Project Leader

Marion Wettstein

Project Description

This sub-project is concerned with the sakela, a ritual lay dance of the Rai communities settling in Eastern Nepal about who only a few anthropological studies have been conducted (for example Allen 1976, McDougal 1979, Gaenszle 1991, Hardman 200, Schlemmer 2004, Nicoletti 2006, von Stockhausen 2006). The sakela dance of the Rai is performed in baisākh (April/May) and/or mangsir (November/December) by men and women moving together in a circle around a ritual centre. The dance consists of bodily gestures accompanied by a basic dance step which are calledsili. They are short sequences of movements which are repeated several times and perceived as one unit of mimetic action. Each of the bodily gestures is associated with a song text that explains or comments the gesture and is sung either shortly beforehand or simultaneously. Hence, the sakela is gestural recitation and oral recitation alike.

So far no ethnographic study of this dance tradition has been conducted. One of the few publications dealing with the sakelahas been written by Chatur Bhakta Rai (2008 [2065]). When Wettstein took her first dance steps and initially began to note them down on paper seven 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 the sakela on the big festival grounds to celebrate Kirat National Day organised by the Kirat Rai Yayokkha. In this way the meaning of the sakela has taken on new political dimensions and become part of a wider public sphere within the past half decade.

Theoretically the topic will be approached by analysing the semiotic system of the dance as such – looking at several layers of meaning encoded in song lines, gestures and connoted mythological background – and be informed by theories of performance and ritual (such as Schechner 1988, 2002, Grimes 2004). The 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 silis: 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.

(This summary has been written on the base of the project proposal handed in to the FWF.)

Further Reading and Sources

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 Ritual”. 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.