Questions of politics or faith? Dance and Ritual Practice as a Signifying Factor in Sri Lankan Tamil Political and Religious Identity

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Dr Ann David, June 2006

CRONEM Conference, Roehampton University

Questions of politics or faith? Dance and Ritual Practice as a Signifying Factor in Sri Lankan Tamil Political and Religious Identity

This paper addresses the complex discourse between religious and political identity articulated in the London Sri Lankan Tamil community, particularly with regard to dance and ritual performance. It notes the new growth of transmission and performance of the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam in temple locations and questions whether these are performances of ‘faith’ or those of a political and nationalist agenda. It argues too that the increasing religiosity and sacrility of temple ritual presents a new discourse of performed Tamil Hinduism, evident across the world-wide Tamil diaspora.

There are particular patterns marking Tamil migration from Sri Lanka to the UK which separate into three main waves; the first, a post-independence migration after 1948 – mainly professionals and younger Vellalar (high caste) Tamils arriving for university education. From 1960, due to increasing discrimination and hardening ethnic relationships in Sri Lanka, more young male Tamils migrated to the UK. The escalation of violence against Tamils in the early 1980s brought a large wave of asylum seekers and refugees, which continued into the 1990s. The move into the new millennium showed a change in migration patterns - a marked decline in asylum migration, but an increase in the regrouping and relocating of family groups, particularly of Tamils from Europe to the UK. This secondary migration has perhaps been pushed forward by desires for the younger generations to gain an English education, and by the obvious support of a well-established, significant UK community. [This is a community that includes Tamils not only from Sri Lanka, but also from India, South Africa, Mauritius, Singapore and Malaysia, and numbers around 150,000 – 200,000]. The London Borough of Brent in north-west London is home to the largest number of Sri Lankan Tamils, calculated to be in the region of 12,000. Brent is one of London’s most culturally diverse boroughs where the non-white ethnic groups now form the majority of the population. Other main settlements of Tamils are in East Ham, Merton, Surbiton, Tooting and Croydon.
The first wave of Tamil settlers, for the most part, did not get involved in politics, as their efforts were focussed on obtaining a good education, professional jobs and becoming established in the community – as many studies on diaspora groups indicate. However, the second and third groups, having left a highly charged political homeland, have been heavily committed to the Sri Lankan political struggle, and the 1980s showed a rise in LTTE membership (LTTE was designated a terrorist group in 2001 by the UK government) and its activities in the UK and the rest of Europe. One or two academic studies have discussed the LTTE’s ‘remote control’ of the Tamil diaspora, (Taylor 1994; Van Hear & Brun [current research]) yet at present, there is still little research that attempts to understand the current role of the LTTE in shaping diaspora dynamics. The links between the Tamil temples and political movements such as the LTTE, although not spoken, are strong. During the 1980s, the UK LTTE members held their annual puja service at the Highgatehill Tamil temple, in north London, and the Sri Muththumari Amman Temple in Tooting, south-west London, was founded by a Jaffna-born Tamil sent to London by the Tamil Tigers. Working as a trained accountant, he was financial controller of the LTTE in Western Europe, responsible for coordinating the collection of funds from Tamils in the European diaspora and for procuring weaponry. Joanne Waghorne notes that ‘the constitution of this temple stipulates that any income above expenses be sent back to Sri Lanka to aid projects’ (2004:218). Another related temple in Wembley, north London received a £25,000 investment from the LTTE when it was being set up. Because the temples provide both ready access to the Tamil community and a potential source of income, the LTTE has sought control over temple events, management and revenue.i
The continuing instability of Sri Lanka, the escalation of violence in Londonii and the general residue of fear in the more recently-arrived refugees certainly creates an impact on the community here, as evidenced during my ethnographic work. Despite an outward appearance of openness and warmth, on attempting to arrange interviews, visit homes or pursue questions further, I met at times a wary, somewhat guarded and sometimes evasive response. It is hardly surprising, considering the political, historical and contemporary factors.iii Issues of resettlement, relocation and dislocation feature powerfully in the lives of this immigrant community, and do impact directly on the transmission of culture and religion.
Research in Malaysia on Tamil Hindus carried out by Andrew Willford (2002) at Tai Pusamiv and in Alleyn Diesel’s (2003) examination of the Tamil community in KwaZulu-Natal corroborates that dance practices and trance dance are a prominent part of the religious expression of these diasporic communities, as I argue for the UK Tamil groups. Janet O’Shea, academic and Bharatanatyam dancer, in her work with Canadian émigré Tamil dance groups, has found that the dance form of Bharatanatyam, rather than being a vehicle simply for religious sentiment and ethnicity, has become also a medium for political and nationalist views (2001:131-134), an issue that I shall discuss further.
In addition to performances of Bharatanatyam dance and trance dance at festival times, there is a growing phenomenon of provision of Bharatanatyam dance classes for the young Tamil women, both in the UK and in the world-wide Tamil diaspora (Cunningham 1998; Ram 2000; Katrak 2004; Chakravorty 2004). Many of these classes take place within the Tamil temples or in adjoining halls. These classes contribute to a transmission of traditional culture and maintenance of diasporic identity in locations where unconscious assimilation of social, cultural and religious values does not take place as informally as it does in India or Sri Lanka, where it is part of the invisible sub-culture and reinforced throughout a child’s upbringing. Kalpana Ram argues that the conscious move to transmit and represent heritage through cultural practices indicates that there is already a sense of loss, a breakdown of the continuity of that heritage (2000:262). In my interviews, first-generation Tamil immigrants in the UK frequently alluded to their concerns at the compromises they have had to make in their children’s cultural upbringing because of both internal and external pressures, and many now actively run or have set up classes for the young people to imbibe their language and culture. Second-generation Tamils in many cases now continue their work.v
