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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Assemblages of an Archive

Art, History, and the Storytelling Between
By Chandani Patel |
FEBRUARY 22, 2021
Photo by Ashley King
Lakshmi Ramgopal is a historian of the Roman Empire and multidisciplinary artist who performs under the name Lykanthea. She was recently awarded the Edgar Miller Creative Spirit Award in recognition of her project Some Viscera, performed by Lakshmi and her ensemble in the historic Glasner Studio in Chicago. Her collaboration with Nancy Davidson, entitled Hive, a site-specific sculpture and sound commission, is on view at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois until May 2021. An Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University, Lakshmi is based in New York City and Chicago.

Lakshmi is also one of my very dear friends. Crossing paths during our graduate studies at the University of Chicago, our friendship is nurtured by our shared love and interest in art and culture, oceans, migration, baking, family, and our South Asian roots. For this conversation, I asked her how she uses archives in both her academic and artistic practice, and how she thinks of her place within the South Asian diaspora. She touches on how she assembles a familial archive, and through that playful act, weaves together the past and future to create new planes of existence.

Chandani: You are both an ancient historian and a multidisciplinary artist. Can you tell us about the role that archives play in both of these endeavors? How do you define the archive and how have you used this term in the past?

Lakshmi: I came to this idea of the archive really soon after my maternal grandmother passed in 2017. Along with the birth of my elder niece two months later, that whole summer marked a turning point in my life, especially in terms of my art practice. In reflecting on the absence of my grandmother in my life, and the sudden loss of her body as a repository of memory —both of my family and of my position within the South Asian diaspora—caused me to think a lot about what making and keeping memories alive means.

As a historian, the idea of the archive is always present. In my own field, ancient Roman history, we don’t have access to the same kind of archives as those working in later periods because a lot less survives when you are working on periods that are millennia old. Nevertheless, the idea of a repository of sources to draw upon has always been front and center in terms of how I think about and conduct my academic research.

Around 2017, when my grandmother passed and my niece was born, I started reading Antoinette Burton’s Dwelling in the Archive, which posits that there are all kinds of ways to assemble family archives and from them to write national histories. I first encountered this idea in her work, and I loved it because anyone in the diaspora is aware of the ways we try to maintain relationships with people and places we have never seen, rarely see, or don’t see as often as we’d like to.

I started to think about the kinds of things that would form an archive for the matrilineal histories of my family. In my case, that ended up being actual written documents, some of which we found in my grandmother’s house in Bangalore after she passed away. One was my great-grandmother’s account book and diary, and a whole sheaf of letters that my great-grandmother had written to my grandmother and mother, while they were in the United States and my mother was pregnant with me. My grandmother had collected those letters, brought them back to India, and kept them in a really safe place; it’s an incredible set of documents. And then of course the non-textual materials too, including things like photographs, clothing, even my grandmother’s dentures. I thought really hard about what it meant to remember my grandmother and all the things the women in my life have done. That’s when I really started to think of the archive both as a repository of familial experience, but ultimately as a way of documenting personal legacy, which is especially important for South Asian women because of the sacrifices they are expected to make and the burden that that tradition of sacrifice places on South Asian women across the world.
Photo by Lakshmi Ramgopal
In thinking about my relationship to these women, and thinking about their legacies for the family —and about what mine would be too—my art practice and academic work increasingly become how I think about my own legacy to the women in my family past, present, and future. In some ways it’s a way of grieving the lost opportunity to be a parent but also thinking about the different ways I can play a kind of maternal figure to my nieces.

Chandani: As a close friend, who has had the pleasure of reading some of your work and engaging with some of your art, I know that temporality, for you, is always at play in both your scholarly and artistic work - how do you position the past and the personal in relation to the present? How do you disrupt and expand the notion of the archive itself through your imaginative play with the temporal?

