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Religious Dogma or Political Agenda? Bharatanatyam and its Reemergence in British Tamil Temples


Ann R. David


In British Tamil temples, the increasing religiosity and sacredness of temple ritual alongside the growth of Bharatanatyam1 dance performances presents a new discourse of performed Tamil Hinduism. Do these devotional spectacles provide confirmation of a diasporic Tamil identity, and are these contemporary dance practices linked in any way to the earlier temple dancers (the devadasi)? 2 How are these dances perceived by current devotees, priests, and performers? What are the political implications of these resurgent religious sensibilities, and do they support a "globalized localism" as Joanne Waghorne (2004: 171) puts it, where local, once-rural practices are being exported throughout the Tamil diaspora? And what of the presence and influence, if any, of the political organization Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (ITTE) in temple religious and cultural practices?

            Using evidence from my ethnographic research in London Tamil temples and local London Tamil communities, 3 in this paper, I address the complex discourse of religious and political identity articulated in the London Sri Lankan Tamil community, particularly in relation to dancing and ritual performance. I seek to answer the aforementioned questions regarding the place of dances and dancing in defining such identity. I note expansions in the transmission and performance of the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam in British temple locations and interview dance students and performers. I investigate whether changes in temple and ritual practices and their accompanying dance forms are aspects of an expressive culture that reaffirm or perform religious faith, or whether they express a growing adherence to Hindu scripture and a dominant religious nationalism.

            I consider the historical relationship of Bharatanatyam to temple practice, as well as the history of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and that community's particular postcolonial settlement in Britain. These discussions are set within a theoretical framework that examines notions of diaspora and concepts of cultural, ethnic, and religious identity. I note new, fluid notions of identity among second and third generations of British Asians and consider them within the context of ethnicity and religious sentiment. Finally, I argue that a detailed understanding of Tamil dance practices and their relevance to the Tamil community not only acknowledges their presence in Britain but also reveals the significance of the dance forms within a political agenda.


Tamil Migration to the U.K.

Tamil migration from Sri Lanka to Britain separates into four main waves: the first, a postindependence migration after 1948 of professionals and younger Vellalar (high-caste Brahmin) Tamils arriving for university education. From 1960, as discrimination increased and ethnic relationships in Sri Lanka began to break down, more young Tamil men migrated to Britain. The escalation of Singhalese violence against Tamils in the early 1980s brought a third large wave of asylum seekers and refugees, which continued into the 1990s. The advent of the new millennium brought a change in migration trajectories--a marked decline in asylum migration but an increase in the regrouping and relocating of family clusters, particularly of Tamils from Europe (France, Switzerland, and Germany) to Britain. This secondary transnational migration has perhaps been propelled by the attraction of an English education for the younger generations and by the obvious support of a well-established, significant British community that includes not only Tamils from Sri Lanka but also from India, South Africa, Mauritius, Singapore, Trinidad, and Malaysia. No accurate numbers are available, but they are thought to total around one hundred fifty thousand to two hundred thousand people.4 The London Borough of Brent, in the northwest of the city, is home to the largest number of Sri Lankan Tamils, calculated to be in the region of twelve thousand. Brent is one of London's most culturally diverse boroughs where nonwhite ethnic groups now form the majority of the population. Other major settlements of Tamils in Greater London are in East Ham, Merton, Surbiton, Tooting, and Croydon. The community itself is not homogeneous, however, with significant differences in caste, social status, educational backgrounds, and migratory histories.

            The first wave of Tamil settlers, for the most part, did not get involved in politics, as their energies were focused on obtaining good educations and professional jobs and becoming established in the community--as many studies on diaspora groups indicate (Safran 1991, Vertovec 1997, Wahlbeck 2002). However, the second and third groups, having left a highly charged, volatile homeland, have been heavily committed to the Sri Lankan political struggle, and the 1980s showed a rise in ITTE membership and its activities in Britain and the rest of Europe. 5 Although one or two academic studies have discussed the ITTE's long-distance control of the Tamil diaspora (for example, Taylor 1994, Van Hear and Brun 20066), there is still little research that attempts to understand the current role of the ITTE in shaping diaspora dynamics.

            The links between the Tamil temples and political movements such as the ITTE, although implicit, are significant. During the 1980s, British ITTE members held their annual puja (worship) at the Highgatehill Tamil temple in north London, and during this same period, the Sri Muthumari Amman Temple in Tooting, southwest London, was founded by a Jaffna-born Tamil sent to London by the Tamil Tigers. Working as a trained accountant, he was financial controller of the ITTE in western Europe, responsible for coordinating the collection of funds from Tamils in the European diaspora and for procuring weaponry. Waghorne notes that "the constitution of this temple stipulates that any income above expenses be sent back to Sri Lanka for aid to projects" (2004: 218). Another temple in Wembley, northwest London, received a £25,000 investment from the ITTE to help get it established. Since the temples provide both ready access to the Tamil community and a potential source of income, the ITTE has sought control over temple events, management, and revenue. 7 At all three of these temples, Bharatanatyam performances by young Sri Lankan Tamil girls have taken place during festival occasions.

