Installation view of “A Slightly Curving Place,” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), Berlin, 2020. Photo by Laura Fiorio. Courtesy HKW.

A Slightly Curving Place

Also available in:  Chinese

In 1995, sound recordist Umashankar Manthravadi was invited by Thomas Ault, professor of theater at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, to prove a hypothesis surrounding India’s Rani Gumpha caves: that as well as being a Jain monastery dating to circa 300–100 BCE, they were also a place of performance. Working at Delhi’s Archive and Research Center for Ethnomusicology, the self-taught recordist experimented with ambisonic tetrahedral microphones to measure the acoustic properties of spaces. The visual evidence for the hypothesis was there—in the millennia-old carvings of Odissi dancers—but how would the musicians have sounded, and in what ways were the caves built for performance? Thanks to Manthravadi’s archeoacoustic research, replicated in the exhibition “A Slightly Curving Place” at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), we have an idea. 

Curator Nida Ghouse worked with writers, performers, and archivists to unearth and make audible the stories that reverberate through these caves as well as other sites of performance, including Anupu’s ancient amphitheater, and a train where a blind singer was recently recorded, their refrain rising above the chatter of commuters, children’s cries, and hollering tea sellers. The result is a transporting aural experience that calls into question the nature of not just ethnographic exhibitions, but also time. 

Comprising sound, artifacts, and film, the show’s centerpiece unfolds inside HKW’s lower-level space, acoustically transformed through suspended and concealed speakers that create a polyphonic soundscape. Inside this otherwise stark void plays a 90-minute audio comprising eight standalone chapters spanning song, chants, and spoken word. Although their mise-en-scène remains constant, segments play within individual and invisible architectures of sound, aurally recreating those aforementioned caves, temples, and railway cars. 

In measuring acoustic properties of space, sound recordists use something called a sine sweep. To a layperson’s ears, it’s otherworldly: starting as a gentle hum, its pitch intensifies like a steady acceleration into someplace beyond sound and time, sliding from frequencies low to high. Its inclusion here transports listeners to specific sites, replicated through Manthravadi’s acoustic measurements. Sounding within these simulations are narratives by academics, singers, writers, and artists including Yashas Shetty and Bani Abidi. Among the chapters is a 1960 police report, unearthed by art writer Alexander Keefe and outlining the overturning of a truck transporting workers from the Nagarjuna Sagar Dam. When construction started in 1955, the Archaeological Survey of India hurriedly excavated the historic site of Nagarjunakonda, which lay within the planned reservoir. One of the artifacts recovered by archaeologists was a ceremonial conch sounded as a horn during worship. Long since silent, its sonority is conveyed through Keefe’s narrative. Crisscrossing ancient and modern, the same story describes the grinding metallic thunk of the crash, teased out from the sparse lines of the police report.

Recordings themselves are also agents of performance. The Travelling Archive, which documents Bengali folk music, played decades-old wax cylinder recordings of plantation workers’ songs to the performers’ descendants, the Mitra Thakur family of singers, who then re-vocalized the track. First captured by Dutch scholar Arnold Bake in 1930s Naogaon (now in Bangladesh), the tune in its contemporary iteration becomes an echo, a loop in time. 

Positioned outside of the exhibition space-turned-auditorium, a series of objects in vitrines—the physical trappings of a traditional ethnographic museum, perhaps—complement and contrast with the audio’s invisible richness. They include a model and photograph of the aforementioned conch; sketches of carved slabs depicting the stories narrated within the audio play; and translations of 12th-century poet Jayadeva’s epic Gita Govinda. Adding a further dimension is Padmini Chettur’s short film, shot at Anupu and tracing a dancer’s movements through the ancient amphitheater. Allusions to deep time run throughout: the creak of shifting rock accompanying the slow awakening of the dancer’s body; her elongated evening-light shadow, crisp like a sundial. 

“A Slightly Curving Place” posited an alternative approach to what we understand as archeology—its dirt and extraction—to reveal a different kind of excavation. Through examining the practices and technologies of performance and recording, this multilayered show is a journey through stories, sound, and time, giving voice to a past we cannot hear.

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