Lakshmi: One of the big ways I do this is by focusing recently on childhood as a concept in my work as an artist, and thinking specifically about how complex my own childhood was. My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s as part of a large wave of migrants from the subcontinent. The tensions that characterized my childhood were a result of being raised by immigrant parents who were traditional in terms of what they expected of me, and I frequently felt like a disappointment because I didn't quite live up to my mother’s expectations in particular. At the same time, I was raised by parents who were incredibly loving, and gave me everything they possibly could and who continue to do that.

In my current project, which is called Some Viscera, I’m working on a body of music and choreography that returns to this theme of childhood and temporality by bringing to life and song three women who are so important to me: my nieces and my grandmother. It’s a series of lullabies as a way of fusing together their different positions in my life even though their lifetimes never really overlapped, which is a great tragedy for me personally—that my grandmother never got to meet her great-granddaughters and vice versa. Through song and choreography, I invent this new world for myself in which we all exist together, and in doing so, I rethink important themes from my own childhood, which was impacted by my grandmother, and which, in turn, impacts my nieces who I engage with a lot. I won’t have a daughter to tell stories to about her great-grandmother, my grandmother. Some Viscera is an expression of that grief and those feelings too.

Chandani: I love this idea of creating a new world for yourself where all of you can exist together; it’s such a beautiful image. Can you speak a little bit more about how you draw on and experiment with traditional South Asian art forms into your work?

Lakshmi: I was raised to have a very specific relationship with my cultural background through music and dance. For me, it was Bharatanatyam as well as training in carnatic vocal music. The former was something I was very passionate about as a child, the latter I hated and only did because my mom really wanted me to be trained as a vocalist; her mother was an accomplished vocalist herself so it was important to her. I trained in both of these for over almost a decade before I gave all of it up and went to college. I returned to both, though, when I became interested in writing my own music.

Carnatic music, in particular, fundamentally shapes how I think about sound, how I hear sound, the kinds of scales and notes I prefer. Initially, its involvement in my early music was there in the same way as I have black hair — it’s just how I am. But it became a much more deliberate element of my art practice as I moved away from earlier musical projects, like being a guitarist in a riot girl band or being a member of an electropop band, to moving towards a more experimental and solo direction. I started a project that I call Lykanthea now, which was originally an electronic project that incorporated the improvisatory elements so fundamental to carnatic music. But I never reached a professional level of training with carnatic music where I learned how to improvise, so in that sense I am improvising improvisation. In these performances, I would sing songs that were partially composed, but when performing them live, I would run my vocals through different pedals, and for each song, move towards an improvisational space. So, in that way, the songs remained new to me for a long time and the performance experience was very dynamic.

Over time, I felt like I wasn’t physically engaged enough in my performances because they were so heavily electronic. I began to move towards acoustic and analog sound and then slowly began to incorporate movement into my performances as well. Those two shifts happened, not coincidentally, when my grandmother passed away, and my first niece was born. I needed something really visceral so that, through performance, I could really feel with my whole body the things I feel when I think about my grandmother or two nieces. I started to use the shruti box as a centerpiece, along with an ensemble, including another Bharatanatyam dancer named Asha Rowland, cellist Erica Miller, and violinist Johanna Brock.
Photo by Sierra Thompson
With these incredible artists, I started to really play around with both carnatic vocals, and also with Bharatanatyam, and to use that traditional background as a way of expressing through pop and other aesthetic idioms these ideas I’m interested in exploring through my art practice —about childhood, the family, and the archive. In doing so, it feels very true to my current relationship with my own background as the daughter of the colonial elite - the kinds of opportunities it has afforded me and the kinds of challenges that are intrinsic to being separated from one’s homeland and never really being quite sure what home is. The nontraditional use of these aesthetic forms has been empowering because we all come together to create something new. We still maintain a strong element of improvisation in our performances, which means the work always remains vibrant and dynamic, which feels completely right for work that is thematically focused on something as vital and dynamic as childhood and even death.

Chandani: As you were just talking about creating something completely new, I was thinking of the word “transculturation”, which has been central to my work as well. When folks in the South Asian diaspora arrive in different places, what they can make new with the local cultural forms they encounter is often crucial to their communal practices. So that’s reminding me a lot of how folks have been thinking about this within diasporas across the globe.