            The continuing instability in Sri Lanka, the escalation of gang violence in London,8 and the general residue of fear among the more recently arrived refugees certainly create an impact on the community here, as I found during my ethnographic work in the period 2002–5. Despite an outward appearance of openness and warmth on the part of the community, when I first attempted to arrange interviews, visit homes, or pursue questions further, I sometimes met wary, somewhat guarded or evasive responses. My questions about the ITTE went unanswered, but this is hardly surprising, considering the current political and historical factors at play.9 Chris McDowell noted similar problems he encountered when asking questions related to the ITTE in his study of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Switzerland, stating, "At this time and on a number of other subsequent occasions I received less than subtle telephone calls and messages that were designed to refocus my research away from ITTE politics" (1996: 35). There is no doubt that issues of resettlement, relocation, and dislocation feature powerfully in the lives of this immigrant community, directly affecting social relationships, especially with outsiders such as myself, and the transmission of their culture and religion.


Notions of Identity

How identity is constructed in a postcolonial, relocated diasporic milieu and the part played by dance practices in transmitting, representing, or reworking these sociocultural and religious categories of identity are fundamental issues in my research. Recent studies of South Asian dances and music in a diasporic setting reinforce the fact that "expressive cultural forms and practices are central to any articulation of ethnic identity" (Hyder 2004: 12; see also Nodwell 1996; Ram 2000; Katrak 2004, and Mackerras 2005), thereby confirming my own research findings on the importance of dance praxis in British Tamil identity formation.10 In addition, research into British Bhangra music and the new transnational Asian dance music (Sharma et al. 1996, Dudrah 2002) has examined the contested locations of South Asian identity in urban Britain and noted how these layered identities are articulated through the medium of music, in a trajectory similar to that of the dance.

            Identity's 'double implication'--uniqueness and sameness--and the question of how people are categorized and how they form their own self-ascription are essential factors that require unpacking in today's 'crisis of identity' experienced by many diaspora groups (Hall 1994: 274). In Tamil Hindu groups, stakeholders in upholding tradition--that is, first-generation immigrants and some of the older second generation--place a high value on traditional dances and music as a vehicle for achieving and expressing Hindu identity. Interviews with my respondents have revealed that boundary maintenance among Asian ethnic groups as theorized by Fredrik Barth (1969) and more recently by Rogers Brubaker (2005) remains a tool of this diasporic situation. An obvious example is through the use of language: the predominance of spoken Tamil in the Tamil temples and weekend schools asserts a distinctiveness that distances non-Tamil speakers.

            Brubaker notes that there has been an explosion of academic interest in diasporas since the 1980s, leading to an attenuation of the original meaning of the term. He argues, however, that three core elements still remain--that of dispersion, of homeland orientation, and of boundary maintenance (2005: 5–6). Boundary maintenance among migrants is to be expected, states Brubaker, only becoming relevant to sociological studies when it persists into the second, third, and subsequent generations. The maintenance of a distinct identity in the Tamil case by the second generation reveals that assimilation and boundary erosion are still being resisted.

            For many Sri Lankan Tamils in London, particularly the older generation, the classical South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam (in its postcolonial, revived mode) has become a marker of Tamil cultural and religious identity. Young Tamil dance students from mixed socioeconomic backgrounds 11 substantiated this view when they told me (in interviews and questionnaires) that "Bharatanatyam helps me learn more about religion" (Sahaana, age thirteen), that "Bharatanatyam is part of my culture" (Geetha, same age), and that "it teaches you and the audience about the gods of Hindu religion and prevents the culture and religion being forgotten, especially in the West" (Sophie, age sixteen). These statements reveal the traditional views the girls have been taught and do not appear to be representative of second- and third-generation Asians discussed below. They are typical of a more recently settled community.

            The ascriptions of religious and cultural identity maintained through the medium of dancing are common to many worldwide diasporic groups (see Cunningham 1998; David 1999, and O'Shea 2003). When examined, these notions reveal a view of culture that is handed down from generation to generation and that shares customs, values and beliefs. 'Culture' from this diasporic perspective is reified as a fixed and bounded object, despite the current anthropological theorization of culture as a nonstatic, dynamic, and evolving "dimension of phenomena" (Appadurai, 1996: 13). Older respondents speak of the importance of their children in Britain learning the Hindu culture. These articulations adhere to certain cultural beliefs and values and maintain a sense of difference by stressing embodied customs as a property of individuals or groups. They allude to an embodied concept of the past in the gestures and movements that belong, in the case of Bharatanatyam, to Tamil womanhood. We can find in the folding of a sari, the applying of kumkum on the forehead, or the fluent and practiced gestures that plait the hair everyday familiar body language of Tamil (and other Hindu) women that creates a feminized social body, and such gestures are included throughout much of the abhinaya section of Bharatanatyam narrative dances. For example, the movements of the nayika (heroine) in a story or myth show her dressing and preparing to meet her nayaka (hero) using stylized gestures of the hands and face. The social body is directly represented in this manner in many of the dance movements.

