ASA12: Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, 3rd-6th April 2012

(P25)

Transformations in contemporary South Asian ritual: From sacred action to public performance

Location CSSS Class Room No.104, First Floor, SSS-II
Date and Start Time 05 April, 2012 at 08:30

Convenors

Geoffrey Samuel (University of Sydney) email
Santi Rozario (University of Tasmania) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The panel will examine recent transformations in large-scale public ritual performances in Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Nepali diaspora in Europe.

Long Abstract

The panel will examine the evolution and transformation of large-scale public ritual performances in a variety of South Asian contexts. It includes three papers on a newly-created, State-sponsored ritual dance performance at Dochula in Bhutan, intended to memorialise a politically sensitive episode in recent Bhutanese history. The Dochula event is the most recent stage in a long history of appropriation of large-scale Tantric Buddhist ritual for State purposes, and involves complex and self-aware symbolic messages relating to religion, citizenship and national identity. The increasingly international and global context of the performances has also led to the heightening of the aesthetic dimension. Both organisers and participants are increasingly aware of this context, with Bhutanese ritual dance performances in particular developing a significant tourist dimension. The remaining papers present case studies relating to India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and the Gurung diaspora in Europe. All deal with recent transformations of public performance and State ritual, involving international and global connections, and we hope that the panel as a whole will provide the basis for a sophisticated theoretical analysis of these processes.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Tibetan ritual dance as public performance and state ceremony: the evolution of the Tshe bcu in Bhutan and the 2011 Dochu La festival

Author: Geoffrey Samuel (University of Sydney)  email

Short Abstract

The paper examines recent transformations of Tibetan ritual dance (’cham) and attempts to assess its meaning in contemporary Bhutan. It also discusses a recent attempt to update and further transform the ’cham tradition in the context of the commemoration of a complex and problematic episode in modern Bhutanese history, the 2003 campaign of the Royal Bhutanese Army to drive out several Indian separatist groups which had set up encampments in southern Bhutan.

Long Abstract

The core elements of Tibetan ritual dance ('cham) derive from Indian Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism. They involve the dancers acting out and materialising a mandala of the Tantric deities which is created imaginatively by the lama and other Tantric adepts, and focussing its power on the destruction of internal and external obstacles to welfare and spiritual progress. In Tibetan cultures, these dances, which have parallels in other parts of Buddhist and Hindu Asia, developed into large-scale public events. They were performed on an annual basis or more frequently by most major monasteries, acquiring additional layers of meaning and symbolism, as well as further dance-sequences with a primarily narrative rather than ritual orientation.

The rulers of the Bhutanese state, which was founded by a refugee Tibetan lama in the early 17th century, mobilised this performative complex further to serve as a key representation of the state's political and religious authority. These annual Tshes bcu (tenth-day) rituals are now performed annually by most major centres of political authority in Bhutan, despite the marginalisation of the monastic establishment within an increasingly secularised Bhutanese state. The paper examines the transformations of 'cham and attempts to assess its meaning in contemporary Bhutan. It also discusses a recent attempt to update and further transform the 'cham tradition in the context of the commemoration of a complex and problematic episode in modern Bhutanese history, the 2003 campaign of the Royal Bhutanese Army to drive out several Indian separatist groups which had set up encampments in southern Bhutan.

Dance, ritual and thunder dragons: exploring cultural politics and national identities

Author: Ann R. David (University of Roehampton)  email

Short Abstract

This paper compares elements of embodied Hindu ritual and Bhutanese Buddhist danced ritual in today’s globalised conditions, questioning their place in public performance and asking whether they are still able to speak to today’s cosmopolitan audiences in periods of rapid social, political and economic change.

Long Abstract

In the context of changing religious rituals that are currently being practiced, for example, by Tamil Hindu groups in the UK, this paper compares and contrasts elements of embodied Hindu ritual and Bhutanese Buddhist danced ritual in today's globalized conditions. How might embodied practices such as these reflect changed meanings of both national and transnational identities, of religious practices, of aesthetic sensitivities as well as manage political pressures from outside and within? What is the effect of the State sponsoring a newly choreographed ritual, as in the case of Bhutan, where cultural issues are at the forefront - including the question of how the need for military action in a state which is positioning itself as a peaceful Buddhist democracy is handled? What coded information is perhaps being carried through these embodied performances of specific movement genres? Using information gathered during detailed fieldwork in Bhutan at the Dochula festival and the three day Trongsa Tschechu, and the UK Tai Pusam Tamil festival, I argue that these newly formed, or transformed rituals, respond to perceived loss or rupture within a rapidly changing world (including, for the Tamils, their diasporic status). The rituals are driven by concerns for enculturation of cultural values, and religious precepts and the accrual of merit or power. The paper also considers the place of such 'sacred' action in public performance and questions as such whether these are performance of memory or are still able to speak to today's cosmopolitan audiences in periods of rapid social, political and economic change.

