Vernacular Traditions


Nandini Banerjee is a first-year student in the Ethnomusicology PhD program at Columbia University. Her interests lie in Hindustani classical music, in the musical works of Rabindranath Tagore, and in exploring the affective roles of tradition and modernity in Indian immigrant communities.

Presentation: "Bauls and the Popular Music of Bengal"
Bauls are the wandering, musical minstrels of Bengal. Originally from the district of Birbhum, (which is now in West Bengal), they epitomize the spirituality and musicality of both East (now Bangladesh) and West Bengal. The word “Baul” comes from the Sanskrit word “Vatula” which roughly means “mad” or “lashed by the wind.” Bauls stem from a history of nonconformism, and have upheld music as their religion. In their songs they explore the state of disconnect between the earthly soul and the spiritual world, and offer a subtle revelation of the spiritual force as an inner God that transcends formal and organized religious doctrines and schools. Every year in the month of Pausha (approximately mid-January), the district of Birbhum hosts a Baul festival called the Kenduli Mela. The three-day open-air festival celebrates the musical art of Bauls, which is a peripheral, but thriving, art in Bengal. Poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was heavily influenced by the Bauls’ quest for spiritual emancipation and their embodiment of an inner God. Their influence is palpable in a major part of the Puja genre of Tagore’s songs and poetry. The internalization of spirituality is a theme of much of Bengal’s art cultures, and was embraced and spread internationally by Tagore’s pioneering works. Nandini will be presenting some videos taken at the Kenduli Mela, and will discuss some of the unifying musical and contextual similarities between Baul music and Rabindrasangeet (the songs of Rabindranath Tagore).


Deepsikha Chatterjee is the costume design faculty at Hunter College CUNY where she enjoys teaching a diverse group of students courses in design, costume history, costume technology and crafts. She has a MFA in costume design from FSU. She got her degree in fashion design and psychology from India and worked in the manufacturing industry in India as well as many professional theatres in the US like Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass Opera and Utah Shakespearean Festival. Deepsikha has also been researching and presenting on theatre, dance and film costumes from India and South East Asia. She recently got a grant from CUNY to study Chhau dance masks and costumes in Purulia, India.


Uttara Asha Coorlawala currently teaches dance courses at Barnard College/Columbia University, and at the Alvin Ailey American Dance School Professional Program. Earlier as a dancer, her solo show, brought modern dance, BharataNatyam and yoga, to stages of India, Europe, East Europe, Japan and the United States as she represented both the USA and India as a cultural representative. She served as a Performing Arts advisor to the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the National Center of Performing Arts, Mumbai, and currently co-curates the Erasing Borders Dance Festival in New York City. Uttara has also served on various global dance research (CORD) and educational (International Baccalaureate or IB) Committees. Awards received include the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for 2010, India for pioneering choreography; AHRB Fellowship for South Asian Dance Research, London, The Graduate Research Award from CORD, USA, the Homi Bhabha Fellowship, India, and a Ford Foundation research project (USA) on changing demographies of cultures in the U.S. Her articles have been published in Discourses in Dance, Dance Research Journal, Sruti, Marg, and other anthologies.


Amanda Culp is a student and teaching fellow in the doctoral subcommittee on theater at Columbia University, where she studies classical Sanskrit drama and intercultural dramaturgy. She is a resident dramaturg with NY based company One Year Lease, where her credits include The Killing Room, The Tender Mercies, Teaser Cow and The Bald Soprano. Most recently she worked on a production of Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder at 3LD directed by Nikhil Mehta. She also holds a Masters in Asian Religion from Yale University Divinity School, and has completed a certificate in Bharata Natyam and Arts for Social Change from the Darapana Academy of Performing Arts, where she studied with Mallika Sarabhai.


Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor, director and organiser with Jana Natya Manch, Delhi. He has directed, along with Sanjay Maharishi, two films on the theatre director Habib Tanvir and his company Naya Theatre. He writes on theatre, politics and related issues. He is the editor of Our Stage: Pleasures and Perils of Theatre Practice in India (along with Sameera Iyengar and Akshara K.V.; Tulika 2009) and Theatre of the Streets: The Jana Natya Manch Experience (Janam 2007). For a living, he works as editor with LeftWord Books.

Presentation: "Performing Politics"
Jana Natya Manch ('People's Theatre', also known as 'Janam') is an amateur theatre group based in New Delhi, India, established in 1973. The group does mostly street theatre in the open. Their work is extremely political, left-wing, activist oriented. Among the first Indian theatre groups to take to street theatre, the group is today known as a preeminent exponent of radical theatre. In 1989, the group was attached as they performed a street play on the outskirts of Delhi, resulting in the death of its charismatic and dynamic leader, Safdar Hashmi. Sudhanva has been with the group since 1987, and his presentation, with images, will explore the interconnections of performance, politics, the urban condition, and activism.


Jack Hawley joined Barnard's faculty in 1986. His research is focused on the religious life of north India and on the literature that it has spawned in the course of the last 500 years. He is the author or editor of some fifteen books. Most concern Hinduism and the religions of India, but others are broadly comparative. His current major project—A Storm of Songs:  India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement (Harvard University Press, 2015)—is devoted to deconstructing and reconstructing one of the principal ways in which Indians have told their religious history. Its focus is bhakti, the religion of song, of radical engagement, and of the heart.  A second book, co-authored with Kenneth E. Bryant, is also forthcoming from Harvard in the new Murty Classical Library of India: Sur’s Ocean:  Poems from the Early Tradition. Jack Hawley has served as director of Columbia University's South Asia Institute and has received multiple awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian, and the American Institute of Indian Studies. He has also been a Guggenheim Fellow, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Anuja Jain is an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Film and South Asian Studies in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University. For the academic year 2013-2014, she is also a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at NYU. Her research interests include South Asian cinema and media; documentary film; world cinema; visual studies; ethics of representation and spectatorship. She received her PhD (January 2013) in Cinema Studies from the Department of Cinema Studies, New York University. She is currently working on a book manuscript that is a historical account of interventionist documentary cinema in Post-colonial India. Her essays have appeared in peer-reviewed journals like The Velvet Light Trap, South Asian Popular Culture, as well as The Sage Encyclopedia of Social Movement Media, and anthologies such as Narratives of Indian Cinema.


Anupama Kapse is Assistant Professor, Department of Media Studies, CUNY Queens College. She is co-editor of Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space (with Jennifer Bean and Laura Horak, Indiana University Press, 2014). Her articles have appeared in Framework, Figurations in Indian Film (2013) and The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film (2014). She is currently completing a book entitled Melodrama and the Body Politic: Early Indian Cinema and its Contexts, 1913-1939. Her research focuses on the intersection between film and politics, film genre and performance, transnational film history and stardom in silent cinema.


Dipti Khera is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History and Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Her interests lie in intersection of art and urban topography across paintings, maps, architecture and literature, intellectual thinking on the experience of urban spaces and material things in early modern and colonial South Asia, historiography of cross-cultural encounters, and decorative arts and arts education in colonial India. She earned her Ph.D. in art history and M.A. in museum anthropology from Columbia University. Her recent publications include “‘Designs to Suit Every Taste’: P. Orr and Sons and Swami silver,” in Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj and “Engraved Epics: Ornamented Metal Objects,” in Treasures of the Albert Hall.