            The adherence to concepts of purity and women's honor is also a dominant aspect of the Tamils' profound commitment to and identification with their language and religion. Such adherence creates a type of moral superiority manifest in their cultural as well as social practices (Thornton and Niththyananathan 1984, McGowan 1993), one that maintains a certain traditional and conventional view. These themes of the purity of their language and culture--and the importance of women's chastity within Tamil civilization--have been held in high esteem by Tamils throughout their history and remain influential throughout the Tamil diaspora, causing Tamils to remain united across the world in their commitment to safeguard their language and culture (Pandian 1998). In dance practices, this attitude is revealed in a widespread aversion to such hybrid forms of movement as Bollywood dance12 and the retention of what is thought to be a purer form of Bharatanatyam such as that taught at Rukmini Devi's famous dance school of Kalakshetra, near Chennai, India.13 Several of the London Tamil dance teachers I interviewed presented the dance school of Kalakshetra as the epitome of authenticity, using features of the Kalakshetra style as criteria to judge standards of Bharatanatyam performance--a way of invoking the past to interpret the present.


Bharatanatyam in Temple Ritual

A group of six teenage Tamil girls ascend the tiny stage in the hall of the London Sri Murugan Temple, in East Ham, east London. They are dressed in bright, matching silk costumes of Bharatanatyam dancers, with gold jewelry, braided hair, flowers, and anklet bells, the epitomˇ of Tamil femininity. The occasion is the annual Hindu religious festival of Navratri, a nine-night celebration of the feminine power of the divine for which the girls have been preparing during the past several weeks. The taped music starts, and they begin with a traditional introductory item, the Alarippu, an abstract, highly rhythmically repetitive piece (author's field notes, 2004).

            In addition to performances of Bharatanatyam at festival times such as this, there is an increase in the provision of Bharatanatyam classes for young Tamil women, both in Britain and in the worldwide Tamil diaspora (Cunningham 1998; Ram 2000; Katrak 2004, and Chakravorty 2004). Many of these classes take place within Tamil temples or in adjoining halls. These classes allow the transmission of traditional culture and assist immigrants in maintaining Tamil identity in local diasporic settings such as Britain, where the acquisition of Tamil social, cultural, and religious values does not necessarily take place. By contrast, in India or Sri Lanka, these values are reinforced, often subconsciously, throughout a child's upbringing. Anthropologist Kalpana Ram argues that the conscious move to transmit and represent heritage through cultural practices indicates that there is already a sense of loss, a breakdown of the continuity of that birthright (2000: 262). In my interviews, first-generation Tamil immigrants to Britain frequently alluded to their concerns at the compromises made in their children's cultural upbringing because of both internal and external pressures, and many now actively direct or organize classes for the young people to learn their language and culture. 14

            My research suggests that the presence of Bharatanatyam dance classes at several major London Tamil temples signifies a new link between the dance and religious ritual and religious expression in the contemporary diasporic setting. It also signifies the increased importance assigned to the dissemination of dancing within religious practice. Bharatanatyam is currently being promoted as an important subject for study in three of the main London Tamil temples. Many community elders, dance teachers, temple devotees, and religious leaders consider it to be relevant to religious festivals in several other Tamil temples where performances by teachers, professionals, and students can be seen. It is taught at most of the Tamil Saturday and Sunday schools, some of which have significant links with the ITTE. The senior Hindu priest at the Murugan Temple in East Ham, London, is adamant that Bharatanatyam belongs in the temple, believing it to be a rich and devotional vehicle for true worship, a gift to the deity. He told me that classical forms of dancing and music should be supported and nurtured by the temples (interview, February 13, 2003).

            This same conviction about the essential place of cultural activities within the temple was stressed by one of the music teachers at London's Bhavan Centre. 15 She is convinced that, unless the temples play their part in encouraging the teaching and performance of traditional practices, these forms will die out. Her view is that art, culture, life, and worship of God cannot be separated and that the temple is the most suitable location for endorsing such spiritual and cultural expression. She spoke of a tradition of sacred hymns called Panchapuranam that were always sung as part of temple worship (interview, April 5, 2002). In the past, it was believed that, unless these were sung during the ritual (puja), the puja was not complete. Her concern is that the majority of young Hindus are not aware of these devotional songs, and so, during the Mahasivratri (Great Night of Siva) celebrations at the Highgatehill Murugan Temple in March 2002, some of her students sang two of these traditional bhajans to Siva. 16 A Bharatanatyam dance offering followed the recital, the first of its kind to be held in that temple.

