronc’s character explains to his classroom that Duras is in the next room, though we never see her. Years later,
Godard explained this odd flourish by admitting that Duras was in fact in the next room during filming — such was her enigmatic allure, but also such was Godard’s regal respect for the reality of movies.


We Regret to Inform You That Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink Is Indelible

Is there ever a good moment for a wistfully romantic look at colonialism? If so, this ain’t it. Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink, now getting its New York premiere at the Roundabout, wants to inspire historical reveries by time-traveling between exotic 1930s India and nostalgic 1980s England. Instead the 1995 play mostly inspires indignation and fatigue.

Flora Crewe (Romola Garai), a spunky literary scenester from London, travels to pre-independence India to catch some healing rays. There she meets artist Nirad Das
(Firdous Bamji), and the two find artistic and romantic
communion: He paints her portrait; she writes sweaty, sun-drenched poetry. Between segments of Flora’s tale, we scoot forward to the present day to watch her now-elderly sister (Rosemary Harris) parse Flora’s legacy alongside Das’s son and an enthusiastic Crewe scholar.

There’s a reason this play isn’t performed as often as other Stoppard works. India in the 1930s offers rich dramatic terrain, but Indian Ink focuses on gooey encounters between Flora and Das, surrounding them with charming locals and platitudes about art. Stoppard’s characteristic wit is overwhelmed by the historical crimes of colonialism, and he has written on similar themes — art and life, love and history — elsewhere, with more self-awareness. After almost three hours in Stoppard’s India, you’lI be eager for your own



A big country with a rich cultural history, India keeps its traditions alive while creating environments for innovating into the future. Drive East, an annual festival of South Asian music and dance, is produced by the midtown-based Navatman, which aims to create a sustainable home in the metropolitan area for classical forms. In an intimate East Village space, at multiple shows nightly, you can commune with expert practitioners of dance forms both familiar and rare, including Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Sattriya, and Chhau; listen to diverse music including a jam by an Afro-Indian fusion ensemble, and encounter experiments by participants in a new collaborative residency.

Mondays-Sundays, 6 p.m. Starts: Aug. 11. Continues through Aug. 17, 2014


The Only Real Game Is Another Work in the Canon of Baseball Poetry

In The Only Real Game, Mirra Bank shines a spotlight onto a nearly forgotten place, Manipur, a poor and war-torn state under martial law in northeast India.

In an area of the world where soccer and cricket reign, Manipuris were first captivated by baseball in the 1940s, as played by the American pilots who used their kingdom as a strategic spot to stock and launch their planes, and they remain amazingly dedicated to it.

This film contains just enough facts, figures, and footage to give us Manipur’s history and a vivid picture of its current dire situation. But Bank’s story of the women, men, and children so passionate about their game is itself wholly absorbing. The women, in particular, are especially ardent about baseball, as skilled at this game as they are at protecting their children and themselves from disease and insurgent soldier-thugs.

A bunch of American baseball fans get wind of the makeshift innings being played there and raise enough money to bring in regulation balls and bats, and, best of all, gung-ho Major League Baseball coaches.

Sometimes the Manipuris put too much stock in baseball, like so many dirt-poor dreamers do; there’s a lot of heartache. But mostly, they play for love, and this film is like another work in the canon of baseball poetry.



In Indian music, a jugalbandi (Hindi for “entwined twins”) signifies two solo musicians performing together as equals, trading songs and improvising. The first American appearance by Shubha Mudgal and Bombay Jayashri, who’ve been getting rave reviews across the pond, also marks a meeting of India’s two classical traditions: the northern Hindustani and southern Carnatic styles, respectively. You may already have heard Jayashri: She sang “Pi’s Lullaby” which played over Life of Pi’s credits, but is better known as part of a new wave of young Carnatic specialists. Mudgal, who has been performing classical music since the 1980s, is one of India’s most recognized vocalists. Embar Kannan (violin), Aneesh Pradhan (tabla), J. Vaidhyanathan (double-headed mridangam drum), and Sudhir Nayak (harmonium) accompany, and should bring plenty to the party themselves.

Sat., May 31, 7:30 p.m., 2014


Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey Connects Enormity of Global Warming to Ordinary Lives

Wendy J.N. Lee’s Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey powerfully connects the dots between the enormity of global warming as a phenomenon and the havoc it wreaks in ordinary lives.

The doc also pushes deeper to explore the spiritual underpinnings of the issue. In August 2010, a cloudburst dropped two inches of rain in 60 seconds onto Ladakh, India (known as Little Tibet, cradled in the Himalayas), triggering mudslides and flash floods that all but destroyed an area whose Buddhism-steeped culture is centuries old.

Scientists say the severity of the weather and its fallout is a consequence of global warming, which is laying waste to the region’s glaciers, the largest store of them outside the polar caps and the water source for 3 billion people.

To bring attention to the plight of those directly affected, as well as the larger problem of climate change, 700 activists from across the world joined Buddhist monks and nuns in 2011 for a 450-mile trek across the Himalayas to raise awareness and provide environmental education to local villages.

It’s an often harrowing journey, beset by injuries, some people’s dubious intentions, and brutal weather conditions that underscore the issue at hand.

But there’s humor and inspiration from numerous sources. The Kung Fu Nuns are especially fierce, while one of the monks makes it clear, “It’s wrong to call this a natural disaster. It’s a man-made disaster.”

Narrated by Daryl Hannah, the visually spectacular film was shot by Himalayan monk Ngawang Sodpa, using solar power.



Catch new South Asian cinema If you think movies from India are all packaged in Bollywood fluff, the 10th Annual South Asian International Film Festival, presented by HBO, will surely prove you wrong. The fest opens with Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout, in which a rookie cop must weigh the consequences before pulling the trigger. Other highlights include Good Morning, Karachi, Sabiha Sumar’s movie about a rising model who is caught between tradition and the fashion industry, and Gyan Correa’s The Good Road, India’s official entry to the Oscars.

Tue., Dec. 3, noon, 2013