Khera currently holds the Vivian G. Prins Global Fellowship at NYU, and her research has been supported by fellowships awarded by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, C.V. Starr Foundation, American Institute of Indian Studies, and Yale University. She is presently writing a book and developing an exhibition with the Arthur M. Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington, DC and the City Palace Museum, Udaipur that reveals the major shift in Indian art represented by Udaipur painters’ engagement with conceptualizing place and representing reality during a time period of intense political and artistic transitions in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Presentation: "Painting, Writing and Singing Praises of Cities: Vernacular Mediations in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Rajasthan"
The idea of praising places proposed by Udaipur’s artists and poets in vernacular visual, poetic and oral registers in eighteenth-and-nineteenth century India is critical for re-conceiving eighteenth century South Asia. The aesthetic of ruination circulated through the picturesque sketches and watercolors made by British artists has mediated the eighteenth century and its urban imaginary as one deeply inflected by narratives of decline. The art made by Indian artists of this period within courtly and bazaar contexts has been often characterized as a corollary to political decline. For our discussion during the Vernacular Traditions workshop, I will draw from my wide-ranging corpus of praise pictures a single painted invitation letter in which artists and scribes depict Udaipur as a charismatic landscape par excellence. In 1830, the regional merchants and the ruler of Udaipur jointly sent a painted paper scroll, 72 feet long and 11 inches wide, as an invitation letter, a vijñaptipatra, to the eminent pontiff of the Jain religious community, Shri Jinharsha Suri. I will briefly address how historical audiences might have perceived the endeavors of place-making that we see visualized in the 1830 scroll by introducing hitherto unexamined poems composed by Jain monks while visiting new cities with religious leaders after they had received vijñaptipatra as invitations to travel. I will highlight the vernacular nature of these urban imaginings, taking a particular interest in the interrelatedness of vignettes that artists and poets employ to evoke a city within the visual and literary culture. After all, these poems and painted invitation letters circulated within the same intersecting spaces of bazaars and religious establishments of the Jains.

This 1830 scroll enables us to explore the vernacular urban imaginaries artists and poets were formulating—and continuously reinventing—in the process of circulating across the domains of the court, the bazaar, and the British Company. It suggests that praise may be the counter point to decadence and cannot be overlooked for rethinking the history of this period of transitions. Simultaneously these practices expand our understanding of the range of material domains within which historical view points were presented and political diplomacy and territorial claims were made in colonial India.


Akshaya Kumar is a doctoral candidate at the University of Glasgow where he is working on the political economy of India’s vernacular cinemas, particularly Bhojpuri cinema, as one of the first two recipients of Screen fellowship. He has published in South Asian Popular Culture and other journals. He has a forthcoming chapter in 'Arts and Aesthetics in a Globalising World', edited by Raminder Kaur and Parul Dave Mukherji (Berg, 2014), and another forthcoming essay — Satyamev Jayate: Return of Star as a sacrifical figure — in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies.


Erin Mee is an Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow of English and Drama at New York University. Her book The Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage was published in 2008 by Seagull Books and Palgrave-McMillan (part of the Enactments series edited by Richard Schechner). She is co-editor (with Helene Foley of Barnard College) of Antigone on the Contemporary World Stage (Oxford University Press, 2011), which examines the reasons and ways Antigone has been mobilized in a wide variety of historical, political, and cultural contexts around the world; and editor of DramaContemporary:India, a collection of modern Indian plays published in the United States by Johns Hopkins University Press and in India by Oxford University Press. Her articles have appeared in TDR, Theater Journal, Performing Arts Journal, Seagull Theatre Quarterly, American Theatre Magazine, and in numerous edited books. In addition to her scholarship, Ms. Mee is a theatre director who has worked at some of the most important theatres in the United States, including New York Theatre Workshop, The Public Theatre, The Guthrie Theater, and The Magic Theatre. In India she has directed two of Kavalam Narayana Panikkar’s plays in Malayalam with his company Sopanam. Her research areas include contemporary Indian performance, directors on actor training, neuroperformance, spectatorship, and the reception of classical plays.


