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An Absent Cloth: Authority, Costume, and Embodiment in Kathak

Nicole Cox

In 2013, Aditi Mangaldas, a prominent New Delhi-based Kathak dancer, choreographer, and company director, declined to accept the "Creative and Experimental Dance Award" from the National Sangeet Natak Akademi, India's national institute of the performing arts. Mangaldas turned down this prestigious award because she felt that the institution had misclassified her life's work in Kathak as "creative and experimental" instead of "classical." She announced her decision in a letter, posted online, in which she calls for wider debate about the terms 'traditional,' 'contemporary,' 'classical,' and 'creative' and how they circulate in the Indian dance world. In it, she writes:

This is perhaps the right moment to introspect about what exactly is meant by 'Kathak.' Recently, the Kathak Kendra, the National Institute of Kathak Dance and a constituent unit of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, held a festival in which a young dancer was made to change her publicity material as her photograph portrayed her without a dupatta [a long fabric drape]. The letter issued to her, stressed that she abide by a certain form of "Vesh-bhusha." We need to beware of such authoritarian decrees. Wearing of a dupatta is not an essential hallmark of Kathak but a question of aesthetics, relevance and context, which the artists themselves must have the prerogative to choose. We need to distinguish between what is extraneous and what is quintessential to the art form. (Mangaldas 2013a)

     The letter sparked a series of written exchanges between Mangaldas and members of Kathak Kendra, as well as written and vocal commentary from scholars and dance artists in India and abroad. The ensuing debate, over the dupatta's place in classical Kathak costume, was discussed in social media posts, interviews, and articles on the Indian dance news website In addition, Mangaldas choreographed a dance for her company that responded to the controversy.

     Several respondents supposed that Mangaldas had been categorized as a 'contemporary' rather than 'traditional' Kathak dancer because her female dancers do not always use a dupatta as part of their costume. Some of the contributors further questioned the significance of a state institution requiring this piece of cloth to be worn by female dancers in order for their performance to be considered 'classical.'

     This paper will focus on a question that arose from my reading, watching, and listening to the varied responses to this debate. It was sparked by unexpected discussions of brutality and violence in these texts, sentiments that suggest further intrusion into the body than a conversation about woman's dress as a visual representation of national heritage. I ask, "What are the connections between the body of the dancer and this piece of cloth in the context of a contested national narrative of Kathak's history and tradition?"

     My data come from three sources: published letters and commentaries inspired by Mangaldas's letter,1 historical literature on Kathak dance, and personal knowledge from my training in Kathak in India and the United States. I explore the possibility that the dupatta itself (or more generally a piece of cloth wrapping the body and/or head) signifies in multiple ways based on a history that winds through different social, religious, and gender groups in South Asian society. I maintain that this cloth, present or absent, is embedded in the movement vocabulary of the dance form, thereby adding to ways the institutional requirement of 'traditional' costume could connect to the sense of bodily intrusion that is felt and written about by participants of the debate.

The Dupatta

Kathak is a classical Indian dance form from northern India practiced by both men and women. When studying and performing Kathak in both India and the United States, I encountered many different ways to use the fabric here referred to as a dupatta, as well as a range of associated meanings.

     Dupattas vary in length, size, material, and pattern and can be worn in many ways. As part of South Asian women's everyday dress or as formal attire, the dupatta is often draped over one shoulder, over the front of the body, or over the head. It can be purely decorative or a practical implement. Each variation represents the practices of women, past and present, from different communities within South Asia, and, in different contexts, the dupatta may acquire alternative significance or even a different name.

     The dupatta's existence as part of the Kathak costume echoes these everyday appearances and functions but with some specific differences. For example, when the dupatta is draped over the shoulder, the rest of the fabric may be wrapped around the waist or looped behind the dancer. In some Kathak classes, it becomes a means to encourage better posture; in others, it is worn for modesty to cover the front of the body; and in yet others, it is considered an unnecessary distraction and encumbrance. Some practitioners consider wearing a dupatta to be a necessary part of the costume only when performing devotional aspects of the dance, while for others, it is a necessary element of tradition regardless of the content of a performance. And for some, a dupatta is entirely optional.

