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Kutiyattam: Intangible Heritage and Transnationalism


Kutiyattam, practiced in Kerala, India, is the only living Sanskrit dance-theater tradition today. In 2001, UNESCO declared the art form as "Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." This dissertation examines the impact of Kutiyattam's universalization as "intangible heritage" on the localized artistic practice. Drawing from dance studies and media studies literature to analyze interviews with Kutiyattam practitioners as well as Kutiyattam's performances during field work in Kerala, this study presents Kutiyattam as an arena of multi-sided contestations. Intellectual Property Rights operate within a racialized system of "universalization" where, in addition, gendered and casticized privileges are negotiated. Kutiyattam practitioners currently live these entanglements that affect their citizenship status within the Indian nation-state. Fieldwork at various locations in Kerala, including Irinjalakkuda, Chathakkudam, Moozhikkulam, Tripunithura, and Ambalapuzha, have enabled me to highlight local practitioners' and scholars' viewpoints regarding Kutiyattam's history and historiography. Observing live performances, both on stage and during practice sessions, I focus on corporeal renderings of different formats of Kutiyattam, including Nangiarkoothu (solo female theater), Cakyarkoothu (male solo verbal performances), and Kutiyattam (combined danced-acting of multiple performers). Via fieldwork and interviews, I found that universalization of this local practice differentially narrows, rather than broadens access to archived materials of Kutiyattam. In fact, international clients and caste-specific performers are favored, while limiting the local non-caste performers' access to Kutiyattam sources. I then examine how the media intervene in specific ways to shape the modern and "traditional" Indian ideal citizen via the female performer of Kutiyattam, affecting the value of women's cultural labor and their culturally specific performing rights through paradoxical intertwines of caste and gender. Finally, I examine how the (visual) "difference" of the material dancing body of Kutiyattam negotiates and is subjectified in the racialization process as Kutiyattam circulates globally as "universal" heritage. Ultimately, this dissertation shows how transnationalism intervenes in disarticulating Kutiyattam's cultural symbolism from its cultural danced labor, a process in which the nation- state plays a conciliatory role, allowing to gloss over the bodies that labor for Kutiyattam's upkeep, thus revealing processes of state-fundamentalism and neo-orientalism.

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