Dance as Living Ethnographies

Before the Dance: “Nascent” Dance Movements in Non-Dance Performances:

The Case of Kobigaan

Priyanka Basu

PhD Research Scholar

Department of the Languages and Cultures of South Asia,

School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, UK


Dance or dance-like movements in non-dance performances is an area that have not been probed into and exhausted enough. This paper engages in descriptive ethnographic analysis of a non-dance performance called Kobigaan, as it is performed in two separate geographical locations (a village performance in Chandpur, Bangladesh and a winter fair performance in Shantiniketan in West Bengal, India). The concepts of cultural memory, historiography, and public memory are employed in order to theorize upon and scrutinize the representational practice of dance or dance-like movements within given culture(s). These movements are termed within the purview of this study as “nascent” movements, which is taken up for further speculation within the scope of this paper. In its broader interrogations, the paper approaches the greater field of Dance Studies and questions how dance elements in performance practices, designated as “non-dance”, can be incorporated within research methodologies, ethnographies, as well as the emerging literature on the discipline.[i]


Priyanka Basu is a PhD Research Scholar in the Department of the Languages and Cultures of South Asia, SOAS, London. She is working on “Cockfight in Tune: Reading Nations, Communities and Performance in the ‘Bengali’ Kobigaan” and has undertaken fieldwork in India and Bangladesh. She has published on Bollywood Item Numbers and adult movements of child performers in Bengali (Indian) dance reality shows. She has presented at the World Dance Alliance conferences in New Delhi and Taiwan. She has been trained in the dance form of Odissi under Guru Smt. Kiran Segal and is still undergoing training in London and India.


[i] This paper is also part of a broader PhD research on the performance of Kobigaan and its cultural politics across borders in West Bengal and Bangladesh.




Aastha Kumar

 Independent Research Scholar

Institutional Affiliation: Jawaharlal Nehru University


This paper historicizes Odissi and draws on the ideologies shaping the revival of the form. It then mentions the first-generation, urban Odissi dancers who soon became the “divas.” These divas received recognition as the cultural ambassadors of a newly independent state and influenced the trajectory of the form. Expansion and transition of the form in the 1980s and 1990s becomes an inevitable gradation in its evolution, as a consequence of cross-cultural conversations as well as stagnation of the form. The research for this paper explores the major interventions, if any, made by first-generation dancers, which directly put the control of its practice in their hands, or impelled a process of transgression from the established norm. The work thus tries to intervene in the ideological discourse of a culture, which lends ‘normality’ to the hegemony of uneven cultures. The research, through two major interventions in Odissi, concludes that it is not simply a change of cultural contents and symbols, but the very site on which cultural identities are inscribed that needs to be probed and that the construction of culture, therefore, needs to be seen as different from mere invention of tradition.


Aastha Kumar is an independent research scholar, trained in Odissi dance. An M. Phil (Theatre & Performance Studies) Graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (2008), she has actively participated in international and national performance summits: WDA- Asia Pacific (Hong- Kong; 2006) as a master class trainer, WDA- Global Summit (Brisbane- 2008) as a participant dancer in “the choreolab intensive” and paper presenter at the annual conference, published author in the Dance Dialogues: Conversations across cultures, artforms and practices; the Proceedings of the 2008 World Dance Alliance Global Summit.  She has also presented papers at Indian Society for Theatre Research’ s 6th Annual Conference, 2009,New Delhi and its 3rd World Conference, 2007, Jaipur, India.



KavadiAttam’ A Dance Ritual Practiced As

A Community Performance

A.P. Rajaram

Ph.D. Research Scholar

Center for Theater and Performance Studies, School Of Arts and Aesthetics

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.


This paper deals with the ritualistic dance form of Kavadiattam associated with the festival of Thai Pusam, which takes place in Tamil Nadu.  Seen independently of the ritual and the ritual space, the performance of Kavadiattam has the quality to become, and often is performed as an aesthetic performance with props. The dance form is a significant part of the ritual process which establishes a connection between the ritual space and the community through a journey that the community undertakes along with the group of specific devotees.  The devotees undergo certain acts of penance, like ritual cleansing and facial piercing, which become signifiers of the socio-cultural identity of the Tamil community in the traditional ritual space. The ritual is also performed by the diaspora communities in different parts of South-east Asia as well as other countries. When Kavadiattam is performed in temples outside India, it is believed to be a ritual exclusively for the Tamil people. The crowd, or in this case the audience who are not familiar with the cultural codes of Kavadiattam, the performance just becomes a kind of a popular folk dance form. Thus, Kavadiattam outside its original geographical locale is often performed as a practiced group performance in de-contextualized spaces; as a marker of identity of the community, without any reference to the original ritualistic significance of the form. The paper wishes to explore the creation of spaces of the rituals which become important signifiers as well as reference points of the contextualization and functionality of Kavadiattam in difference situations, like the original Murugan temple in Palani, the diaspora temple complexes, the formal proscenium or competitions in countries with large Tamil population, or scenes of popular Tamil cinema.


A.P. Rajaram is currently pursuing Ph.D in Theatre and Performance Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, after having completed his M.A. in Arts and Aesthetics and M.Phil in Theatre and Performance from the same School. He is a recipient of Rajiv Gandhi national fellowship for higher studies. He has presented his paper in the same ritual but in the context of Hybridity by comparing the ritual dance form in both the local (i.e.) in Tamil Nadu and global as in diasporic conditions as “Kavadiattam: local and global”, in WDA-AP-2011, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His research interest is in Rituals of Trance/Bodily practices of Thaipusam and Panguni Pongal festivals”.