     As I read the responses to the aforementioned debate and reviewed the historical literature about the dupatta in Kathak, I reflected on the number of times that I, as a dancer, had mimed using an imaginary veil, dupatta, or sari. I watched other Kathak dancers perform similar actions, using the absent veil to signify a shy nayika (female heroine) in a story that draws upon Hindu mythology. I contrasted this gestural storytelling with other sweeping arm movements that are part of the Kathak movement vocabulary but that function as nonreferential indexical signs, that is, movements that do not signify any particular narrative or symbolic meaning. I also examined colonial paintings of tawaifs (Mughal court dancers and courtesans) who are holding fabric above their heads, and I began to consider the effects of an imprint of cloth on one's bodily repertoire. Hume (2013) argues that clothing can exist with the wearer, not merely on the wearer. This adds an element of interaction between cloth and dancer, and it makes the process of wearing a sensory as well as purposeful act.

     Elements of movement and dress that make up what becomes recognized as Kathak thus exist in its daily embodied repertoire of use (Taylor 2003). Dress, including elements of costume, is a situated bodily practice (Entwistle 2000) and, as Butler (1993) notes, clothing contributes strongly to the production and performativity of gender and plays a role in the enforcement of (in this case nationalized) ideological rules about the socially gendered body. Concern about bodily appearance is disproportionately focused on women's dress for reasons that tie into gendered ideologies and imbalances of power in society (Entwistle 2000). The burden of national identity in the Indian context is often thrust upon women's bodies (Chatterjee 1993), and the disagreement over the dupatta is not alone in raising questions about women's costume in the enforcement of what is and is not classical Indian dance. Nandini Sikand (2018) writes about a similar set of conversations in 2005 (also published online by, which arose when a Malaysian Odissi dance company (another classical Indian dance form) toured India with a performance in which the female dancers did not wear an odlmi, a piece of cloth that crosses over women's costume blouses. The issue raised a "costume controversy" in which both Indian and international commentators debated whether this piece of cloth was a necessary part of the performance of Odissi.

     Utilizing a semasiological sensitivity to invisible and multiple meanings in human action signs (Farnell 1994, 2012; Williams 2003), we can embrace the principle that 'what looks the same does not mean the same.' Hence, a piece of cloth draped over the head and/or torso can, in different contexts or circumstances, be a dupatta, a ghungat, a veil, a sash, a scarf, or simply a head covering. It can be a marker of modesty, of tradition, of female independence, of control over the female body, or a resource for flirtation. Following semasiological theory, I approach thinking about the dupatta as a multimodal indexical sign2: "whose meaning is dependent upon (and relative to) the characteristics of the user and the contextual relationships in which these characteristics and signs are found" (Williams 2003:17). The significance ascribed to the cloth may be the result of its visual presence, the feeling of the dupatta through touch, and/or the kinesthetic, proprioceptive sense of movement while wearing or manipulating the cloth (Farnell 2012; Sklar 2007). The somatic and semiotic are thus intertwined and not separate in these discussions (Farnell 2012).

Locating 'Tradition'

In their official response to Mangaldas's letter, members of Kathak Kendra claim that Mangaldas was misinformed about the circumstances regarding the young dancer who was asked to change her photograph to one with a dupatta. They follow this by saying, "You want yourself to be considered in the category of Kathak awardees but on the other hand you are refusing the basic traditional attire of it" (Kathak Kendra in Mangaldas 2013a). The question is: which traditional attire? In her response, Mangaldas asks, "When you say traditional, what does one mean? How far back in history do we go?" (Mangaldas 2013a). Many contributors to the debate argue that the categories of classical, contemporary, and traditional and their connection to hierarchies of power needed to be rethought by the artistic community and by state institutions, whose approval influences national prestige and patronage.3

     The national project of codifying and classifying classical Indian dance forms, including the contribution of state institutions such as Kathak Kendra, has been well studied (Sarkar Munshi 2010, Walker 2014). The historical narratives on which they rely, however, are complex and highly contested. A survey of the history of Kathak is beyond the scope of this paper, but the following brief summary presents a number of contested claims about Kathak's history that are relevant to the current discussion.4 I do not wish to argue which group practiced the 'real' Kathak, but instead follow Walker (2014) in recognizing that each group of dancers performed variations of the dance vocabulary and technique that converge in the practice of Kathak we see today.

     Some practitioners and scholars root Kathak in Vedic texts, written over two thousand years ago. Others begin the story with the ancient cast of 'Kathaks,' male storytellers and Hindu temple dancers who lived before the Mughal Empire (pre-sixteenth century). Still others see resemblances of Kathak in the postures and gestures of human figures in ancient sculptures or in depictions of women in Indian miniature paintings from as early as the sixteenth century.

     The powerful tawaifs (court dancers) of the Mughal Empire are said to have brought the dance out of the temples. Colonial-period descriptions and images depict these courtesans or 'nautch' dancers practicing a dance similar to Kathak. The dance form is said to have fallen out of favor as Europeans equated the practice and lifestyle of these women with prostitution. In the early 1900s, dancers from reputable, largely Hindu, families revived the dances (Sarkar-Munshi 2010). In the case of Kathak, the Indian state sanctified a male lineage as the custodians of the dance and its legacy, provoking a recent scholarly feminist critique of the underlying gendered and classed power imbalances that continue into Kathak's present transnational community of practice (Chakravorty 2008; Walker 2014).

     These various histories, their interaction, erasures, and revival of certain narratives at the expense of others, make the question of 'tradition' in Kathak particularly complex and highlight the 'invented' nature (in Hobsbawm's sense) of what is being called 'national tradition' in this debate. Visual anthropologist and scholar of Indian dance Pallabi Chakravorty contributes the following statement to the debate:

These questions on tradition and modernity have been debated and more or less put to rest in the academy. We have read historian Eric Hobsbawm's "Invention of Tradition" as well as Partha Chatterjee, Asish Nandy, and many post-colonial and feminist theorists on the subject. I have personally written about the construction of the category called "classical," the gharana, the patriarchal construction of lineage and the marginalization of the tawaif/courtesan in history. (Chakravorty in Mangaldas 2013a)

In contrast, cultural heritage scholar Navina Jafa argues that Kathak does have a tradition, rooted in miniature paintings that depict images from Hindu mythology, and she claims that the dupatta is an accepted part of this well-known history. Despite the existence of alternate scholarly and practitioner views, this is a widely held opinion and the official narrative promoted by institutions like Kathak Kendra in insisting on a 'basic traditional attire'.

Nationalizing Artistic Culture

Kathak Kendra claims never to have told dancers what they should or should not wear, but officials also state that their purpose is to teach 'tradition' to young dancers, including 'proper dress' (Kathak Kendra in Mangaldas 2013a). The institution explicitly positions itself as an authoritative protector and educator of young (largely female) dancers.5 Mangaldas responds by acknowledging their authority but counters that "national institutions have a very responsible role to play and need to be inclusive of all the Kathak streams that are vibrant and active" (Mangaldas 2013a).

     Mangaldas's reference to "Kathak streams" invokes a long and complex history of diverse forms of Kathak that have quite recently been subsumed under a nationalist umbrella. Chakravorty (2008) and Walker (2014) shed historical light on the subject by noting that only after Indian independence did the state became the official patron of culture:

[T]he primary responsibility for protecting, preserving and promoting India's cultural heritage was taken up by the central government which, following the Nehruvian vision of 'unity in diversity,' took a leading role in showcasing India's cultural heritage. (Chakravorty 2008:67)

Sangeet Natak Akademi became part of this national apparatus, providing funding for Kathak scholarships and training, and organizing conferences, seminars, and performances. Historian Margaret Walker (2014) suggests that the decisions made about what constitutes Kathak, especially in the context of Kathak Kendra, can be thought of as a particular cultural policy forwarded by a national project, although, she warns, "It is simplistic and arguably inaccurate, to claim that certain individuals purposely set out to invent tradition. . . . [As] Kathak was revived and institutionalized it was also gentrified and Sanskritized by individual dancers and teachers" (Walker 2014:127).6, 7

     The process of erasure that homogenizes the diverse forms of Kathak practice takes place during this production of a national narrative in the service of the national project. As Walker puts it,

[T]he "temple narrative" history of Kathak, like other contemporary histories of Indian music and dance, needs therefore to be understood in the context of the "national cultural project" (Subramanian 2000:4); what Chatterjee identifies as "the hegemonic project of nationalist modernity" (Chatterjee 1993:13). (Walker 2014:127)

Chakravorty (2008) also utilizes the Gramscian concept of hegemony to talk about the power dynamics at work in this national culture project that has shaped Kathak and its official history. As Miller and Yudice summarize, "[H]egemony is secured when the dominant culture uses education, philosophy, religion, advertising and art to make its dominance appear normal and natural to the heterogeneous groups that constitute society" (Miller and Yudice 2002:7).

     As an institution of education, Kathak Kendra plays a role in normalizing the Hinduization of Indian national culture. The quest to identify and construct Indian 'tradition' is a national project that has tended to erase or mask Islamic contributions in favor of Hindu elements. To claim which elements of Kathak come from Hindu or Muslim contexts oversimplifies the history of interaction between these two religions, peoples, cultures, and modes of dress. In some cases, the identification of certain elements as Hindu or Muslim are tied to the religion of the practitioners and, in other cases, to the contexts in which the dance was performed. Temple dancers were Hindu. Mughal courts were part of an Islamic empire, but the dancers may or may not have been Muslim. Sufi influences come from an Islamic practice, and the male lineage of the dominant narrative of today's Kathak claims a Hindu family line. Today's Kathak has elements of all these people, religions, and cultural contexts.

     Despite these varied historical influences, the current dominant narrative roots the dupatta in Hindu traditional women's dress (Walker 2014). Chakravorty comments, "[W]e know that what some accept as the 'traditional' Kathak costume is a modern invention of a Hinduized Kathak" (Chakravorty in Mangaldas 2013a). The view of some contributors that the dupatta follows the tradition of women in the Hindu tradition, and so must be worn precisely because of this significance, contributes to the Sanskritization (Coorlawala 2004) of the dance form. The dupatta thereby becomes a symbol of modesty, the mark of a 'good' Indian woman rooted in a national construction that erases the contributions of practitioners who do not fit this ideal model.

     Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1995) suggests that silencing is structural because historical narratives are produced in contexts of unequal power to construct and legitimate. In this case, the hegemonic power of a state cultural institution, which is constitutive and reflective of entrenched religious, class, and caste-based power imbalances, enables the long-standing normalization of Hinduized and Sanskritized national cultural narratives. This legitimates their version of history, one that determines the use of the dupatta as necessary to this 'classical' form of dance, thereby silencing opposing historical narratives. The 'classical' label denotes a category that carries prestige and higher national recognition than popular, contemporary, or folk dance forms. State patronage similarly favors 'classical artists' for funding, thereby directly affecting the ability of artists to make a living and be recognized for their artistic practice (Katrak 2004).

     The debates over the dupatta and concepts of the 'classical' continue to explore the consequences of an institutional requirement that the dupatta's physical presence become a necessary part of a female dancer's Kathak costume. I now expand upon Walker's (2014) argument that the dupatta is woven into the movement vocabulary of the dance itself. This raises the question of whether the physical presence of the cloth is actually necessary for the dance to be considered 'classical.'

Cloth and Kathak's Embodied Repertoire

According to a description by Kumudini Lakhia, a Kathaka (male storyteller) would use the dupatta to narrate stories through movement: "by using just his scarf and manipulating the cloth around his body in different shapes, he illustrated the various characters in his stories" (Lakhia 2004:5). In today's Kathak, male dancers either do not wear an extra piece of fabric or wear a sash tied around their waist. For female dancers, however, the dupatta is pinned securely to the costume in a way that actually precludes the dancer from manipulating the piece of fabric in performance. Instead, the dancer (male or female) uses a series of hand gestures called "mudras" to create iconic symbols that an educated viewer recognizes as representative of particular characters or actions. These gestures include the 'showing' of the veil, ghungat, or dupatta and enact the manipulation of an imagined piece of cloth. This is often done in the 'abhinaya' sections of a Kathak performance during which the dancer enacts stories inspired largely from Hindu mythology. This move from the dupatta as worn to the dupatta as enacted but virtual brings the fabric and its manipulation into the movement vocabulary of the dance itself, and it becomes much more than an element of the costume. As we shall see, the action signs that signify manipulation of an imagined or virtual dupatta can refer to multiple signifieds (meanings) depending on the context.

     Complicating the nationalist promotion of a Hindu legacy, Kathak today retains parts of the dance arts practiced in Mughal courts, with elements linked to this Islamic context; for example, aamad (a slow composition toward the beginning of a performance), Sufi traditions, and fast turns and rapid footwork that are also said to have developed in these courts (Walker 2012). Colonial writings can help uncover this legacy, as they describe nautch girls dressed in flowing fabric, gesturing with a ghungat (piece of fabric), and looking through a sheer veil. Embodied elements of the Nautch (as this dance was called) are deeply absorbed in the movement vocabulary of Kathak today—for example, "the arresting glance" at the end of each bol (Walker 2014).8 To quote Walker, the "'graceful swaying' of thaat (composition that begins a performance), the 'gliding' walk, graceful turns, and manipulation of the veil in the travel writings [seem] easily to evoke the items still called by the name ghunghat ki gat" (composition of stylized walking while showing a veil) in present day Kathak practice (Walker 2012:285). A colonial era journal written in 1832 contains the following description of the nautch girl's dance:

From behind this screen [of their veils] they performed all the 'coquetterie' of their dances, which indeed is all the dance seems to be designed for; covering the face with it one moment, the head turned with a languishing air on one side, then drawing it away with an arch smile, and darting the glances of their dark eyes full upon you. (Captain Skinner in Walker 2014:63)9

Although today's Kathak dancers do not manipulate a loose piece of fabric while dancing, they continue to perform these movements of ghungaat ki gat (more often called gat nikas today) and skillfully mime the manipulation of a now-absent but imagined fabric. As Walker (2012:288) puts it, they are "subtle but insistent witness" to the legacy of the art of the Mughal courtesans, a legacy in danger of erasure in the state cultural policy that insists on a singular concept of Kathak 'tradition'.

     An iconic Kathak pose presents a dancer standing with one hand held above the head and the other arm and hand held out to the side. A common explanation of this, heard during my Kathak training, is that the hand above the head signifies the feather that Krishna, a Hindu god, wears in his headband.10 However, in colonial era photographs nautch court dancers hold similar positions; each hand is holding the edge of a piece of fabric. The fabric could then be manipulated in the ways described in the colonial writings about the nautch. According to Walker, "[T]he high-caste female dancers of the twentieth century thus carefully learnt how to pull and remove imaginary ghungats (of nautch dancers), but believed that they were learning the devotional dance of the male Kathaks" (Walker 2014:120).

     This is not to say that the dupatta depicted in Hindu miniature paintings and the veil worn by nautch dancers depict the 'same' piece of cloth or that a sequence of mime depicting Krishna's feather and a gesture that symbolizes the pulling of a veil are somehow the same. Each action that 'looks the same' signifies differently and carries different significance because of its belonging to a separate context. However, it is interesting to note that the fabric intended to signify a Hinduized conception of female propriety and tradition is historically connected to the very tradition that a Sanskritized discourse seeks to erase––the stigma of Mughal court dancers.

     Enacting or wearing the dupatta not only signifies the movements of a Hindu woman, but it also indexes the 'stylized walk' of the gat nikas. Likewise, the iconic Kathak position previously described signifies not only Krishna's feather but also the nautch girl's veil. The multiple potential 'signifieds' (meanings) attached to a single 'signifier' (movement or movement phrase) carries implications for the position espoused by Kathak Kendra. By requiring female dancers to wear a dupatta for a performance to be considered classical, they are enforcing a singular meaning linked to virtuosity. This influences the way the dancer is told to imagine her own embodied action––with contradictory consequences. Is one to move as the Mughal courtesan while thinking the spirituality of figures from an idealized Hindu past? With so many mixed histories available, what does that piece of cloth, or the trace of it in a repertoire of movement actions, signify? The imposition of a single significance becomes a bodily intrusion.

Connecting Symbolic and Physical Violence

The concepts of symbolic violence (Topper 2001) and structural violence (Farmer 2004) identify links between bodies, domination, and suppression that help explain the various mechanisms in this case, whereby a prestigious national award (or lack of one) can come to feel like a physical harm without the typical signifiers of blood, bruises, or damage to one's health. Instead, this context brings up the violence of erasure.

     Trouillot (1995) explains that erasure is an inevitable consequence of historicity, but what and who are erased from history is a consequence of power. In this case, at issue is national and state power to control a narrative that specifies what will count as a dance's 'tradition'. One way that erasure works is through language use (Irvine and Gal 2009). Here, the power to enforce the presence of the cloth and assign it a singular name (the dupatta) erases alternative narratives. The dupatta is a piece of cloth that has had various names, uses, and significations within the history and present practice of Kathak. To assign a singular significance and insist on its practice are not only an erasure of certain people and pasts but also work toward muting the visibility of present practitioners, like Mangaldas, whose practice does not conform to the dominant narrative.

     In a letter to Mangaldas, Kathak Kendra contends that "Kathak has a dress code like other forms. It is the first identity of any dance form. . . . [Y]ou identify any dance form through the costume first and that is the essential part of it" (Kathak Kendra in Mangaldas 2013a). In response, Mangaldas asks, "Is the dupatta the hallmark of Kathak?"(Mangaldas 2013b). In doing so, she poses a question about the value of the dancer as an embodied, knowledgeable, and skilled actor. Is a dance practice defined by the actions, technique, and training executed by a skilled embodied person as agent or the cloth that dresses and adorns the body? Srinivasan (2011) maintains that the dancer's labor is essential to the dance form. To say a dance is the cloth erases the labor of the highly trained person who adorns the fabric and the practitioners who have shaped the form over generations. The statement by Kathak Kendra at best relegates the embodied person to the background. The erasure caused by the drawing of such boundaries (by any institutional entity) is the mechanism through which people disappear from the record or, in this case, from recognition and carries the danger of silencing (Irvine and Gal 2009, Trouillot 1995).

     The general (though not uncontested) consensus among many contributors to the debate is that requiring the dupatta constitutes an undue imposition and an instrument of control over women's bodies. The previous discussions of erasure and silencing allude to a symbolic or structural violence, but references to physical violence are also present in this discourse. In her response, Dr. Pallabi Chakravorty starts out by asking, "Has the dupatta become a noose?" (Chakravorty in Mangaldas 2013a), likening the fabric to a mechanism of execution, while Mangaldas goes on to describe the award controversy and following correspondence with Kathak Kendra as an act of brutality.

     Violence can be broadly defined as "the exercise of force that inflicts injury or damage" (Waterson 2013:1). The damage caused by erasure is a form of structural violence that "constricts the agency of its victims. It [metaphorically] tightens a physical noose around their necks, and this garroting determines the way in which resources—food, medicine, even affection—are allocated and experienced" (Farmer 2004:315) In this case, state approval, promotion, and labeling of artists affect patronage, economic livelihood, and ability to practice their art.

     One month before Mangaldas turned down the award, a young Indian woman was raped and murdered on a bus in New Delhi. The incident gained international attention and sparked protest against the violence women face in Indian society (Timmons et. al. 2012). In response, Mangaldas choreographed an evening-length work for her dance company, titled Within, which brought the dupatta debate and this tragedy together into one embodied commentary on brutality. (A trailer for Within can be found at

     The performance begins with a 'contemporary' and 'creative' portion in which dancers in ragged costumes run, writhe, and fall desperately on a darkened stage to ominous music. The thick oppressive aesthetic atmosphere is made even more anxiety-provoking by a heavy dramatic sound score. In the second half, the dancers wear dupattas as blindfolds, making them appear faceless and seeming to strangle and choke the dancers as they execute virtuosic competence in Kathak movement technique.

     Explaining the choreography in a BBC interview, Mangaldas says,

A brutal word you say, a brutal thought you get, a brutal intolerant behavior that you have. . . . There was a whole debate about the Kathak dancer having to wear the dupatta which is like a little bit of fabric that basically you need to drape around yourself . . . so that was in my mind you know, it happened previous to this. And I said well ok we are talking about brutality. This is in a way a brutality of a different kind you know you're imposing something on women and giving reason but actually it's brutalizing the freedom of women. So what we did is we removed the women part of it and we just took these dupatta and we closed our faces, wrapped them around our heads, men and women, all the dancers. (Mangaldas in BBC 2013)

Mangaldas is not the only one to make these connections; other commentators also explicitly link the debate about the dupatta to this tragedy. The fact that the dupatta is discussed alongside discourse about the tragedy suggests that the national authority over the presentation of an embodied self impacts the felt experience of the female dancing body. Brutality as a term implies a 'bodilyness' in the sense of a physical impact on an embodied person. It is not just a question of being clothed in an element of control but being physically impacted.

     One scholar who disagrees with Mangaldas's stance claims that the debate takes attention away from the real problem in the Kathak world at that present moment—the opening of a new Kathak Kendra location in a neighborhood deemed unsafe for female dancers. The juxtaposition of this conversation, about protecting the young virtuous female dancers from the dangers of rape and violation, and the commentary on state control as a violence against women is striking. Is it the state's responsibility to 'protect' and control women? The dupatta is not categorically an object of control. Its significance is contextually and interpretively subjective. But the enforcement of a particular piece of cloth here became recognizable as a symbol of state institutional intrusion and brutality. In Within, Mangaldas takes this symbol and remotivates it as an instrument through which she protests the words and demands of a state institution.