Shayoni Mitra is an Assistant Professor at the department of Theatre at Barnard College, Columbia University. She received her PhD in Performance Studies from New York University. Professor Mitra's teaching includes courses on Theatre Traditions in a Global Context, Indian and Asian Performance, Performance Studies and Postcolonial Drama. She is currently a Fellow of Transnational Feminisms at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and the Science and Social Difference Group at Columbia University. Her essays and reviews appear in various scholarly journals including The Drama Review, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and the Asian Theatre Journal and as chapters in various books. Professor Mitra was also an actor with Delhi based street theatre group Jana Natya Manch. 


Claudia Orenstein is Associate Professor of Theatre at Hunter College and The CUNY Graduate Center. Her forthcoming book is the co-edited volume of new scholarship on puppetry: The Routledge Companion to Puppetry and Material Performance, due out in June.

Presentation: "Vernaculars of Puppets and Performing Objects in Contemporary India"
Offering insights from Orenstein's recent research trip to India, this presentation looks at the sometimes continuing, sometimes renewed, and sometimes truncated expressive modes and potentials of puppets and objects used in storytelling within Indian performance traditions as they are reconfigured in the current shifting economic and social context.


Devendra Sharma is an Associate Professor of Communication and Performance at California State University, Fresno. He is a fourth generation performer, writer, and director from famous Swami-Khera Akhara of Nautanki, Saangit, Raaslila, Bhagat, and Rasiya, (the traditional musical theater genres of northern India). He was trained under renowned traditional guru, his father Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma. He has given more than 500 performances to date, and written and directed many films illustrating Indian performance traditions and culture. Dr. Sharma has been invited as a performer/director/visiting professor at numerous world-renowned institutions such as Théâtre du Soleil Paris, University of California-Berkeley, University of Texas-Austin, SOAS-University of London, Counter Pulse San Francisco, Banaras Hindu University, and Film and Television Institute, India, among others. Dr. Sharma has contributed prominently in theater, films, and television in India. He played the role of Faqir in renowned Indian director Habib Tanvir’s Agra Bazar for more than two decades, starting from “Nehru Shatabdi Samaroh” in 1989. Among his current projects, he just finished enacting the role of Raibahadur Shyamnandan Sahay in TV series Samvidhan directed by renowned Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal. He is also writing a Bollywood feature film utilizing the performance tradition Rasiya, to be directed by Shyam Benegal.

Presentation: Nautanki
Swang-Nautanki is one of the most popular performance genres of northern India. It is an operatic theater tradition that is more than 8 hours long in its original form. Before the advent of Bollywood (Indian Hindi film industry), Nautanki was the biggest entertainment medium in the towns and villages of northern India. Often, 25,000 to 30,000 people would gather to watch Nautanki performances. Nautanki’s rich musical compositions, fine poetry, and humorous, entertaining storylines hold a strong influence over north Indian people’s imagination, and even after the spread of mass media (such as television and DVDs), a crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 can be seen at the top Nautanki performances.

Nautanki "Sultana Daku" depicts the exploits of Sultana, the notorious dacoit (thief) from early 20th century India who lived in the jungles of Uttar Pradesh with his gang of 300 robbers and his lover, Phulkanwar, and plagued the agents of a colonial government. Sultana was a Robinhood-like bandit who robbed the rich and helped the poor. He became a big symbol of local Indian resistance against British rule in northern India when he could not be caught by the British for many years. This Nautanki is a humorous tale of the cat and mouse chase between Sultana and the British superintendent of police — Freddie Young. Dr. Devendra Sharma brings this century old, extremely popular Nautanki classic to life for a contemporary audience.

Nautanki "Mission Suhani" follows Suhani, a confident young Indian bride, and Chaliya, her Non-Resident Indian (NRI) groom, who has taken her dowry and left her in India. Against familial and societal pressure, Suhani travels to the U.S., where she finds her husband, recovers the dowry, and finds her love! Nautanki "Mission Suhani" brings attention to serious social issues through music and humor. According to Indian Express, a prominent newspaper in India, thousands of women in India are fighting for their rightful place with their husbands in America. These NRI men go back to India to get married, take a huge dowry, and then return to the US, abandoning their wives back in India. Working with his father, Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma, a prominent Nautanki master, Dr. Devendra Sharma crafts a brilliantly entertaining, thought-provoking, and moving musical that examines women's empowerment.