Benefits and Blessings: perceptions of Tibetan ritual dances ('cham) in modern Bhutan

Author: Dawn Collins  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores contemporary perceptions of historically attested benefits and blessings accorded Tibetan ritual dances (’cham) as they are currently experienced in Bhutan. It does so in terms of aesthetic choices, intent and appreciation, both in the context of a modern state commissioned ’cham, and of more traditional Bhutanese Tse bcu.

Long Abstract

Tibetan ritual dances ('cham) primarily originate in the Indian vajrayana tantric Buddhism received into Tibet in the seventh century. Benefits claimed for these masked ritual dances for communities and their environs are notably the destruction or subjugation of spiritual forces counter to health and wellbeing, the preparation for the intermediary state after death, and the receipt of blessing from the deities represented or embodied by the dancers.

The paper explores contemporary views of these historically attested benefits and questions the value and meanings accorded these 'cham as they are currently experienced in Bhutan. In doing so, it inquires into the perceptions of those who engage either as participants or observers with 'cham in today's Bhutan. In particular, it will look at these local perspectives in the context of a newly-created, State-sponsored ritual 'cham. This took place in December 2011 and was intended to memorialise the 2003 campaign of the Royal Bhutanese Army, which drove out Indian separatist groups encamped in southern Bhutan. The paper will examine where and why this newly created ritual dance performance departs from traditional Bhutanese 'cham, both in terms of the aesthetic choices and intent of its makers and in terms of its aesthetic appreciation by modern audience.

The paper attempts to discern local perceptions concerning this and other ritual dance presently performed in Bhutan, exploring what benefits participants or observers perceive themselves to be deriving from engaging in'cham. In light of this, it will comment on what transformations this may indicate in terms of both national and religious Bhutanese identities.

On sacred ground: Constructing an ancient tradition for 'Tibetan' Buddhism in Spiti

Author: Latika Gupta (Jawaharlal Nehru University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores the complex relationship between the Tashilhunpo monastery in Tibet and the Kye monastery in Spiti through the Chham, an annual performative Buddhist ritual.It studies the transformations that occur when the Chham is performed in non-sacral spaces and contexts.

Long Abstract

The paper studies the Chham, an annual public performative ritual, at the Kye monastery in Spiti, to unpack the notion of an 'ancient' tradition that is constructed in a modern context for a culture-in-exile. The paper examines the construction of this tradition for the Kye monastery in order to establish its historical relationship with the Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse (a relationship that is today mediated through the latter's functional centre in Bylakuppe in southern India). The 'tradition' was created in the late 1960's by a Chham master from Tashilhunpo, replacing an earlier one that followed the Chham of Tholing monastery. The paper examines the transformations (and the reasons and effects thereof) that occur in the ritual when it is performed in 'non-sacral' spaces and contexts , both in India and abroad. This paper also explores the political reasons for the association between the Kye and Tashilhunpo monasteries and the complex relationship between the Tibetan culture-in-exile in India and a Tibetan form of tantric Buddhism that has flourished on the margins of the Indian nation-state.

The state of theatre in Bhutan and the role of Happy Valley Theatre as an Advocate of Change

Author: Tshering Dorji  email

Short Abstract

This presentation tells about the state of theatre in Bhutan. After giving an overview on the history of theater in Bhutan it will present the view of a theater company's struggles with contemporary modernization and development processes while trying to keep a balance between theatre as a creative art form for sustaining local traditions and as a means of advocacy for social change.

