Samita Sinha’s “Cipher” at The Kitchen


Samita Sinha has turned The Kitchen’s stage into a tricked out recording studio/playground. Our eyes are allowed to wander. Strings of twine come from the ceiling behind us and attach to the center of the upstage wall. They form a vanishing point hidden by darkness. A microphone hangs suspended about a foot from the floor. I want to swing it around and make clunky noises with it. Many instruments sit on light boxes (which will glow orange, suggesting potential energy burning to be released) and wait to be played. There’s an electronic tabla (drum), loop pedals, an accordion, and soon Sinha will enter playing an ektaara (a small stringed instrument.) A representative from MAPP International Productions, who has produced the piece, greets us, tells us how excited he is for us to see the performance, and tells us we’re going to have an amazing experience. The performance begins.

When Sinha begins to sing, sound comes out of her throat like it has been trapped somewhere in her diaphragm for a very long time—it has its own history, its own reasons for being, its own grievances to voice. We recognize the labor in Sinha’s vocal chords. We hear and see their physical limits as sound—guttural and melodic—moves through her whole body. Red paint the width of three fingers is smeared on her chest, and what appear to be fake sandal straps cross over her feet. She wears a regal version of overalls, in a softer fabric and a deeper blue. Sinha stands at the center of the stage and faces us, as she does most of the duration of the piece, and has what can only be described as a heated discussion with the deconstructed North Indian music that begins to play. Sinha is a physically active listener—to the music, but also perhaps to what she is receiving from us, the audience.

Sinha alternates between movements that suggest stalking to those of someone being stalked. During one of her most guttural sounding sequences, she seems to be accessing her root (Muladhara) Chakra, as the movement and sound feel grounded, channeling something very wild from the deep. Suddenly she raises her arm and lets out a high-pitched shriek. She seems to respond to energy channels in the air, like invisible versions of the twine strings that run across the space. How can the body become a conduit, vessel, and/or interference to energy? What kinds of energy do we already interact with daily, either consciously or not?

Sinha lies on the floor and sings into the microphone suspended inches above her mouth. She sings melodically into the microphone, and atonally as she turns away from it. As she turns away, it’s as if we’re witnessing the gritty reality that exists behind a polished veneer. What is the difference—in value, in experience, in presence—between the immediate and abstracted experience? How can a single performative moment embody both?

A pause in the action, a crescendo maybe, occurs when Sinha faces us in stillness as light moves radially around her. It makes a shadow from her mic that hits her face and the red spot on her chest, then leaves her face in darkness completely. It circles around, each time illuminating and hiding her body. Later, Sinha squats down, pointing at us and making gestures as if trying to make us understand the obvious answer to a question we have tried too long to figure out.

Sinha presses a button and electronic music with heavy bass fills the space. The bass is so thick it shakes our seats. This music is recognizable to me, compared to the vocalizing and deconstructed Khayal music we’ve heard up to this point in the performance, so my attention is piqued. I am waiting for a total shift in the environment, or in Sinha’s presence, or maybe in the movement or vocalizing she performs. Instead, though, all performative elements sustain the same qualities they had before the bass dropped. I wonder about this choice: to respond so radically to those forces hidden from our immediate senses, but then, when sound comes that physically shakes us in our seats, to proceed uninterrupted as if the almost deafening noise was no more than the faint sound of a distant train rolling by.

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