            Explicit attention to the transmission of dances, music, and religion as signifiers of tradition, history, nationalism, and ethnic identity creates a new definition of Hindu femininity in the diaspora--one that is considered to be all the more important in the face of Western influences. For the Tamil middle class, Bharatanatyam promises respectability and a traditional femininity and is, therefore, a prized carrier of tradition viewed in this way. Andrˇe Grau, in her report on South Asian dance in Britain (2002: 7) 17 notes that Bharatanatyam is the most privileged, classical Indian dance form in Britain and is generally recognized today as a transnational and global form. However, in the predominant Sri Lankan Tamil temples and Tamil weekend schools in London, the teaching remains dominated by local modalities. The students are neither encouraged to attend international performances of South Asian dance nor are they made aware of the work of well-known performers in London and elsewhere in the U.K. In addition, most syllabi are written in Tamil, and the dance classes taught in Tamil, even though the second-generation students are more familiar and more at ease with the English language. 18

            This leads one to ask whether these Tamil community dance practices embedded in a religious setting are part of a cultural expression that unites dancing and religious practice. Are they distinct from the secular performances I witnessed in professional productions of South Asian dance in Britain and elsewhere? In partial answer to these questions, I present a brief discussion of the legacy of the devadasi dancers, a subject well documented by international scholars (Srinivasan 1983, 1985; Kersenboom 1987, 1991; Gaston 1996, and Meduri 1996, 2001). Examining the story of the devadasis and comparing it with today's South Asian community dance practices reveal some interesting parallels. The relationship remains an ambiguous one, as the complex, contested history of the original devadasi temple dancers indicates.

            The devadasis ('gift to god') were professional dancers and ritual specialists, who performed at temple rituals, temple events, and secular performances outside the temple complex, such as weddings. Indian literature provides sources as early as the fifth century CE, where descriptions of dancing girls in both temples and courts may be found. At certain periods in history, some of the larger South Indian temples would have employed hundreds of devadasis (Marglin 1990: 215; Fuller 1984). 19 Devadasis were found in many regions in India and their practices related to their local region and to the particular religious tradition to which they were attached. They had duties and obligations as part of their professional status and received financial rewards for their services from wealthy patrons. Some were themselves so wealthy that they could endow South Indian temples. Performances by devadasis continued into the early part of the twentieth century, despite growing opposition from the "antinautch campaigners." 20 During the reinvention and renaming of the dance form, from sadir devadasi dance to Bharatanatyam in the 1930s by Rukmini Devi and others, dancers would no longer perform for money. 21 This was a move to distance themselves from the so-called disreputable dancers, who, it was thought, were taking money for prostitution.

            Despite the demise of devadasi dancing in the first half of the twentieth century, there is evidence that different strands of devadasi temple dance are being transplanted and replicated in the contemporary Hindu diaspora in a creative manner, as I discuss below. This is not, of course, to suggest that girls are being sold or given to the temples or that prostitution exists--far from it. Yet many of today's Bharatanatyam performances and arangetrams 22 do unwittingly contain many elements of devadasi ritual, even though presented primarily on Western proscenium stages and despite the tensions and contested history of the dance and its relationship with the temple dancers. For example, we find evidence of Bharatanatyam dancers performing at weddings and social celebrations and continuing the tradition of secular entertainment established by the devadasis. Now, however, it is viewed as performance art and seen through the frame of a middle-class, chaste respectability.

            Anne-Marie Gaston (1991, 1996) analyses the extent to which the new, evolved global community practice of Bharatanatyam is based on the ritual performance of the devadasis. Aspects that had been rejected when the dance was thought to be purified and made respectable by the South Indian reformers is now an integral part of arangetrams and other performances, as I indicate below (see also Gorringe 2000, 2005; and Greenstein and Bharadvaj 1998). Gaston points out that the ritual first lesson for the young devadasi, although not currently followed in that form, has been replaced by a similar ritual offering of fruits, flowers, and gifts to the dance guru at the commencement of study. The dedication of the bells on stage, the offering of flowers (pushpanjali), and the form of the arangetram all follow the devadasi pattern. Gaston notes,

Other innovations of a quasi-religious type have also appeared. As a result, Bharata-Natyam has more rituals and ceremonies attached to it today than it had during the period of its revival, when strenuous efforts were made to dissociate it from sadir. (1996: 312)

Two of the many arangetrams I attended in London dedicated the first twenty minutes of the long evening to an elaborate, onstage puja and the ritual blessing of the bells for the dancer and the talam. 23 Prayers were chanted, offerings of fruit, flowers, and gifts made, and full obeisance performed by the dancer to her gurus, to the Hindu priest, and to her parents, in front of a fully decorated shrine at the front left of the stage. In a later discussion with one of the dance teachers, I learned that, if the families wished, a full puja was performed at the temple the day before or on the morning of the arangetram, rather than on stage (author's field notes, March 12, 2003). During this ceremony, the priest will chant Sanskrit verses dedicated to Siva, and the bells and costumes are blessed. Some of the Tamil parents make a vow at this stage, that after their daughter's (or son's) arangetram, a performance will be given to the temple as an act of devotion, called Samarparnam. Other aspects of arangetrams follow the traditional devadasi or temple ritual; for example, the mallavi, a musical piece played on the nagaswaram exclusively for the temple deities when they are brought out of the temple, is now choreographed for Bharatanatyam. At one arangetram, this was played by the onstage musicians as the opening dedicatory item; on another occasion, traditional temple musicians played the introductory music, using the nagaswaram (a double-reeded flute, like an oboe) and the tavil (a large, outdoor drum beaten with a curved stick on one side and the drummer's hand with metal plectra on the other).24

            Andrew Willford's (2002) research in Malaysia on Tamil Hindus during Tai Pusam 25 and Alleyn Diesel's (2003) examination of the Tamil community in KwaZulu-Natal corroborate my findings that dance practices, including trance dances, are a prominent part of the religious expression of diasporic Tamil communities, as I argue for the British Tamil groups. In contrast, during her work with Canadian immigrant Tamil dance groups, Janet O'Shea found that Bharatanatyam, rather than being a vehicle for religious sentiment and ethnicity, has become a medium for political and nationalist views (2001: 131–34), a topic that I consider next.