Shiv Subramanium is a Ph.D. student in MESAAS. His research interests include Sanskrit poetry and poetics, Srivaishnavism, and Romanticism. He is also Carnatic vocalist who has been training under Padma Bhushan P.S. Narayanaswamy in Chennai since 2000. Shiv performs regularly in Chennai's annual December music festival and in the United States.

Presentation: “How can Carnatic Music change while remaining Carnatic Music?
This question has preoccupied the Carnatic Music community in the past few decades. Notions such as “purity,” “essence,” and “tradition” have thus been central to the debate on how Carnatic Music should be performed. One perspective locates the essence of Carnatic Music in its focus on devotion (bhakti), a view that has resulted in the inclusion of many non-traditional and popular elements into the Carnatic repertoire (e.g., Marathi abhangas, Braj-bhasha bhakti pads, Hindustani ragams). An opposing perspective sees these inclusions as diluting the unique aesthetic of Carnatic Music and instead emphasizes its formal and technical aspects (e.g., ragam, talam, improvisational forms). Each of these perspectives is allied with farther-reaching commitments; for example, whereas foregrounding Carnatic Music’s devotional content has increased its Indian listenership, emphasizing its formal, non-lyrical aspects has allowed Carnatic Music to move beyond its local context and be regarded as a truly global form. These perspectives by no means represent all of the views on the question of tradition, but they do help illustrate what all is at stake in asking it. My presentation will address these concerns by focusing on the practical considerations that today’s Carnatic musician must make in performing a concert: “How should I go about constructing a concerto list? Should it be thematically unified—for example, all songs on the same deity, by the same composer, or involving the same poetic trope? Or should formal considerations guide my choices instead—for example, sufficient variety in ragam and talam and significant opportunity for improvisation? How should my concert in Chennai’s December Music Festival differ (if at all) from my concert in New York City? What do I sacrifice of the ‘essence’ of Carnatic Music by making each of these choices?”


Preeti Vasudevan is an award-winning Indian choreographer, performer and educator in Indian Theatre Arts. As a leading exponent of classical Indian dance-theater Bharatanatyam, Preeti has been creating new provocative contemporary works from the tradition. Original works performed by her New York City-based dance troupe, Thresh, have earned international acclaim for their fresh juxtaposition of traditional theater forms from her native India with modern theories of movement, voice and expression. A few recent highlights include: Emerging choreographer series (Joyce Foundation, NY 2003); International Choreographer's Residency, American Dance Festival (ADF); Faculty (ADF 2004); Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (2009); Advance theater training with director Anne Bogart and the SITI company (NY); Presenter for the 2013 TEDxBarnard (Columbia University).Preeti’s ground-breaking educational website, Dancing for the Gods has been developed to build a cultural bridge through creative Indian dance. Preeti holds a Master's in Dance Studies from Laban Centre London.


Yogi Trivedi is a doctoral student and teaching fellow in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. Prior to pursuing his academic interests, he worked as a broadcast journalist in New York City at CBS News and NY1 News. He continues to lecture as a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University. His doctoral project focuses on the textual and performative study of North Indian devotional traditions in nineteenth century Gujarat. His doctoral project is enhanced by his experience and training as a lecturer and performer of bhakti poetry and classical and devotional North Indian music. He has trained with various classical and folk musicians such as Padma Vibhushan Pandit Jasraj and Gujarati ghazal maestro Purushottam Upadhyaya. His latest award-winning book is the first-ever English hagiography of Swaminarayan, an eighteenth century Hindu spiritual leader and social reformer.

Presentation: "Premanand’s New Jingle: Alternative Manifestations of Bhakti Music and Katha Performance in Gujarat and the Diaspora."