Urmimala Sarkar Munsi: On Dance and Preservation in India

By Hanna B. Hölling

Curious about how performance and dance conservation is practiced in India and what can be learned from Indian dance research and dance as research, the team of Performance: Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge has recently met with Urmimala Sarkar Munsi, who is an expert in social anthropology, dance studies and choreography. As a Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, Professor Sarkar teaches and researches various aspects of dance, including its potential to aid survivors of sexual violence. Her work centers on the intersection of gender, sexuality and dance. As a dancer, Urmimala has performed extensively both in India and abroad. Her research focuses on the politics of performance and its social issues. She has conducted groundbreaking research on dance and affect, cultural unlearning, and auto-ethnographic approaches in dance.

Urmimala Sarkar Munsi

Our conversation with Professor Sarkar started with a question about how dance is conserved and represented in India, both as an embodied practice and through documentation and archiving. We discussed the challenges of avoiding the imposition of predetermined, government-mandated, and largely Western modes of preservation and representation on the fragile social and temporal structures of dance. Urmimala noted the absence of discourse around dance in India. Dance is often addressed in the context of history instrumentalized to serve nationalistic agendas, a history that has been unified and universalized regardless the vast diversity of regions which it concerns. As elsewhere in the world, anthropologists and preservationists often possess a dictatorial manner of deciding how to preserve culture, without considering how people remember or want to keep their traditions. In the past, anthropologists, missionaries, and travelers produced writings that either made invisible or exoticized local cultures, imposing onto them imaginary attributes of “war tribes” and/or “primitive societies,” among many others, that tend to ignore the profusion of their ancestors’ everyday living and being in the world.   

Drawn to teaching dance many years ago, Urmimala refused to follow the typical format of Euro-American university spaces. In India, dance seems to operate either as history or as a product of a certain kind of preservation. In her wish to avoid becoming a preservationist, she pursued a conversational approach: She preferred to talk about things that needed to be lived, not necessarily as museum pieces, but as active, working and vital matter that people could not only converse with but also continue doing and reperforming. The approaches to promote a more dynamic and inclusive understanding of dance and performance have become her lifetime project.

Today, Urmimala teaches an exciting curriculum at the School of Arts and Aesthetics of Jawaharlal Nehru University that attracts a variety of students. By conducting fieldwork and encouraging students to engage with living traditions, festivals, and materials, she wishes to create a dialogue about what should be conserved and what can be changed or interpreted differently. In this context, Urmimala has recently published a book about the modernist dancer and choreographer Uday Shankar (Uday Shankar and His Transcultural Experimentations: Dancing Modernity, 2022) that highlights his experience of dance making, his techniques of bodily expression and the losses and gains in preserving his work.

Urmimala Sarkar Munsi, Uday Shankar and His Transcultural Experimentations: Dancing Modernity, Springer, 2022.

Preserving and documenting a living tradition, however, is anything but a simple task. Her methodology for documenting different subjects entails bringing together a variety of perspectives to capture a more comprehensive view of the subject. To do this, she encourages students and researchers to repeat their interviews and documentation over a two-year period, allowing for new insights and different ways of thinking to emerge. The importance of considering different ways of documenting dance and performance, including a feminist perspective or a personal reflection of the documenter as well as encouraging open-mindedness are crucial to capturing the most accurate representation of the subject. The idea of producing documentation does not end when the fieldwork is finished. The preservation and access to documents need to be assured, too, not least because they were entrusted to researchers by people who have given their time. This is an expensive and resource-intensive issue for which the universities in India often lack sufficient funds.

The School of Arts and Aesthetics of Jawaharlal Nehru University offers a diverse range of theoretical frameworks in Western and Indian aesthetics. The students can choose from three specializations: theater and performance studies, cinema studies, and visual art. Despite not being a practice-based department, practitioners come to this space to explore post-practice opportunities. Many emerge as curators, conservators, and museum professionals. The vibrant atmosphere of the department not only attracts students of a variety of backgrounds but also fosters stimulating debates and collective learning.