Lakshmi: Yeah, actually, one example of this is from a couple of years ago. I was commissioned by Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago to participate in an installation series called Florasonic, which they run in partnership with the Chicago Parks District. It gives artists an opportunity to create a sound installation in the fern room of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Conservatory, which is a really beautiful little space, and basically a jungle under glass. I created an installation called A Half Light Chorus, which was inspired initially by a memory of hearing a bird, and it was always the same species, singing a particular call or song every morning, a little before dawn, when I would wake up at my grandmother’s house in Bangalore. I really wanted to explore the relationship between sound, birdsong, memory, and family. As part of this installation, we actually received permission to go into the plants to actually perform, and I put together a large ensemble for this particular performance. Some of the things we did was engage in movements and sounds that reflected birds, such as specific hand gestures in bharatnatyam or our own arrangements of songs from Hindi and Tamil films that mentioned specific birds. In those ways, we moved away from more traditional stories that carnatic music and Bharatanatyam tend to tell but used many of the gestures and sounds to tell a completely different story that was very specific to what we as an ensemble were interested in doing. That’s an example of how I move away from those forms and create a kind of transcultural artistic phenomenon.
Photo by Stephanie Jensen
Chandani: What kind of research do you engage in to arrive at the decisions you make in terms of what to draw on and bring into your performances and installations?

Lakshmi: Some Viscera was born, in some ways, upon the death of my grandmother, but I didn’t really put the project together with the cohesion that it now has for some time after her death. It really began to gel when I began to work on this installation for Lincoln Park Conservatory. The installation itself featured recordings of women mimicking birds from India, and I put those recordings together to create a 90-minute composition that very loosely echoed the diurnal and nocturnal rhythms of South Asian birds - for example, there’d be a very busy dawn chorus period, but a very quiet period at night. To create something like this, I had to do a fair amount of research about birds. The first, and most important piece was to identify the species of bird that I heard at my grandmother’s house. I used all of the incredible statistics and databases that Cornell University runs through their robust ornithology department and program. I went to the data and listened to the top 20 birds from Bangalore. I eventually found it — the Asian koel. It turns out to be an incredibly important bird both in medieval Sanskrit poetry and in South Asian film music. One of the reasons is that it has a very distinctive and very beautiful call, and the other reason is that it is a cuckoo, and it lays its eggs in the nest of other birds, so the baby birds are not raised by their own parents.

There are beautiful notes in messenger poetry from the medieval period about how the koel doesn’t know its parents and doesn't know where it’s from. It was an interesting set of discoveries I made, and poignant and relevant. From there, I started to listen to a lot of bird calls from the South Asian region and selected those that were most appealing to me. I also did research on the vocal cords of birds, studied bird behavior, and in some cases, viewed specimens of the species I was interested in. It was these species I assigned to the vocalists who recorded on my behalf for this project. This particular project then gave birth to Some Viscera, in which the lullabies that I have written for my nieces and grandmother refer to and reflect upon these birds, and in turn reflect upon the flora of South Asia too. My art practice is very informed by research and that absolutely has to do with my training as an historian. Writing history has to do with writing what’s possible in the absence of hard data, in many cases, and I have manipulated some of the methods that historians use to create and invent histories for myself.

Chandani: That’s an excellent segue into this question I have about your training as an historian. As an ancient historian, your scholarly work engages in an act of retelling, as you were saying. In your scholarly work, you look at Roman history through the perspective of subjugated communities or perspectives that are not part of the dominant narrative. How do you see this act of retelling in relation to your artistic practice?

Photo by Sierra Thompson
Lakshmi: My current academic research is focused on the relationships that members of, what some people might call the Roman diaspora —Roman citizens living all over the Roman world— build with non-Roman communities in the provinces of the Roman Empire. In some ways, it’s a retelling of Roman history through a microcosmic lens, but one that is global, insofar as global means throughout the entire Roman empire. Initially, the project came about through my interest in the complexity of identity as a consequence of migration and mobility.

