For her Commission at Roulette, composer, violinist, vocalist and theatre artist Anjna Swaminathan presents WOVEN: Entangled Memorabilia—a multidisciplinary work that brings together original music, poetry, and improvisation to meditate on personal, cultural, and artistic rituals of nostalgia, loss, and mourning. The project was initially inspired by the works of Indian Malayali painter and artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906) and Tamil poet Subramania Bharati (1882–1921), both late 19th to early 20th century artists who were integral to shaping images of women as vessels for Indian national identity during the movement against the British Raj.
Swaminathan’s poetry also seeks to juxtapose Hindu Vedantic ideas of loss as a necessary part of progress with contemporary Indian nationalism’s reluctance to accept change. While religious rituals of mourning may impose on people an active forgetting, so many of the daily rituals of home involve a preoccupation with holding on. In WOVEN: Entangled Memorabilia, these paradoxes of nostalgia converge in the stories of cultural nomads, who at various stages of immigration, mourning, and self-awareness, find themselves in that liminal space between “letting go and holding on.” Immigrant housewives and irreverent teenagers merge with dying national icons and eternal goddesses to grapple with these profound questions of home, tradition, and embodied experience. The work attempts to personalize the political and mythical, bringing a sense of temporality to religious rituals and a sense of divinity to quotidian coping mechanisms. The widow who self-pleasures in remembrance of her dead husband is thus no different from the teenager lighting her mother’s funeral pyre.
Introspective, emotive, and expansive, the score in this work deconstructs the microtonal, rhythmic, and improvisational vocabulary of Indian classical music and acts as a response to the cultural trauma, disillusionment, and wonder expressed in the poetry. Now, after a yearlong fellowship in composition and notated music under acclaimed composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s Creative Academy of Music, Swaminathan considers the cultural and personal “memorabilia” held within the sonic bodies of four classically trained string musicians from The Juilliard School. Combining her recent forays into western classical notated music, her rich training in Carnatic and Hindustani music as well as her immersive learning in New York’s vibrant creative/improvised music community, she works with these diverse and multifaceted instrumentalists to create a language that moves between oral tradition, notated music and improvisation. Alongside acclaimed improvisers Stephan Crump, Naseem Alatrash and Swaminathan herself, the string quartet acts as a timeless, placeless Greek chorus, journeying with the audience through vignettes of cultural and personal nostalgia. In their shared ritual, the artists in WOVEN: Entangled Memorabilia offer the audience space to reflect on their own divisions of life and death; ritual and spiritual; body and soul all as they relate to the liminality of being between worlds.