Between Jesus and Krishna: Christian Encounters with South Indian Temple Dance

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One of the eight national dances of India, bharatanatyam, partly originates from the area around Tranquebar. During the time that Tranquebar was a Danish colony, devadasis, women who did service at temples through dance, were patronaged by the Thanjavur royal court. In 1623, a Danish/Islandic soldier routinely observed the devadsis dancing outside the Masilammani Nathar temple opposite Fort Dansborg, which he was guarding. His accounts of the dancers are interesting on two levels; first, they provide us with unique data on the role of the devadasis at the village level of Tamil Nadu in the 17th century. Secondly, they shed light on a certain imagination and perspective on Indian religion grounded in European Christian thought at the time.
Since the 17th century the dance of the devadasis has undergone a quite dramatic transformation, as it has been taken from its original setting, to a national middle class arena in which girls of very different socio-cultural backgrounds learn the dance now called bharatanatyam side by side. The second part of the article is based on a fieldwork done in one of the bharatanatyam dance institutions situated in New Delhi, and deals with a Christian dance student of bharatanatyam and her experiences enacting stories from Hindu mythology in the dance. The focus is on how she reflects on Hinduism as well as Christianity through her dance practice. Parallel to that some methodological reflections on the study on cultural encounters through dance are presented.
    Though set in very different contexts, the two accounts sheds light on Christian perspectives on Hinduism through their encounter with South Indian dance.

Original languageEnglish
JournalReview of Development and Change
Issue number1 & 2
Pages (from-to)289-308
Publication statusPublished - 2009

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