Through a new lens: Stepping into the real world of dance as heritage

Through a new lens: Stepping into the real world of dance as heritage

November 9th, 2020

by Kavya Iyer Ramalingam

Here, I share some reflections based on my work as a student intern with Charlotte Waelde and Harriet Deacon on the HIPAMS India project, which investigates how developing ‘heritage-sensitive’ IP protection strategies can give communities greater control over the commercialisation of their heritage while contributing to its safeguarding and on-going viability.


Did you say you study dance?!

I formally started learning Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance from Tamil Nadu in South India, at the age of four from my mother. I picked up other Indian classical styles like Kuchipudi and Kathak along the way, folk dances like Bhangra, and also indulged in Contemporary, Ballet and Jazz. And while some may call it a stereotype, to be Indian, and ignore Bollywood, would have been unacceptable! But little did I imagine that dance – which I considered a hobby, a passion – would eventually come to occupy such a central role in my life.

I pursued a bachelor’s degree in Economics from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata and went on to study a master’s in International Development from Sciences Po, Paris. My life goal at that time was to work with culture, education and sustainable development, while eventually gearing towards bringing the arts – more specifically dance (yes, you guessed right!) – into the curricula of formal education systems.

But after 23 years of treating dance as something secondary, I started Choreomundus (an Erasmus+ Masters in Dance Knowledge, Practice and Heritage) in 2015. It served as the perfect platform to combine my various interests while keeping dance at the forefront. Primarily, in this course we studied dance as a core subject at the crossroads of various disciplines such as anthropology, ethnochoreology, philosophy, sociology, ethnology, politics, culture and heritage studies.


Can dance ever have a global definition? Why do people dance?

Why do Flamenco from Spain, and Kathak from India have so much in common?

How have dances evolved over time? How do communities transmit their dances?

How are dances safeguarded? Do they need to be safeguarded?

How has Capoeira become so popular in recent times?

What does contemporary dance even mean!


…are few of the innumerable questions we fiercely debated, discussed and dissected over the past two years (2017-2019). We – a group of 21 students – from all over the world[1] spent two years across four European universities discovering multiple social, cultural, embodied and academic perspectives and backgrounds, through, and with, each other.

Performing Bhangra (an Indian folk dance) at our Graduation ceremony

London 2019, Photo by: EusebiuBotezatu

In December 2018, heritage and IP rights expert Harriet Deacon came as a visiting lecturer to teach us at the Maison des Cultures du Monde in a quaint little French village called Vitré. Harriet’s classes were the first time we started reflecting on the rather blurry, grey picture surrounding safeguarding of heritage. At first, the fact that there could be a heritage-sensitive approach to marketing heritage elements seemed far-fetched to me.But my initial scepticism towards the saleability of heritage was challenged when we were encouraged to look beyond the UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003); to look at alternative sites and networks where heritage is constructed, such as markets, social media platforms and via IP (intellectual property) instruments. My biggest takeaway was that not all modes of safeguarding are beneficial and not all commercialisation is necessarily detrimental. Fast forward to a year later, and here I am writing a blog about exactly this issue!

Choreomundus at Maison des Cultures du Monde Vitré, 2018, 

Photo from: Personal collection

Working on HIPAMS

I started working on the HIPAMS (Heritage-sensitive Intellectual Property Rights and Marketing Strategies) India project in mid-June this year.  As someone who comes from West Bengal (the State in eastern India where the communities are based), the project became special to me as it expanded my knowledge and reflections about cultures and practices back ‘home’. It is a real-world example of the intersection between intangible cultural heritage, intellectual property rights and marketing strategies that had sparked my fascination a year back in Vitré.


Given my training and interest, I helped to write up some of the research on Purulia Chau, a vigorous masked dance practised in Purulia, West Bengal. I explored the art form in its current context,based on the concerns and challenges of dancers and mask-makers in the community as documentedby Banglanatak (the partner NGO in this project) based on their long-standing work in this area.


Compare the two masks in the pictures below; one, a more recent version from the field trip in 2018 and the other, from a book titled ‘Chhau dance of Purulia’published in 1972.[2] What is the most striking difference you see?


It is commonly observed nowadays that many dancers like wearing bigger, more ornate masks, as compared to the much smaller, compact masks that were in use even until a decade before. ‘This is what attracts audiences. Market change hoyegaeche(has changed)!’, is the most common response when asked why. Higher jumps and bigger somersaults have also become more popular as people appreciate such grand, acrobatic stunts. Not only have such demands modified some “traditional” aspects of the art form, but also raised concerns regarding the safety of the dancers. But the solution to such a case cannot be to stop performing. After all, tourism and performances are very important sources of income for these dancers.

Chau dancer Bijay Kishore Mahaliwearing a Ganesh mask,   

Photo by: Charlotte Waelde, 2018

Dance of Ganesha in a Chau performance, Photo from: Bhattacharya (1972)[3]

Another important issue is that of appropriation without proper acknowledgment. Villagers agree that the featuring of Chau masks and dances in Bollywood movies, or the use of Chau-inspired steps on social media have contributed to the visibility of the art form. But they would prefer to be acknowledged or credited for this.

The HIPAMS project will work with this community to identify problems such as these, and to explore heritage-sensitive solutions to ensure that artists can exert more control over, and benefit from, the use and exploitation of their work.

Use of Chau masks in a scene from the Hindi film Barfi!

Photo (screenshotted) from: YouTube


The big picture

When I go back home for Durga Pujo this October, I will keep my eyes and ears open to see if a Chau performance might be realised in one of the many Kolkata pandals that have recently become huge patrons of these art forms. They would serve as reminders of the fact that in our world today, the preservation and transmission of dance as heritage is only possible when one considers the big picture – markets, livelihoods, IP laws and sustainability. The HIPAMS era is here!

Thoughts, ideas, comments? Feel free to get in touch with me at kavya.iyer93[at]


[1] I literally mean all over the world! Brazil, India, Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya, Romania, Russia, Bolivia, Peru, Iran, France, Finland, Palestine, Mexico, Australia, Ecuador, Spain and Ukraine were the countries represented.

[2] You can also find a treasure trove of videos of other older performances in the following archive:

[3]Chhau dance of Purulia. Calcutta: Rabindra Bharati University, 1972.

This research project, Heritage Sensitive Intellectual Property and Marketing strategies: India (HIPAMS - INDIA), is funded by the British Academy's Sustainable Development Programme, supported under the UK Government's Global Challenges Research Fund 2018-2021.