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South Asian festivals

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reviewed by Caleb Simmons, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of Arizona (simmons@ufl.edu)

 

South Asian Festivals on the Move is a collection of essays that explores the richness and dynamic nature of festivals in South Asia and in the South Asian diaspora. The essays in the collection, as one might expect with a subject as large and unwieldy as “festival,” cover a broad spectrum of practices and regions that is matched by the range of research methodologies used to examine the practices and rituals contained therein. The editors Ute Hüsken and Axel Michaels bring this eclectic group together masterfully in their introduction to the volume.  They explain that the commonality within the essays is the interpretive approach in which festivals (they have limited themselves to “public festivals”) are viewed as “dynamic ritual performances” and “transcultural phenomena” that are unique negotiations of identity and space—processes that are “on the move.” (10)

The essays have been subdivided into four categories. The first “Festivals as Sites of Public Negotiation” examines festival as a site in which community identities and hierarchies are contested, negotiated, subverted, and/or reaffirmed.  In this section, both Hüsken’s essay (“The Flag and the Drum”) on the entangled networks of agencies in the Brahmotsava festival at Kancipuram’s Varadaraja Perumal temple and Rich Freeman’s essay (“Arresting Possession”) on the religious, cultural, and spatial implications of multimedia representations of Teyyam possession from Malabar standout for their lucid presentation of multiple layers of identity negotiation and construction (for both the actors and the rituals) that pervades ritual in its public manifestations.

In the subsequent section “The Global and the Local,” the authors reflect on instances in which festivals and their attendant rituals, productions, and/or performances are presented as “heritage” events and “art” exhibitions intended for a global audience. Of the four essays in this section two discuss the performance of Kuttiyattam (Leah Lowthorp’s “The Translation of Kuttiyattam” and Heike Moser’s “Kuttiyattam on the Move”). Together they portray the dynamic history of the tradition from local ritual performance to an internationally recognized performance art. Though the editors have decided to separate the two essays with a chapter on the Virasat festival of Uttarakhand by Lokesh Ohri, the two Kuttiyattam entries ought to be read together as Moser provides a detailed account of the transition of the performance and Lowthorp covers some of the same details, however, through a more analytic and theoretical frame.

The third section “People on the Move: Festivals and Processions as Public Events” focuses on physical movement of participants within festivals through either pilgrimage (Silke Belcher’s essay “Kumbha Mela”) or procession (Michaels’ “From Syncretism to Transculturality” and Jörg Gengnagel’s essay “Inside and Outside the Palace”) . Gengnagel’s essay was of particular interest to this reviewer because of its discussion of the royal celebration of Dasara. Gengnagel presents a thorough account of the rituals (sastravahanadipuja) associated with worship of the erstwhile kingdom’s royal insignia (cihna); however, his thorough accounting of the details of the puja and the royal procession was accompanied by a dearth of interpretive analysis regarding the processes that codified the ritual and its role in negotiating identity and meaning for the (former) royals, courtiers, Jaipur’s population, and the modern state of Rajasthan.

The last section “The Old, the New, and the Old Renewed” contains two essays that investigate the festivals of South Asian diaspora communities in Germany and Canada and is a fitting conclusion to the volume. In her “Tamil Temple Festival Culture in Germany,” Annette Wilke explicates the changes and continuities that are necessitated by the movement of Tamil people to Hamm-Uentrop, Germany and their integration of the Kamadchi festival into the city’s religious landscape. Paul Younger’s piece “Pilgrims in a Trans-national Setting,” likewise discusses the negotiation of the diaspora tradition; however, situating the mostly Sri Lanka community and their pilgrimage within its Canadian setting through a discussion of its historical and socio-political emergence.

The volume is an excellent collection that portrays many aspects of the richness that is festival life in South Asia and its diaspora communities; however, certain aspects (or more aptly communities) of South Asian festival life are conspicuously absent. While the Hindu and Buddhist traditions are well represented, the Muslim and Christian communities and festivals receive slight attention as they relate to festivals like the Perahara of Kataragama or the Gaude jagors of Goa. Additionally Sikh, Jain, and Parsi festivals and performances, as well as other secular “festivals” (perhaps the India Premier League opening ceremony), are completely absent from the discussion and would have provided a fuller picture of the richness and dynamicity of the festival in South Asian life.

South Asian Festivals on the Move is an intelligent and welcome addition to South Asian ritual and religious studies that articulates the processes of change and movement that accompany public ritual performance. The volume would be of interest to scholars working on public performance, modern ritual, and transnational religious practice. The diversity of the volume makes it an ideal fit for a graduate seminar on contemporary South Asian ritual or religious experience or as a library resource for undergraduates working on advanced research topics in contemporary South Asia.

 

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