As our conversation unfolds, we strive to understand the nuances of conserving dance in India, and we cannot overlook the critical role that the construction of India’s national identity plays in shaping the preservation and representation of both tangible and intangible heritage. The framework for creating an independent India was based on the promotion and creation of a high culture that was indigenous to the country. This “curated image” of high culture led to the emergence of dance forms that were engineered to become classical and formed through an amalgamation of local practices. Endowed with a Sanskritic background, these dances subsequently came to represent the cultural capital of India, and their conservation has been a crucial focus, with references being made to temple sculptures and paintings. However, such a construction of national identity omits the histories of living traditions and practitioners that do not fit into this unified image.

In fact, the cultural politics behind the ideal representation of India were carefully constructed by individuals who received their higher education in Europe during the pre-independence era. They brought back European visual culture to create the Indian cultural construct. Today, the governmentally patronized projects focus on preserving these neoclassical dances, which were constructed relatively recently compared to India’s vast and deep histories. Urmimala considers the idea of a safely handled cultural past to be entirely new and engineered to fit this image. In India’s continuous tampering with cultural history, the true notion of conservation seems to be absent.   The government initiatives appear to overlook and disregard the smaller pockets of culture nurtured by people who live in relatively isolated areas and continue their everyday practices that include various art forms such as dance, music, theater, and visual arts, often combined in rituals. When local festivals are organized, they are frequently funded by the government and exoticized to suit India’s tourism agenda.     


Innumerable dancing and moving bodies in the Khajuraho temple complex. Image: Urmimala Sarkar Munsi.

Restoration is also a significant aspect of dance practice and research for Urmimala, but in a non-traditional sense. She works with individuals who have experienced sexual abuse and trafficking, educating trainers from border areas in India to become anti-trafficking spokespeople. The aim of restoring through dance is to help survivors deal with PTSD resulting from such experiences and to focus on restoring confidence and facilitating their reintegration into society. In a body regularly inhabited by others, where the mind/body amalgam is often separated into two, Urmimala advocates for a somatic understanding of the body. Her work involves helping survivors unite their mind and body and restoring their confidence in thinking, touching, and interacting with their bodies.

During our conversation, we also discussed the representation of dance in historical texts and as sculptures and ornaments in temple structures in India. Urmimala also noted the rich visual culture in archaeological remains found in caves and architectural structures of ancient origins. These sites were inhabited and carved by different guilds of artists over the centuries, leaving behind a unique resource of material culture that can be seen as visual “scores” to some extent. The depicted bodies, which represent diversity and religious terms across several centuries, almost always assume a dance posture, even in depictions of everyday life, rather than a natural human posture.

Returning to the presence of dance in temple structures as remains of antiquity, we learned that today, temples are often selected as a specific stage or space for dance performances during festivals. These festivals occur regularly, and international visitors are required to purchase tickets well in advance for fixed dates. This continuity, as a sort of perpetual recurrence, defies the fragility of performance. Perhaps also for this reason, a vast number of classical dances are now seen as outputs from temple cultures, even if they have no direct relationship. In the temples, dances are often choreographed around an image or statue of a deity to achieve acceptance from the visitors belonging to the higher castes of Indian society. On the stage, dancers create references to the deity and space for dedication that animates and is sustained after the performance. Elements such as incense, flowers, and other elements that evoke a variety of sensory experiences create a sense of historical continuity. The dancers’ bodies are employed to activate this sacred space during the performance, and when they leave, the space carries on that reference, which somewhat defies the idea of the temple returning to its former state and role to represent the “great presence of history.”    

Team meeting with Professor Sarkar


Our conversation with Professor Sarkar provided a fascinating glimpse into the world of living cultural traditions and the scholarly endeavors dedicated to them. It inspired us to think differently and creatively about how we conceive and conserve performance where tradition, innovation, and conservation intersect. One of the learnings from this conversation was that the act of making and preserving dance are intimately linked and that we must expand our perspectives beyond Western preconceptions to fully appreciate the logic, and mechanisms, of sustainability.

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