My training and my interest in writing long durée histories has altered my own perspective about my family’s relationship to colonialism and empire. It’s very easy for members of the South Asian diaspora located within predominantly white spaces to think of ourselves as subjugated, and of course we have been in really significant and impactful ways that we will be feeling forever, but the story is much more complicated than that; it cannot be reduced to a binary of resistance and complicity or colonizer and colonized. I say that not to reduce my own accountability, but to appreciate the nuance of individual circumstances, the urgency of surviving, which at some point all of our ancestors, as recent as our own grandparents, had to navigate.

Chandani: I think what I’m hearing too is that that negotiation is always something to probe. Through aesthetic form as well, it is a retelling in a way. It reminds me of what you were saying about the Asian koel and how it carries extra significance because of the questions it opens up about home and childhood with these birds being raised by parents who are not their own. It represents for me the layered texture of your work and artistic practice.

Lakshmi: One of the things I come away with from my academic research, and consequently my art practice, is this really strong sense that colonialism is a very specific kind of epistemological exercise. I think of colonialism as a specific way of organizing information and thinking about information and knowledge. So when I look at company style painting of birds or women painters in colonial Britain learning how to paint extremely naturalistic depictions of an ivy plant, that’s a particular way of conveying information that can actually also be conveyed and stored and archived in other ways through oral tradition, through memory, and so on.

Europeans, and people like Linneaus, had a very particular idea, shaped by the Enlightenment, about what it means to know and what a fact is, but these are very very different concepts of knowledge and knowledge storage than indigenous people have with regard to who and where they are.

Chandani: For me, it seems like you are creating that knowledge system through your art practice.

Lakshmi: Yes, a very different one, particular to me.

Photo by Brittany Sowacke
Chandani: My last question is about what’s next. What aspects of your personal and familial history will you continue to probe? What are you most excited to experiment with next, whether in your artistic practice or scholarly work?

Lakshmi: So much is up in the air because of the pandemic but Some Viscera is a multipart project and going to be a much longer term project than I had initially envisioned. There is an album that I am planning to release that in some ways I think of as the soundtrack of Some Viscera, which I only perform in very occasional and site-specific contexts. The album was originally going to be recorded over this past summer (2020), but of course we weren’t able to do that. We were going to record it live in a historic cemetery in Chicago. Because all of this music has lived in partially improvised form, I decided we would have to perform it all at once together, and that one take would be the album. That would be most true to its spirit in terms of a method.

At the same time, I do work at an academic’s pace; I like to take time with projects. It takes me a long time to feel confident in saying I know what I’m doing with this. I’m writing a book based on a dissertation that I first proposed as a graduate student in 2012, so 8 years later I’m still working on the material and still wondering to myself, “What exactly am I doing?” It’s the same with my art practice.

I am going to continue to think about childhood, my grandmother, and my nieces because they really are the two poles in my life at this moment in terms of how I think about who I am. The reason I dedicated A Half Light Chorus to Shakthi, my elder niece (in public, in writing, in the conservatory) is so that when she is older, she feels recognized and seen by me in the same ways that my great-grandmother saw and recognized me even before I was born in her letters to my grandmother and mother. I ultimately created the installation for her, I wanted to create a really playful, fun, almost funny thing that she would enjoy, and she was able to be there for the final performance.

I do want to focus a lot more at some point on my mom’s history as well. My relationship with my mother is probably the most complicated relationship in my life, and I feel like that's true for lots of people, and lots of women especially. That’s something I want to explore more because her own legacy is one that has enabled me to do so much. Without the sacrifices she made, including leaving her family in order to support her family, I would not be able to document our family, think about family, take all the risks I have taken in my life, and have all of the things she essentially gave up. That is something worth honoring through future projects as an artist.

Chandani: Thank you so much for sharing the knowledge system that you are creating for yourself with our broader community.

Chandani Patel is Director for Global Diversity Education at New York University. She serves on the Editorial Collective for TIDES and is the Co-Chair of the Academic Council for SAADA. Chandani holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago.