An Archive of Traditions: Kuldeep Singh’s Playlist

Still from Kuldeep Singh's video Floating Clouds, 2016. Courtesy the artist.

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Trained in classical Indian dance, New York-based performer and choreographer Kuldeep Singh infuses his staged meldings of music, narrative, movement, and mise-en-scene with a contemporary queer sensibility. In the First Look department of our November issue, Eric Sutphin discusses how a recent performance by Singh drew connections between the gestural codes of Odissi, a classical dance form, “and the nonverbal courtship strategies of street cruising, where eye contact and movement become charged with preternatural intensity.” Here, Singh shares a playlist of YouTube videos that inspire him. —Eds.

 

I use social anthropology as a key method. Elements of myths and traditions, as well as other traces reflecting common human behavior patterns across global cultures—particularly in culinary customs, music, theater and fashion—all comprise the foundation for my art practice.

YouTube is one source where I gather these units. Sometimes I take screenshots, or pause to make thumbnail pencil sketches. This appropriated content is used on large drawn or painted drapes of cotton cloth or on plastic sheets, as fragments that take on new meaning in performances and installations. I also clip sound fragments from videos and reuse them in sound design.

 

Dhrupad. This 1982 film by Indian director Mani Kaul extols the tradition of Dhrupad singing. It is one of the oldest continuously performed kinds of music on the planet; over the centuries, it has incorporated Persian and Islamic influences. The film is set in medieval fort in central India, weaving a narrative around the Dagar brothers, modern masters of the genre. It presents the history of Dhrupad singing over centuries as a hypnotic story. This film changed my own perceptions of Indian music and the commitments I make to listening.

Primal Matter. Choreographed and performed by Dimitris Papaioannou, with dancer Michalis Theophanous, this piece implicates ancient Greek sculptures in contemporary dance. The playful tension between the two dancers is very poignant, based on trust that the sensuality will be measured by care. It’s a dynamic that I want to embrace in my own work.

Teevra Madhyam. My dance guru Madhavi Mudgal choreographed this piece in the tradition of classical Odissi. The musical accompaniment passes through five Indian musical modes, or ragas, that all share a note known as teevra madhyam (F-sharp on the Western scale). The lilting flow from one raga to another is seamless, and so is the group choreography where smooth swaying and diagonal movements evoke a hypnotic sense of awe. Music is visualized through movement—the defining feature of Indian dance.

Geometry in Mridangam. A practice session with two South Indian percussionists demonstrates the complexity of Carnatic rhythms, which are some of the most intricate in world music. These rhythmic patterns follow arithmetic progressions where smaller cycles are nested within larger ones. Performers employ mnemonics as a vocal layer to the beats, creating playful possibilities for linking language to rhythm.

Richard Wagner – Lohengrin – Prelude. For me, Wagner’s music is a way to imagine varied terrains and vistas. Its epic grandeur is the polar opposite of the Indian classical music that I am devoted to, providing an opportunity for comparative analysis as well as a much-needed break. I sometimes translate the fairytale mystery of Wagnerian music into small watercolors on wash paper.

Onggi Master – Korean potter. The subject of this documentary gave up the complications of city life for the sake of making the earthenware traditionally used to prepare fermented foods like kimchi. Decisions like these are rare. And as the video unfolds into its story, I find many subtle layers of spirituality that arise from the process and dedication involved. There is a sense of simplicity, which is often the hardest thing to achieve. I’m inspired by the satisfaction the potter gets from honing the form over a lifetime. I see it as a parallel to an Indian classical dancer’s work.

Odissi Dance I Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra is the modern architect of the Odissi dance form. He took it around the world on extensive tours. I keep coming back to his work time and again to see how he masterfully weaves gestures and rhythm into narrative.

 

View Kuldeep Singh’s playlist here.