Aditi Mangaldas's refusal to accept a national award for her dancing sparked a vibrant conversation among practitioners, scholars, and administrators involved in Kathak, both in India and abroad. For several contributors to this debate, the state's use of patronage and national awards to enforce a hegemonic conception of Indian identity through the policing of dupatta usage constitutes a violence against female practitioners. The conversations that ensued link the erasure of certain female legacies with a struggle to be recognized as legitimately deserving of the highly valued 'classical' label, as well as a wider context of the status of women in Indian society and state institutions. The physicality of these violences increases when we consider the dupatta, and what it signifies, as embedded in the physical actions of Kathak dancers. The evocations of violence in the discursive responses to Kathak Kendra's institutional enforcement of constructed national heritage, and Aditi Mangaldas's refusal of these boundaries, are best understood by looking within the past and present performance, politics, and embodiment of Kathak and the many varied contributors to its practice.


A previous version of this paper was presented at the Central States Anthropological Association (CSAS) annual meeting in 2017. I am grateful to the 2017 CSAS graduate paper reviewers for their thoughtful comments on this previous version of the work and to Dr. Brenda Farnell for her valued feedback on previous drafts.



1 Most responses have been compiled by For a selection of commentaries not directly referenced in this paper, see Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company (2013), Dasani (2013), Mangaldas (2013), and Mehra (2013).

2 Using Burks's expansion on Peirce's conceptualization of an indexical sign (Burks 1948).

3 See Ghosal (2012) for an analysis of the issues surrounding tradition and classical Indian dance.

4 For a full discussion of Kathak's multiple histories see Chakravorty (2008), Kothari (1989), and Walker (2012).

5 See Chatterjee (1990) and Walsh (2004) for an extended discussion of the 'women question' in India's postcolonial 'new patriarchy,' an ideology holds that an 'ideal' Indian women is educated in a nationalized Hindu concept of tradition and grounds her family—and by extension nation—in India's unique spiritual traditions: "The new patriarchy advocated by nationalism conferred upon women the honour of a new social responsibility, and by associating the task of 'female emancipation' with the historical goal of sovereign nationhood, bound them to a new, and yet entirely legitimate, subordination" (Chatterjee 1990: 248).

6 A discussion of colonial and postcolonial-era negotiations of Indian identity construction is beyond the scope of this paper but is a significant and complex piece of this process. Walker states, "[T]he nationalist project drew strongly on the legacy of the eighteenth-century Orientalists and their vision of an ancient and glorious 'Hindu' golden age"; and "[T]he nationalists' negotiation of the dichotomies of tradition and modernity, Orientalism and Anglicism, and subjugation and independence led to a homogenization" (2014: 117).

7 Expanding on M. N. Srinivas's definition of 'Sanskritization,' Uttara Asha Coorlawala says that

"Sanskritization" had come to denote a deliberate self-conscious return to ancient Vedic and brahminical values and customs from a new intellectual perspective. . . . In dance, sanskritization has become a legitimizing process by which dance forms designated as "ritual," "folk," or simply insignificant, attain social and politico-artistic status which brings the redesignation, "classical." (Coorlawala 2004: 53-54)

Sarkar-Munsi (2010) also uses Coorlawala's theorization to explore the process of nationalizing Indian dance forms.

8 A bol is a short movement composition within a longer sequence of dancing.

9 There are many issues to unpack in relying on colonial writings and pictures. I use them in this paper while remaining cautious of the oppression and orientalist gaze of the British colonizer. However, as Walker (2014) points out, the colonial journals, photographs, and painting are one of the few places where we might be able to read into the lives of the nautch girls and tawaifs, after having been erased and demonized in the 'official' Indian historical record of the classical dances. I use the colonial record in this spirit, to unerase the lives of these women.

10 This action is also described and illustrated in Phillips (2013).

References Cited:

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company—The Drishtikon Dance Foundation
2013. Dear Dancers and Dance Lovers. Facebook. 29 January.
2013. Choreographers: Aditi Mangaldas and Jasmin Vardimon. In The Conversation. N.d.

Burks, Arthur W.
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Butler, Judith
1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits Of "Sex." New York: Routledge.

Chakrabarti, Ajachi
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