In the UK, the Tamil community dance practices have tended to maintain a traditional, bounded, monolithic view of Bharatanatyam where innovation is not encouraged, yet in other areas of Europe and North America there is evidence of a display of Tamil Sri Lankan nationalism through change and creative choreography in the dance form, as mentioned above. O’Shea’s research (2001) in Toronto, illustrates the work of two Tamil dance teachers who promote Tamil Eelam in their Bharatanatyam choreographies. One produced a dance story of a military female who sacrifices her male kin to the ongoing Sri Lankan war. The other, Vasu, teaching under the auspices of the Tamil Eelam Society has too created a political item which articulates a Tamil separatist nationalism and clearly associates Bharatanatyam with a solely Tamil history. This piece was especially created for the commemoration of Black Tigers’ Day (LTTE elite fighting unit). In this item, the Bharatanatyam gestures were used to depict both agricultural work and fighting scenes of the war.
The growing significance too of the celebration of Maaveerar’s (or Great Heroes’) Dayvi when the fallen Tamil heroes of the Sri Lankan conflict are honoured is evident not only in Sri Lanka but also in the Tamil diaspora, where Bharatanatyam dance has become an essential ingredient of the day’s celebration. These events are marked by elaborate ritual reminiscent of that in a temple or a traditional dance performance - garlands are laid and lamps are lit – but the garlands are offered to effigies of the deceased rather than to the gods, and the lamps are lit by the families of the dead instead of a priest. A particular occasion of this festival in Bologna, Italy in November 2000vii saw a performance of Bharatanatyam by young girls and women that enacted in story form the violent struggles taking place in Sri Lanka, using gestures choreographed by their teacher to show warlike actions, automatic weapons, bombs, helicopters and prisons. Here is an example of a religious and devotional dance form and religious practices such as rituals and processions being appropriated for a political and nationalist agenda. O’Shea writes of how the LTTE in Sri Lanka consciously cultivated a Tamil identity through the arts by sponsoring music and dance competitions and commissioning revolutionary dance pieces, some of them even danced by female cadres of the rebel forces. Creative choreography, innovative use of hand gesture and story-telling have made an accessible vehicle for the Tamil refugee and diaspora community to express their solidarity and support for the war and for the creation of a separatist state of Tamil Eelam.
The presence of Bharatanatyam dance classes situated within several major London Tamil temples signifies a new contemporary link of the dance with religious ritual and religious expression in the diasporic setting, and the increased importance assigned to its dissemination within religious practice. Bharatanatyam is currently being promoted as an important subject for study in three of the main London Tamil temples, and as very relevant to religious festivals in several other Tamil temples in performances by teachers, professionals and students. It is taught too at most of the Tamil Saturday and Sunday schools, some of which are controlled by the LTTE. The senior Hindu priest at the Murugan Temple in East Ham is adamant that dance belongs in the temple, believing it to be a rich and devotional vehicle for true worship. He told me that the classical forms of dance and music should be supported and nurtured by the temples (interview 13.2.03). This relationship however is not without ambiguity and irony. This is due to the contested history of the original devadasi temple dancers who were viewed as prostitutes and outlawed from temple practice, a subject already well-documented by other scholars (Srinivasan 1983, 1985, Gaston 1996, Meduri 1996). The conscious transmission of the expressive forms of dance, music and religion as signifiers of tradition, history, nationalism and ethnic identity creates a new definition of Hindu femininity in the diaspora – one that is considered to be all the more important in the face of western influences. Bharatanatyam promises for the Tamils a middle-class respectability and femininity and is a prized carrier of tradition viewed in this way.
Coupled with this too are the vexed issues of authenticity, where fixed ideas of an unchanging, traditional and often ‘purer’ dance form are held as if part of a cultural essentialism. Some of the London Tamil dance teachers interviewed presented Rukmini Devi’s famous dance school of Kalakshetra as the epitome of authenticity, using Kalakshetra style as criteria to judge standards of Bharatanatyam performance - a way of invoking the past to interpret the present. The London Tamil temple performances of dance have never included any ‘creative’ or innovative work, as a strict control is kept on the presentation of traditional, classical items. Here, the stakeholders who maintain tradition are the first-generation settlers who have become also the agents for preservation.
Related to this also is the place of trance or possession dances within Tamil UK religious practice. The benign ecstatic trance dancing of the Tamil devotees at the Tai Pusam festival seen in the London temples is a potent signifier of Tamil devotion, a performance of faith in the deity Murugan, expressed in the movements and gestures of their dance. It reveals clues about the nature of faith in Tamil Hinduism, that is, in this instance, a belief that the powers of the deity Murugan become embodied in the purified body of the devotee during the dance. Embodiment by a spirit or by a form of a deity constitutes a specific performance where the body of the individual literally becomes the body of the possessor –‘embodiment’ being a more accurate and now more widely used term than ‘possession’. This state of embodiment is indicative of socio-cultural beliefs that identify powerful forces and influences outside the individual, in contrast to an Euro-American culture that identifies them within the individual (Bell 1997). Possession involves present experience but one that is mediated by a historical mythology, and provides a form where personal and the collective are yoked together, as the individual internalises the form of the deity. Public witnessing is of great significance to the event, allowing a corroboration of the extent of the possession. This evidence of trance dance appears to support a ‘globalized localism’ (Waghorne, 2004:173) where local, once-rural ritual practices are exported throughout the trans-national Tamil diaspora. They become too, as does the dance form of Bharatanatyam, both a local and national identity marker, appearing in a globalised and localised diasporic location - local in its adherence to Tamil Hinduism and even more so, to Sri Lankan Tamil Hinduism, and nationalistic in its adherence to Hinduism in general.
As we have seen, a group’s cultural, ethnic and religious identity may be articulated through dance and movement practices, acting as a symbol of both continuity and change, and its presence in the diasporic setting can be a powerful marker of the group’s distinctiveness and presence. The expressive South Asian cultural forms rely heavily on dance, drama and music for their enactment, both in a secular and in a religious milieu, and, an increasingly political one. These dance and related movement styles form an essential part in the production or performance of faith within Hindu worship, and in the production of a politicised Tamil identity. Performing faith is a way of actualising one’s faith, of making it a reality in an embodied form - a faith that is both religious and deeply political.