Issues of Nationalism and War

In Britain, the dance practices in the Tamil community have tended to maintain a traditional, bounded, somewhat monolithic view of Bharatanatyam where innovation is not encouraged. In other areas of Europe and North America, however, there is evidence of Tamil Sri Lankan nationalism (and support of the ITTE) through change and creative choreography in the dance form. For example, O'Shea's research (2001) in Toronto illustrates the work of two Tamil dance teachers who promote the establishment of a separate state of Tamil Eelam (Tamil homeland) through their Bharatanatyam choreographies. One produced a danced story about a military woman who sacrifices her male kin to the ongoing Sri Lankan war. The other, Vasu, teaching "under the auspices of the Tamil Eelam Society, a Toronto-based organization that exists primarily to provide social services for Tamil refugees but that also, as its name implies, embraces a "'counter-state nationalist' … view of the Sri Lankan political situation" (ibid.: 131), created a dance work that articulated a Tamil separatist nationalism and clearly associated Bharatanatyam with a solely Tamil history. This choreography was created especially for the commemoration of Black Tigers' Day, 26 and Bharatanatyam gestures were used to depict both agricultural work and fighting scenes of the war.

            The growing significance, too, of the celebration of Mahavira (Great Heroes Day),27 when the fallen Tamil heroes of the Sri Lankan conflict are honored, is evident not only in Sri Lanka but also in the worldwide Tamil diaspora, where Bharatanatyam dancing has become an essential ingredient of the day's celebration. These events are marked by elaborate ritual reminiscent of that in a temple or a traditional dance performance. Garlands are laid and lamps are lit, but the garlands are offered to effigies of the deceased rather than to the gods, and the lamps are lit by the families of the dead instead of by a priest. A particular occasion of this festival in Bologna, Italy, in November 2000 included a performance of Bharatanatyam by young girls and women that enacted in story form the violent struggles taking place in Sri Lanka, using gestures choreographed by their teacher to show warlike actions, automatic weapons, bombs, helicopters, and prisons. 28

            Here is an example of a religious and devotional dance form and religious practices such as rituals and processions being appropriated for a political and nationalist agenda. O'Shea writes of how the ITTE in Sri Lanka consciously cultivate a Tamil identity through the arts by sponsoring music and dance competitions and commissioning revolutionary dance pieces, some of them danced by female cadres of the rebel forces (2006). Creative choreography, innovative use of the conventional hand gestures, 29 and storytelling have become an accessible vehicle for the Tamil refugee and diaspora community to express their solidarity and support for the war and for the creation of a separatist state of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.

            Nationalist identity is for Tamils a multilayered, multivalent issue, particularly in the diaspora. Nira Wickramasinghe comments:

Defining Tamilness in purely national/territorial terms is problematic today, as transnational factors play a crucial role. Diaspora Tamils have multiple allegiances--to their new home in the West, to the land they left and to the dream of Eelam--and in various ways they have forged close and organic links with one form or another of Tamil nationalism. (2006: 254)

There is no doubt that these new rituals and cultural performances celebrating ITTE-linked events "have been incorporated into the festivals of the diaspora Tamils … and link them with their imagined nation of Eelam" (ibid: 266), again encouraging a "globalised localism" (Waghorne 2004: 171). Posters advertising Mahavira's Day for the Tamils settled in Toronto used the image of a Bharatanatyam dancer, thereby playing on both Tamils' great love of and identity with their culture and on their history and collective memories.

            Despite the local sense of place that dominates the London Tamil environment, there is evidence that Tamil dance events there, too, are involved in the production of both local and global elements in relation to Sri Lanka. In March 2005, the Sri Lankan Tamil community in south London hosted a program of music and dance to raise funds for a new charity, Tamil Aid, an organization established in January of that year to help with the rehabilitation of victims of the 2004 tsunami disaster in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The performers and audience were local Tamil children studying music and dance at the Surbiton Tamil Temple (south London), who were supported by an audience of their families and guests from the Sri Lankan community. The event was filmed by CeeITV, a global, digital Tamil channel that broadcasts to British Tamils and transnationally, stressing once more the strength of the local-global connections. The Sri Lankans' political sensibilities and cultural ties to their homeland are major factors in their diasporic lives, not necessarily in the sense of a longing to return but as displaced people whose political and financial support is devoted to rebuilding and supporting their homeland. Tamil globalization is, for the Sri Lankans, an adherence to an articulation of Tamil nationalism. 30


New, Fluid Identities

Recent theories of identity have addressed the complexity and hybridity of cultural identities being forged by young Asians in Britain. These identities have been termed "new ethnicities" (Hall 1988), an expression indicating how particular backgrounds, cultures, and experiences no longer bind these second- and third-generation Asians. As anthropologist John Eade points out, new ethnic identities "point to a liminal third space--the boundary between the opposites of insider/outsider" (1997: 147) where new narratives of belonging are negotiated. Concurrent with this is evidence of a shift toward a fluid hybridization of identity, as boundaries are eroded among second and third generations. The previously cited comments by young Sri Lankan Tamil girls, for example, contrast with the values of young Asians for whom Asian and Western club music is an essential part of their distinctiveness and individuality. Clubbing, attending music festivals, and driving in cars blaring loud music are modes of expressing a modern, 'Asian Kool,' global identity, which may either sit happily with traditional practices or eschew them altogether.31 Rehan Hyder comments that music, like the dance, is "a site of cultural negotiation and change, where identities are performed and transformed" (2004: 5), suggesting this provides evidence of a more hybrid, adaptable notion of cultural and ethnic identity.

            It is also clear, however, that the Hindu communities settling in Britain are at variable points of change. This is most evident with Gujarati Asians who have been well established in Britain since the early 1970s and some a decade earlier. Thirty to forty years of residence in Britain--first marked by efforts for financial survival, then by the successful formation of their communities, and followed for some by very prosperous business lives 32--have brought significant changes to their social and cultural life. Modes of behavior are modified to suit the particular context, and "most young Asians are very skilled at doing just this," writes Ballard (1982: 196). Wenonah Lyon's ethnographic study of a multiethnic community theater group in Oldham, Greater Manchester, reveals how the British Asian members of the group identified themselves by different names at different times, a use of assorted multiple identities to suit the requirements of specific situations. At times, they would stress their religious affiliation such as 'British Muslim' or just 'Muslim,' 'British Hindu' or 'Hindu'; but in other contexts, they might choose the terms 'Asian' or 'Pakistani.' Lyon notes that the classifications they used included "Asians, British, black, white, by area of origin … by sub-region within the area of origin … by religion … or language" (1997: 187).

            A similar response to the concept of being British was found by Les Back in his ethnographic studies of young working-class black and white groups in London. This study examined "new and challenging forms of cultural practice and identity formation that had been produced within metropolitan contexts" (Back 1996: 3). Some respondents were content with the terms 'black' and 'British' as an indicator of their identity; others had abandoned the notion of 'Britishness' entirely. For many of them, the islands of origin of their parents featured as an important aspect of their new ethnicity. Other black youngsters spoke what Back (ibid.: 8) terms a "harmony discourse," describing how color was of little importance to them and stating that everyone on the housing estate integrated freely. Back comments that the youths' description was of "a place where people can move in and out of different kinds of self-presentation" (ibid.: 8) as they willed (see also Eade 1997).

            For many young people, their cultural identity is a syncretic, fluid amalgam of past and future, Asian and British, black and brown--an identity that is multilayered and multifaceted. This more versatile, complex, and developing sense of identity of the younger generations expresses notions of culture and religion that are more personal and less circumscribed by the beliefs of preceding generations. It indicates an eroding of ethnic boundaries and of a greater influence of globalization in areas such as music, fashion, religion, and politics.

            In terms of religious identity, the study of second-generation Asians in Britain by Tariq Modood et al. concludes that they are negotiating their own "religion of private spirituality" (1994: 50). Those interviewed acknowledged religion to be important but felt it was a matter of personal spiritual fulfillment that each should find in his own way, perhaps more in line with the dominant beliefs of the British population. Regular, formal worship and attendance at the temple were no longer seen as a necessary structure in their lives, unlike the first-generation groups. Eade's study of young Bangladeshi Muslims in London's East End shows that they inhabit a "more complex, fragmented, deeply reflexive world where individuals can develop highly versatile interpretations of collective solidarities" (1997: 161). I would suggest that we are seeing not a single phenomenon of religious beliefs held by second- and, now, third-generation Asians but a highly variable articulation of selfhood that ranges widely from conservative and devout religious affiliation to a comprehensive rejection of ethnic religious practice. Along this continuum is a range of more individual viewpoints, which include such concepts as 'private spirituality,' 'personal spiritual fulfillment,' and 'unstructured religion' (author's field notes).

            Coupled with this are the vexed issues of cultural authenticity, where fixed ideas of an unchanging, traditional dance form are held by some teachers, elders in the community, and religious leaders as if part of a cultural essentialism. The dance performances at London Tamil temples have never included any creative or innovative work, as first-generation settlers keep strict control on the presentation of traditional, classical items. Here, the stakeholders who maintain tradition have also become the agents for preservation.


Concluding Comments

Among British Tamil groups, there is widespread evidence of a growth of dance activities that includes Bharatanatyam training and performance as part of religious and devotional practice. This new discourse of performed Tamil Hinduism raises questions about the role of such cultural practices within a religious setting, revealing how traditional orthodox views seek to retain Tamil language, Bharatanatyam dance, and classical music as part of a diasporic cultural and religious identity. There is indication that an increasing religiosity, apparent not just in Hindu communities but among other religious groups--for example, Muslim and Christian--is not always free from dogma or political agendas. These factors can be highly influential on a group's sociocultural expressions, as this paper has argued. In the case of Sri Lankan Tamils living in Britain, the unspoken presence of the ITTE in their lives has both a positive impact in supporting and securing their hopes for a Tamil homeland (Tamil Eelam) and a negative one, through experiences of intimidation and gang violence in the suburbs of London. I have also shown how Bharatanatyam is being used as a political vehicle in other Tamil diasporic communities, while in Britain it is seen by many as a vehicle for religious sentiments.

            As I have discussed elsewhere (David 2007), younger-generation Asians are emerging in Britain who appear to have no strong material, financial, or symbolic ties to their family homeland (whether India, Sri Lanka, or East Africa) and who see themselves as British, British Hindu, or British Asian, straddling both cultures yet bound by neither. These young Asians participate in a "global youth culture" (Saldanha 2002: 340) and hold a sense of global identity, unlike their parents and grandparents who struggled to maintain their identity through establishing space and place. These generations are resisting "the existing categories of ethnicity and identity … and articulating a multi-accented sense of self and belonging," states Hyder (2004: 10). For some, a transnational identity has meaning as a religious identity; for others, identity embraces a more complex, fragmented, and shifting sense of selfhood. But there is no doubt that the forces of the local, national, transnational, and global elements continue to effect a transformation on the lives of British Asians via their sense of ethnicity and their cultural practices.

            This ethnographic study has sought to redress the marginalization of certain dance forms such as those of the Tamil community, in religious contexts, and in the Hindu diaspora by gathering ethnographic insights at a local level and questioning the embodied identities manifest in the social space of the dance practices. This investigation of a British-based South Asian community not only exposes these particular traditions to a wider audience, enabling the growth of a richer understanding, but places them in the extended international field of dance scholarship. It reveals the value of a cross-disciplinary approach that draws from anthropology, cultural studies, folklore, and religious studies and offers fresh insights into the place of ethnicity, identity, community, and aspects of cultural transmission through the study of dancing.


Acknowledgments: Initial research and fieldwork in Leicester and London were carried out with the support of a three-year grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Recent further research work has been funded by the Ford Foundation through the Social Science Research Council, USA (SSRC) and is part of a wider international and comparative research project on transnational religion. The author would also like to thank colleagues at the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Conference in Bristol, U.K., in September 2006, for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper, as well as the editors and readers of this essay for their suggestions and critical engagement with the text.



            1 Bharatanatyam, originally known as sadir or dasi-attam, is an Indian classical dance style from southern India. It developed in Hindu temples and was renamed (and some would argue, reinvented) in the 1930s. Its contested history is well documented by scholars such as Amrit Srinivasan (1983, 1985), Avanthi Meduri (1996, 2001), Joan Erdman (1987), and Janet O'Shea (2001, 2003).

            2 Devadasi is a shortened form of the Tamil word tevaradiyal, which translates as the "slave of the God" (Srinivasan 1985). It literally means 'at the feet of the God' and is used to describe the hereditary female dancers in South India who were dedicated to the temple at an early age and performed dance and ritual worship before the deities.

            3 I made frequent visits to six Greater London temples between 2002 and 2005 and again between 2006 and 2007 at festival times, at times of daily worship, and at other times, to meet devotees for interviews and discussions. Methods used for gathering data included participant observation, in-depth and semistructured interviews, film, photography, and audio recording.

            4 One of the London Tamil leaders suggested these numbers during a discussion. Although it is a well-known fact that insiders often exaggerate their numbers, the estimated number of Sri Lankan Tamils in the U.K. is also given at one hundred fifty thousand to two hundred thousand on Brent Council's website ( : accessed April 23, 2009). As the 2001 government census did not distinguish Asian places of origin, there is no accurate record of the community's numbers. Danny Sriskandarajah (2002: 292) gives the total numbers of overseas Tamils as approximately eight hundred thousand: four hundred thousand in Canada; two hundred thousand in Europe; forty thousand in the U.S.; and thirty thousand in Australia, with the rest spread over several other countries.

            5 The ITTE was designated a terrorist group in 2001 by the British government and later by George W. Bush's administration in the United States.

            6 Unpublished current research presented by Nick Van Hear and Catherine Brun at an informal workshop day that focused on "Research on Tamils in the U.K." and was held in January 2006 at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society in Oxford (COMPASS), U.K.

            7 Human Rights Watch 18(1) (2006): 21.

            8 Despite the fact that majority of the London Tamils live peacefully within their local communities, during the last several years, there has been a worrying escalation of violence between gangs of Sri Lankan Tamil youths in London. By May 2002, there had been four violent deaths and up to two hundred other reported incidents; and in August 2003, an eighteen-year-old Tamil man was murdered by other young Tamil men, the fifth to be killed in that year. In 2007, two Tamil gang leaders in East Ham were jailed for extortion and violence in the community, and others were subject to Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ABSO), banning them for five years from entering the London borough of Newham (which includes East Ham).

            9 It is important to note that, once I had been accepted into the Tamil temples, respondents' homes, and Tamil Sunday schools, people were generous and helpful.

            10 See David (in press).

            11 These girls I interviewed attended dance classes at the London Sri Murugan Temple in East Ham, east London. Some parents are professionals--doctors, accountants, teachers--others own their businesses, such as retail outlets, and some of their parents are employed in shops or petrol stations.

