bewilderment and other queer lions
Somewhere near the halfway mark of Samita Sinha’s solo performance, Cipher, the Indian-American artist occupied the body of an old woman. Squatting back on her heels, slowly turning amid a spartan stage, she half-sang, half-muttered a song in a language I could not understand. The melody could have been drawn from any number of the knotty genealogies Sinha traces, disentangles, and rebraids: the melismatic abstractions of North Indian classical music, the metaphysical riddles of Bengali folk song, the wry lyricism of the blues. The character herself might be from anywhere: South Asian myth, French feminism, her family, or sprung from imagination alone. The affect was achingly enigmatic: was this a love song? A lullaby? A lament? When the song ended, Sinha rose, paused for a time, and then moved again to occupy another character, with another song. And so it continued: a sequential conjuring of aural worlds, separated by moments of silence that invited us to reflect.
Or to explain, noisily. That night, after the performance, I tried to describe Cipher to my mom. My mother is, like many of her class and generation, a dedicated if amateur student of the Carnatic music, the classical music of South India. She is also religious. Her religiosity is at once a source of community, of strength, and of spirituality; a ritual practice; and an object of intense scholarly inquiry. I once accompanied her to the Hindu temples of Khajuraho, famed for their flagrantly erotic statuary. There, standing beside her, I experienced a painful sense of eternity as she explained how the endless series of intertwined stone bodies in fact represented basic forms of geometry that mirrored philosophical concepts of infinity, the universe, and man’s place in the world. What was necessary, she insisted, was to understand the sculptures as exemplars of an artistic and intellectual tradition dedicated to the contemplation of being — and not be distracted, like an outsider, by the profane exteriors.
On the phone, my mom asked whether Cipher was “fusion music.” I felt the sharp edge of disdain. Fusion was the enemy. Fusion was a sitar in a pop song, the Devi on a t-shirt, group tours to the Kumbh Mela. Yes and no, I said. I tried to explain: this was a fusion that came from working inside traditions not a simple borrowing of surfaces. Sinha began by ripping ragas brutally apart into ragged phonemes. She then adopted different personae — women in different phases of life — and reassembled these basic sounds into new songs, each coming from a new place inside her body, such that emotion and melody were grounded in physicality. By the end, when the blues slipped seamlessly and eerily into her performance, it was less a collage than a distillation of both sources, American and Indian, and their transmutation into something else.
Thinking back, I should have also reminded my mom of a moment from our trip to Khajuraho: near where we stood, beneath the copulating sky, a man sat alone and sang, accompanied only by the slap of his hand against the skin of his thigh. He looked middle-aged and slightly mad; though he was loud, he was singing only for himself. My mom explained this quite crisply, as well. His was a folk song — a blues, basically, about a woman who was gone — but these songs of lust and desire were in fact songs about devotion to God. She turned back to her exegesis of the cosmic mathematics of tantric sex.
Maybe that man was a version of the Baul singers of Bengal, whose poetry appears in bewilderment and other queer lions, Sinha’s latest work. Maybe this was his life: wandering through the margins of religion and of society, singing mournful songs of desire and devotion. Or maybe, after my mom and I made our way back to the hotel to get a cool drink and read the newspaper, he got up and retreated to a moderately air-conditioned office. And maybe, like us, he carried with him a memory of the moment we’d spent together: my mom, of contemplating the structures of her belief and sharing them with her son; the man, of the feeling of release, of letting his voice free to follow a song learned long, long ago from someone else; and me, of the sound of the man’s voice, which seemed to come clawing directly from his chest into the world as a desperate, yearning, unmediated rasp.
bewilderment and other queer lions program notes by Anand Balakrishnan