i Human Rights Watch, 18, 1, 2006:21

ii Despite the fact that majority ,of the London Tamils live peacefully within their local communities, during the last three years there has been a worrying escalation of violence between gangs of Sri Lankan Tamil youths in London. By May 2002, there had been four violent deaths and up to 200 other reported incidents, and in August 2003, an eighteen year-old Tamil man was murdered by other Tamil young men, the fifth to be killed in that year.


 It is important to note that once I had been accepted into the Tamil temples, respondents’ homes and Tamil Sunday schools, people were warm, generous and helpful.

iv Tai Pusam is an annual Tamil religious festival dedicated to the deity Murugan, Lord Siva’s son.

v An example of this may be found at the Shree Ghanapathy Temple in Wimbledon where the son and daughters of the founder of the temple now assist their mother in the financial, organisational and cultural running of the temple. Geetha, in her thirties, arranges the children’s classes in Tamil, Hinduism, Bharatanatyam and classical music, and she is concerned that they have a good ‘spiritual’ education at the temple. The classes were started originally when devotees at the temple asked for them and are mainly offered for the 4-15 year olds. The older teenagers are encouraged to help with the classes (author’s fieldnotes 15.1.03).

vi This ‘holy’ day’s celebration was started in 1989, and then extended the following year to whole week. Its purpose is to channel veneration for all LTTE martyrs.

vii See Cristiana Natali’s article 2002.
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