Long Abstract

Traditionally, theatre in Bhutan has never been a distinguished art form apart from the performances in religious festivals such as tshechus. However, from the 1960s until today there have been scattered attempts to develop a drama theatre tradition based on traditional stories such as Gasa lami Singye, the Bhutanese equivalent to Romeo and Juliet. In 2007 Happy Valley Youth Entertainment (in short Happy Valley) was founded as an edutainment company, based in Thimphu. Realizing the importance of ownership Happy Valley applied the principles of a cooperative, sharing responsibilities of decision-making, sharing profits and keeping accounts transparent to every member. Happy Valley also aims at helping socially challenged young people (substance abusers, alcoholics, people with precarious family situations, etc.) to develop more self esteem and stability in life. The ultimate objective is to use theatre and entertainment as a means for social change. Contemporary modernization and development processes, where modern aspects of theatre and entertainment have been introduced to the country, make it difficult to sustain the already marginalized art form of theatre. Happy Valley tries to combine traditional theatrical elements with contemporary social motives to carry out a form of social advocacy, funded by various organizations. This presentation is about the state of theatre in Bhutan, presenting a view from a theater company and its struggles with contemporary obstacles and conflicts while trying to keep a balance between theatre as a creative art form and as a means of advocacy for change.

Transformation of the cult of St Anthony of Padua in a popular centre of Pilgrimage in rural Bangladesh

Author: Santi Rozario (University of Tasmania)  email

Short Abstract

The paper examines the transformation of the cult of St Anthony in a popular centre of pilgrimage in rural Bangladesh. Christian and non-Christian devotees both make manots (vows) to St Anthony and take part in the annual festival. The paper discusses the rapid growth and transformation of the cult of St Anthony which has similarities to that of Muslim saints and Hindu deities in the region.

Long Abstract

The cult of St Anthony of Padua was brought to the regions that now form Bangladesh by the Portuguese who converted a section of the local population to Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries. In recent years, the annual festival of St Anthony has grown rapidly in size and become a major focus for annual pilgrimage by Bangladeshi Catholics in and outside the region. As with major Indian Catholic shrines, such as the shrine of Our Lady of Good Health at Velankanni in Tamil Nadu or the shrine of St Francis Xavier in Goa, St Anthony is also patronised by non-Christians who do regular manots (vows) to St Anthony and then take part in the annual festival in Panjura, just as Christians may take part in Hindu festivals or visit shrines of Sufi saints. In recent years, the Church authorities have encouraged the development of the festival as a spiritual gathering where all can appeal to St. Anthony, a saint for all who answers the prayers and vows of all, regardless of religious boundaries. In other respects, however, such as the adoption of religious imagery and symbols associated in Bangladesh with Hindu Bengali culture, Bangladeshi Catholicism, while seeking indigenous modes of expression, has emphasised its differences from the Muslim majority in Bangladesh. The paper discusses the recent rapid growth and transformation of the festival and asks what they can tell us about the place of the cult of St Anthony, and Catholicism in general, within the complex religious field of contemporary Bangladesh.

Attukal Pongala: conflation of sacred and secular in popular imagination and public culture

Author: Darshana Sreedhar (Jawaharlal Nehru University)  email

Short Abstract

Attukal Bhagwati temple, renowned as ‘Sabarimala of women’ is home to a special temple practice prevalent in Kerala. Thiruvananthapuram, abode of Anantha (serpent God) witnesses this fascinating ritualistic practice as a part of its annual ten day celebration. Pongala typifies an instance in the broad based religious articulations, where there is simultaneous expression of the religion as place, process and symbol. My study here would an attempt to ethnographically place the practice of Attukal pongala and the related rituals within the framework of popular participation and map out how the practice which was initially an intrinsic religious practice located inside the temple premises has now transcended spatially and in popular imagination the religiosity and emerged within a community- participatory mode of discourse.

Long Abstract

What makes Attukal temple significant among the temples devoted to Devi worship in Kerala is the mythic status of Attukal Bhagwati as the reincarnation of Kannagi, central character of the South Indian epic by Illanko Adikal, Shilappatikaram . Legend states that Kannagi took revenge on the King of Madurai, for a mistaken death penalty imposed on her husband Kovalan, by cursing the city with disaster.

Pongala typifies an instance in the broad based religious articulations where there is simultaneous expression of the religion as place, process and symbol .The annual congregation of lakhs of women from diverse backgrounds irrespective of caste, class, religion and other differentials, pongala has been raised now to a democratic space. This has enabled the visibilization of many subterranean ritualistic practices which for a short span has been either done away with or got appropriated to the dominant political, social and ideological vagaries. Since my study has relied exclusively on the oral narratives centering on the temple, I would be dealing with the intrinsic relationship of oral narratives with memory and how in the process of preserving the memory through material manifestations, one is always at a risk of essentializing the rescued history. I would be interested to locate how the visual culture of pongala has affected the market culture and consumerism. It would also be worth enquiring how being incorporated in a 'process of sanctification' defined group solidarity and how cultural practices treat images as compressed performances, where the experience (of the image's effect) is at once its meaning and its power

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.