            12 For further discussion of issues surrounding the practice and transmission of Bollywood dance forms in the diaspora, see David 2007.

            13 Rukmini Devi founded Kalakshetra in the late 1930s at Adyar, just outside of Chennai, India.

            14 Second-generation Asians are beginning to continue this work. One example of this is found at the Shree Ghanapathy Temple in Wimbledon, London, where the son and daughters of the founder of the temple now assist their mother in the financial, organizational, and cultural running of the temple. Geetha, in her thirties, arranges the children's classes in Tamil, Hinduism, Bharatanatyam, and classical music, and she is concerned that they have a good spiritual education at the temple. The classes were started originally when devotees at the temple asked for them and are mainly offered for the four- to fifteen-year olds. The older teenagers are encouraged to help with the classes (author's field notes, January 15, 2003).

            15 The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, or Bhavan Centre as it is now known, was established in London in 1972 as a British branch of the same organization in Mumbai. It is primarily a secular teaching institution, called 'Hinducentric' by some, and values a traditional approach to the learning of classical forms of music, dance, and languages. Since 1975, it has been based in

premises in west London, using the site of an old church and newly enlarged adjacent buildings.

            16 There is now also a group of adults at the Shree Ghanapathy Temple who are learning and performing these devotional hymns. This group performed as part of the week-long ritual events at the London Sri Murugan Temple during the consecration of their new temple in May 2005.

            17 The SADiB report "South Asian Dance in Britain: Negotiating Cultural Identity through Dance" (2002) was written at the end of a two-year research project (July 1999–July 2001) and funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project examined the role played by South Asian dance in Britain and was directed and the report written by anthropologist of dance Andrˇe Grau, reader in Dance at Roehampton University.

            18 The teenage girls in the Bharatanatyam class at the London Sri Murugan Temple were uncomfortable speaking Tamil and spoke to each other and responded to their teacher in English, even though she addressed them in Tamil. This teacher later explained to me that all her dance vocabulary is in Tamil and she is therefore not confident of teaching in English (author's field notes, September 28, 2003). Not all ethnic groups place such a high value on language maintenance as essential to ethnic identity. See M. K. David (1998) for research into the Malaysian Sindhi community.

            19 Saskia Kersenboom (1991), writing of her dance training by a traditional temple dancer, traces the dancer's family back for four generations of devadasis to the early 1800s.

            20 Antinautch campaigners followed the late nineteenth-century movement to abolish dancing in temples and were "related to a larger Indian social reform effort driven by two separate groups pursuing rather different goals: British Protestant missionaries and Indian social reformers" (O'Shea 1998: 50).

            21 Much has been written about the reinvention or revival of Bharatanatyam in the 1930s in India. Rukmini Devi played a central role in the revival, changing the content of the dance, the costumes, the training, and the performance to establish a nationalist, respectable, middle-class dance style suitable for young women, transforming it from a liturgical to a dramaturgical art form.

            22 Arangetram is a solo, debut performance after many years of intensive training. The word arangetram is Tamil and means the erru or ascending of the arangam or stage. It is written of in the third-century classical Tamil text Cilappatikaram, where a twelve-year-old dancer is described giving her first performance before the king (Gorringe 2005: 91). Instead of the arangetram's marking the commencement of a professional dancing career, as it traditionally represented, it has become a marker of the completion of training when the young woman stops dancing to go to the university or to take up a more lucrative professional career in medicine, dentistry, accountancy, or law. (See also Greenstein and Bharadvaj 1998, and Schwartz 2004: 89). An arangetram, argues Gorringe, has become "a symbol par excellence of ethnic heritage … a cultural commodity" (2005: 97–98), enabling the parents to present not only their daughter as an accomplished and marriageable young woman but to demonstrate their status and wealth to the community at large.

            23 Talam are the metal cymbals played to beat the foot rhythms in a Bharatanatyam performance by the nattuvanar, who also speaks the rhythmic syllables.

            24 These instruments were "traditionally the hereditary specializations of the Isai Vellala, [music landlords], a politically powerful community of Tamil Nadu" (Srinivasan 1998: 3). They play as an accompaniment to the deities, at times of ritual worship in the temple and at festival times, to initiate processions, and as a prelude to the deities' arrival on the streets during processions. As their sound is powerful, they are considered to be outdoor instruments.

            25 Tai Pusam is an annual Tamil religious festival dedicated to the deity Murugan, Lord Siva's son.

            26 The Black Tigers are the elite fighting force of the ITTE, trained to commit suicide in war and worshipped as heroes upon their deaths.

            27 This holy day's celebration was started in 1989 and then extended the following year to whole week. Its purpose is to channel veneration for all ITTE martyrs.

            28 See Natali (2002).

            29 For example, the hand gesture of alapadma, literally meaning 'an open flower,' has been used to depict a hand grenade.

            30 See David (in press) for extended discussion on the negotiation of religious identity in British Hindu groups.

            31 On 'Asian Kool,' see Sharma et al. 1996.

            32 See Barot (1991: 193).


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