Devotional Hindu Dance
A Return to the Sacred
- ISBN: 9783030706197
- Published By: Palgrave Macmillan
- Published: April 2021
In her second monograph Devotional Hindu Dance: A Return to the Sacred, Sabrina MisirHiralall explores the intersections of dance, religion, and culture by reflecting on her own experiences with dance as a performer and educator. The book is grounded in a method MisirHiralall calls “self-study,” which she defines as a focus “on studying the practices of oneself with the goal of improvement-aimed pedagogy” (2). The method calls on her to maintain a journal to reflect on her pedogeological practices and philosophy of teaching. MisirHiralall explains that she begins with a series of questions, such as “How did I prepare to dance?” and “What sensations did I feel after the dance?” (2-3) and reflects on these in their journal. “Peer Scholars,” a term coined by MisirHiralall to describe academic partners, review her reflections and help her further develop her philosophical insights.
However, in the book we do not actually see the presence of the peer scholars MisirHiralall engaged, and so it is difficult to ascertain the exact role these individuals played in shaping MisirHiralall’s understanding of the various topics she explores. Moreover, it would be useful for a reader to understand the contributions of her peer scholars in order to more comprehensively evaluate how she uses her reflections to make broader claims about the way the dance form should be taught and practiced.
The book is focused on “Hindu dance,” which she argues has been rendered as a cultural form (instead of as a religious one) by orientalizing forces in the colonial and postcolonial periods. For MisirHiralall, the term “Hindu” “refer[s] to those who endorse a way of life according to the sacred religious scriptures of Hinduism such as the Manu Smriti, the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, and the Srimad Devi Bhagavatam, to name a few, which are essentially ethical guides for humanity” (Sabrina MisirHiralall, Confronting Orientalism: A Self-study of Educating Through Hindu Dance, Sense Publishers, 2017, 2). She argues that “Hindu dance” has its origins in the sage Bharata Muni’s dramaturgical text Natya Shastra and is a means through which the performer and audience connects to the “Supreme Being” (57). It would have been interesting to see MisirHiralall put her argument in conversation with Matthew Allen’s thesis in “Rewriting the Script for South Indian Dance” (The Drama Review, 1997) where he argues that the narrative about the “sacred origins” of dance was part of a larger cultural nationalist project to distance the art form from hereditary practitioners who were charged with secularizing the art.
Further, MisirHiralall discusses how she sees the decline of dance from “religious” to “cultural” as being perpetrated first by Western colonial officials and missionaries and perpetuated by various institutions across the US and West Indies today (chapter 2). To bring back the sacredness of dance, MisirHiralall describes the devotional basis of dance through bhakti (devotional worship) (chapter 3) and how she uses Sanskrit texts like the Natya Shastra and Ramayana as the foundation for teaching students dance (chapter 4). MisirHiralall concludes that the major contribution of her study has been that it “sheds light on the origin and purpose of Hindu dance” (123). However, a reader would appreciate a more nuanced understanding of “origin” and “purpose” as scholars have noted know that the historical narrative surrounding classical dance in India is contested especially by hereditary practitioners who push back on the idea that their community tarnished the sacredness of the art form.
While the self-reflective nature of the book provides the reader with a look at a very personal journey with dance, the arguments MisirHiralall makes would be greatly strengthened with reference to the vast body of scholarship on the history of classical Indian dance in the 20th century (e.g., Davesh Soneji, Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India, University Chicago Press, 2012). Indeed, this history, which MisirHiralall ignores, exposes how nationalizing and Sanskritizing forces shaped the very idea of “classical dance,” and demonstrates that the discourse about the ‘ancient origins’ and religious basis of dance emerged from the colonial encounter. She problematically attributes the “cultural turn” of dance to orientalism without adequately accounting for how her understanding of “culture” and “religion” are themselves products of colonial discourses and modernity.
Moreover, many of MisirHiralall’s claims about Western orientalism causing Hindu dance to lose its religious basis fail to engage with Indian efforts in the 20th century to reinvent classical dance to be both religiously pure and culturally unifying (see the introduction in Soneji’s Unfinished Gestures (2012) for a good summary of this history). Lastly, MisirHiralall spends most of the book trying to explain to their readers what Hindu dance “really” is and how it should be correctly learned, performed, and taught. For an academic discussion, one would expect more historically grounded work that reflects more broadly on how classical dancers in the US and West Indies (which she takes as her primary sites of analysis) perceive their art and how they engage with the troubling binary of religion and culture. MisirHiralall’s self-study method appears limiting for this reason because as readers we only see her experiences and perspective of learning and teaching dance.
MisirHiralall’s work attempts to rectify what she perceives as incorrect understandings of “Hindu dance.” However, as the other works mentioned above speak to strongly, there is not one, monolithic “purpose” or “origin” of dance from the Indian subcontinent and such a claim is itself a part of orientalist discourse, which MisirHiralall argues she is fighting against. Her book does not speak directly to religious studies or dance studies, but her self-reflexive approach and self-study method for teaching dance may be of interest to those in the field of education.
Janani Mandayam Comar is a PhD student in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.Janani Mandayam ComarDate Of Review:October 28, 2022