Performing Politics

State Power, Ethnicity and Gender in Sri Lanka

by Janet O’Shea, Dance Chronicle, 34:146–151, 2011

Review of Susan A. Reed’s 2009 book “Dance and the Nation: Performance, Ritual, and Politics in Sri Lanka”
288 pp. with DVD.
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009. $29.95 paper.
ISBN – 13: 978-0-29923-164-4

Performing Politics O’Shea review 2011

Reed’s focus is primarily ethnographic: she emphasizes the cultural meanings that adhere to the upcountry Sinhalese practices that are included under the umbrella term Kandyan dance. Reed brings forward the voices of dance practitioners, patrons, and educators, and provides a wealth of detail, highlighting the specific events she attended, performances she watched, and dance material she learned. In a sense, this work is as much an ethnography of upcountry Sinhalese culture as it is a study of dance in Sri Lanka.

The text shifts among approaches that are rooted in ethnography, history, and heritage studies. Chapters become less strictly anthropological as the book progresses. While the first chapter examines the cultural meanings associated with Kandy village ritual practice and the second chapter charts relationships between berava (drummer-caste) dancers and their elite patrons, the third chapter investigates how colonialism encouraged the reconceptualization of the dance as “exhibition, culture, and ‘art’” (p. 16).  The subsequent chapters become more issue-based, exploring state intervention in dance pedagogy and the significance of competing cultural revivals (chapter 4), the impact of middle-class nationalist values on berava communities (chapter 5), the reconfiguration of ritual as display (chapter 6), and, finally, the gender politics of including elite women in the form (chapter 7). The chapters are augmented by a DVD of Reed’s field footage.

As a critical dance studies scholar, I am interested in the ways in which this text roots its analysis in the histories of specific movement practices. I am also interested in postcolonialism, heritage politics, and the status of dance studies as a discipline. Therefore, I am reviewing this text from the perspective of postcolonial studies and with an eye to changes in dance studies as a discipline.

Reed tells her readers of the process through which a set of lower-caste ritual practices were reconfigured in the interest of the nation. The dance form was standardized, claimed by elites including both Sinhalese and mixed-race Burghers, practiced under nationalist auspices, embraced by middle-class women, and provided with a new respectability. This process, at first glimpse, appears so complete that the image of the Kandyan dancer became
a “floating signifier of Sinhala tradition” (p. 12). However, the re-configuration of Kandyan dance took place through the augmentation of an already existing set of intercaste relationships. Thus, the elite celebration of the form first came through patronage, then through the practice of the form by elite men and by women
of a range of backgrounds. As such, Kandyan dance took on a number of conflicting meanings: middle-class nationalist values versus lower-caste pride, Sinhalese ethnic identity versus Burgher identification with the nation, spectacular tourist shows versus the display of state power, and gender emancipation versus sexual objectification, among others…

Another point of departure between Kandyan dance and other postcolonial forms is the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka, which heightened the stakes of cultural representation.∗  This book demonstrates the contentious struggles that can occur when culture in its most visible forms becomes objectified and canonized as part of community heritage. Reed points to intersections between Kandyan dance and Sinhala identity production, which
takes on political overtones in a situation where community affiliations are overtly politicized and defined in polar opposition. Yet “ethnicity has not always been a divisive factor in Sri Lankan society” (p. 130): not only did the early twentieth century witness harmony and cooperation between Sinhalese and Tamils, but both Sinhalese and Tamil were identified as majority ethnic groups with other ethnicities identified as minorities (p. 130). By the mid
twentieth century, however, “‘national culture’ … meant Sinhala culture; the Tamils were now considered a ‘minority’” (p. 136).  While the process through which culture emerges as “a unique, bounded entity” (p. 136) is familiar to postcolonial studies scholars, dance studies readers may be less aware of the brutal implications of the Sri Lankan nation-building project. Likewise, scholars in other fields may not be aware of the extent to which dance is entangled in these contests over history and identity.

In this case, the claim that dance is political is not simply a disciplinary assertion that allows scholarly investigation of identity categories that can be read in the dance work but rather it demonstrates that dance is—almost literally—on the frontlines of civil war and ethnic confict.∗  In this regard, I see this work as part of a new phase in dance studies. Theorization about the social implications of dance has moved from the race, class, national, gender, and sexual politics of a work to issues of citizenship, state policy, migration, and shifting economic conditions affecting the production and circulation of works…



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