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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Constructing Diasporic Identity Through Kathak Dance: Flexibility, Fixity, and Nationality in London and Los Angeles

  • Author(s): Saraswat, Shweta
  • Advisor(s): Banerji, Anurima
  • et al.
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This dissertation focuses on the role of the classical Indian dance form Kathak in negotiating questions of cultural identity and national affiliation among members of the Indian diaspora residing in London, UK, and Los Angeles, USA. This study considers how institutional actions and discourses related to the practice of Kathak dance in these two cities and the personal experiences of dancers themselves reflect certain political, aesthetic, and social values that impact the formation of diasporic identity. Grounded in multi-year fieldwork in the Kathak communities of London and Los Angeles, this interdisciplinary study argues that Indian diasporic subjects negotiate a fundamental tension through their practice of Kathak dance: the tension between Kathak’s inherent flexibility and contextual conditions of fixity.

Kathak’s inherent flexibility refers to certain foundational elements of the dance that center around creative interpretation, improvisation, and immersive practice (riyaaz), as well as the expression of multiple identities that these foundational elements enable. A discourse of Kathak’s flexibility frames the dancer’s transcendence and/or transformation of socially assigned identifications as an act of aesthetic virtuosity with cross-cultural significance. However, the transformative potential of Kathak’s flexibility is limited by contextual conditions of fixity that include material and discursive frameworks that fix Kathak to regimes of affect and singular narratives that essentialize the dance as a marker of Indian national identity and curtail the breadth of flexible identifications for both the dance and its dancers.

This dissertation explores two dominant and interconnected strategies that shape Kathak discourse and practice towards different socio-political ends. The heritage model practice of Kathak aims to empower Indian diasporic subjects by underscoring their difference from the dominant British or American classes. Drawing from Annette Weiner’s work on inalienable possessions, this study offers a new theory that casts Kathak in the heritage model as an inalienable practice ontologically tied to a singularized Indian cultural identity. Conversely, the integrative model frames Kathak as a tool for intercultural encounters, utilizing the dance’s inherent flexibility to create new pathways for Kathak dance and dancers to enter and/or converse with British and American national culture.

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This item is under embargo until June 3, 2020.