Ritual, Space, Mimesis

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SakelaI am conducting research about the sakela, a ritual lay dance of the Rai communities settling in Eastern Nepal, about who only few anthropological studies have been conducted until now (for example Allen 1976, McDougal 1979, Gaenszle 1991, Hardman 2000, Schlemmer 2004, Nicoletti 2006, von Stockhausen 2006). The sakela dance of is performed in baisakh (April/May) and/or mangsir (November/December) by men and women moving together in a circle around a ritual centre. The basic form of the dance is a simple step, which, ideally after each completed roud, is added by meaningful bodily gestures. These short sequences of movements are repeated several times and perceived as one unit of mimetic action. Most of the bodily gestures are associated with a stanza of a song that either explains or comments the gesture or has an independent narrative. Hence, the sakela performance is gestural recitation and oral recitation simultaneously.

To date no in-debth ethnographic study of this dance tradition has been conducted. One of the few publications dealing with the sakela has been written by Chatur Bhakta Rai (2008 / BS 2065). When I took my first dance steps and initially began to note them down on paper some ten years ago the sakela still was a rural phenomenon: a form of dance for old people, closely interwoven with local mythology and everyday agricultural life. Nowadays it is the urban youth of Kathmandu dancing a new form of sakela on the big festival grounds to celebrate Kirat National Day or seasonal festivals. Sakela has taken on new political dimensions and meanings, and has become part of a wider public display of ethnic Rai identity within the past decade.

While analysing the semiotic system of the dance as such, looking at several layers of meaning encoded in song lines, gestures and connoted mythological background, my approach is also informed by theories of performance and ritual (such as Schechner 1988, 2002, Grimes 2004). Sakela, seen as the ‘staging’ of a ritual, whether in rural or in urban surroundings, emerges as a key public event in which (ethnic) identity is negotiated, defined, communicated, embodied, and emotionally expressed. Following theoretical approaches of studies in cultural memory (Assmann 1997) and mimetic embodi­ment (Kersenboom 1995), the dance is understood as mnemonic device used to represent and embody cultural knowledge, so that a study of it will provide insight into this knowl­edge system. Under this approach mimesis is understood in its oldest, Pythagorean sense, as also applied in dance theory: as the embodiment of the mental or spiritual in dance expression (for mimesis and ritual see Wulf 2005).

The first aim of the research is thus to document the semiotic system of the three main components of the sakela, based on the individual movement units: the movements, the song lines in words and music, and the mythological back­ground. The second aim is to analyse the strategies of the agents in the context of the performance, along with contemporary modifications of these strategies. An important question is how the layers of meaning are experienced, interpreted and embodied in the performative context by organisers, ritual specialists, dancers and different types of audiences.
Archive of research data at the HAV (Himalaya Archive Vienna): https://hav.univie.ac.at/collections/dumi-rai/

Research project funded by the Austrian Fonds zur Förderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung FWF  between 2011 and 2016.
Head: Univ.-Prof. Dr. Martin Gaenszle, Institute of South Asian, Tibetan, and Buddhist Studies (ISTB), University of Vienna
Team-members: Alban von Stockhausen, Marion Wettstein
Sub-Project: Ritual and Mimesis: Identity based on dance
Local assistants, Nepal: Tejmaya Rai, Praveen Puma
Local advisors, Nepal: Chatur Bhakta Rai, Novel Kisor Rai, Netra Mani Rai, Shree Kumar Rai
Affiliations: Center for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS), Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu

References cited:

  • Allen, Nicholas J. 1976. Studies in the Myths and Oral Traditions of the Thulung Rai of East Nepal. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation. Oxford University .
  • Assmann, Jan. 1997. Das kulturelle Gedächtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen. München: C.H. Beck.
  • Gaenszle, Martin. 1991. Verwandtschaft und Mythologie bei den Mewahang Rai in Ostnepal. Eine ethnographische Studie zum Problem der ‘ethnischen Identität’. Beiträge zur Südasienforschung 136. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
  • Grimes, Ronald L. 2004. “Performance Theory and the Study of Ritua”. In: Peter Antes, Armin W. Geerts & Randi R. Warne (eds.). New Approaches to the Study of Religion (vol 2): Textual, Comparative, Sociological, and Cognitive Approaches. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Hardman, Charlotte E. 2000. Other Worlds: Notions of self and emotion among the Lohorung Rai. Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers.
  • Kersenboom, Saskia.1995. Word, Sound, Image: The Life of the Tamil Text. Oxford and Washington: Berg. With CD-i Bhairavi Varnam, Eindhoven: Philips/ CODIM Interactive Media.
  • McDougal, Charles. 1979. The Kulunge Rai: A Study in Kinship and Marriage Exchange. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar.
  • Nicoletti, Martino. 2006. The Ancestral Forest: Memory, Space and Ritual. Among the Kulunge Rai of Eastern Nepal. Kathmandu: Vajra.
  • Rai, Chatur Bhakta. 2008 (B.S. 2065). “Kirātharuko āsthako dharohar: sākelā ubhaulī-udhaulī”. In: Nipsung 28 (srāvan 2065). pp. 67-73.
  • Schechner, Richard. 1988. Performance Theory. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Schechner, Richard. 2002. Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York: Routledge.
  • Schlemmer, Grégoire. 2004. Vues d’esprits; La conception des esprits et ses implications chez les Kulung Rai du Népal. Lille: Atelier National de Reproduction des theses.
  • Stockhausen, Alban, von. 2006. Guiding the Way: Death Rituals of the Dumi Rai of Eastern Nepal (Unpublished MA-Thesis, University of Zürich).
  • Wulf, Christoph. 2005. Zur Genese des Sozialen: Mimesis, Performativität, Ritual. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.




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