Spectatorship in Folk Dance

One of the performers of a ritual dance at Bommarabettu village in Udupi, Karnataka

As someone newly thrown into the world of folk culture, I am constantly discovering facets of this field which confuses me, surprises me, delights me and gives me reasons to delve deeper.

Ever wondered how those folk dancers feel when city slickers put them under surveillance every step of their move? If it wasn’t enough that complete strangers have come to gape at them, rural and tribal folk have to contend with the unseen-incomprehensible objet  – the camera – while they go about dancing, singing, and performing their everyday activities or rituals.

How do you authenticate the originality of a folk dance which is under observation by an outsider or the camera? The question is relevant as folk dancing is a ‘participative’ phenomenon, and not something that you ‘observe’, ‘capture’, or ‘document’. Doesn’t its context mutate into a ‘performance’ rather than a ‘ritual’?

(Up) Spirit dancer and (above) musicians of Bhutaradhane – a ritual spirit dance at Bommarabettu village in Udupi, Karnataka

I attended a month long international folklore workshop in India last year. We students learnt how to document visual culture – by observing a rural community’s ritual dance – and put it up online for archiving via wiki.

The project was a way to help budding ethnographers understand the ins-and-outs of what folk culutre is, how the tradition is sustained, the means to document visual phenomenon, and finally, passing the documented information back to the community so that they have access to their culture and have a say in its ‘transmission’ outside their community.

For 10 days and nights, I entered the world of ‘bhuta-radhinae’ – spirit dances, performed by members of the community’s ‘lowest caste’ in Tulunadu region in the south Indian state of Karnataka. The ‘Nema’  – dance – was performed in the ‘garodi’ – temple – courtyard every night, in front of villagers, who recreated the ancestral myths of their community through the dances of kodamanitaaye and kookilataaye – the two spirit dancers who danced the night away to the sound of drums, trumpets and clanging cymbals.

There were torches – the ones with fire on top – and priests chanting mantras and performing obligations for the Hindu deity and local gods and goddesses. During the course of the ritual performance, a few villagers had their problems heard by the ‘spirit dancers’. Elaborate arrangements were made prior to the rituals – cleansing the temple from the presence and touch of any ‘low caste’ or other impurities, decoration with flowers and sacred ‘diagrams’ on the floor, offerings for the gods – coconut, flowers, ghee (oil), and new clothes gifted to the priests by the sponsor of the ”event’.

As outsiders and city dwellers, observing a spirit dance was way out of our routine orbit. It spun us into an unbelievable world. What made it so real were the dancers themselves – their costume, makeup, their pre-ritual dance preparations, their dedication – and the ‘we are so into our character’ non-stop thumping, twirling, prancing and performing duo.

More than once, it occured to me that the dancers were ‘performing’ for the camera, aware of their audience and playing to a gala crowd. Beyond a ritual, a socio-relgious event, the spirit dancing had transformed into something artificial and ‘showy’. I want to study this mutated context in folk dance.

It's time for the spirit dancer to take a break

It’s time for the spirit dancer to take a break

How do we take away the phenomena of observation and still understand the ritual and performance by being an unseen observer? When members of a tribal community dance alone, unseen by any alien eye – camera/video recorder and strangers/members from outside their community – is the nature of their dance different? And does it get polluted or diluted or distoreted as we put them under surveillance and play the spectator?

The question is relevant as folk dancing is a ‘participative‘ phenomenon, and not something that you ‘observe’, ‘capture‘, or ‘document‘.

Tricky situation according to me. And not being a hot-shot anthropologist or an ethnographer, I would like to know how the professional world deals with this event? Does originality have to be compromised for its contents to be understood?


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