- South Asian Festivals on the Move ed. by Ute Hüsken Axel Michaels
There are two special qualities of this volume that Ute Hüsken and Axel Michaels have edited. First, the majority of its contributors are writing in English as a second or third (but, in any case, not native) language. Second, the book’s topics include a number of festivals that are less known to Westerners.
The value of the first quality is the glimpse it gives of “other” scholarship on otherwise familiar topics to those of us who rely on English. All the book’s essays are in English, but many have been translated or painstakingly composed in order to reach an audience beyond German-speaking scholars. The authors rely on some of the usual suspects of performance theory—Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and Erika Fischer-Lichte—as well as on some widely recognized specialists in South Asian performance—Bruce Sullivan, Phillip Zarrilli, and Farley Richmond. But mixed in with this familiar work is material that is no less important, if less known among scholars west of 30 degrees longitude, including Hanne M. de Bruin, Martin Baumann, and Jyotindra Jain. Taken as a whole, the volume offers a look at the current state of the field(s), across some less-traversed national and language borders.
The value of the second quality is the way it brings some obscure, less-picked-over phenomena into the discussion of festival and religious activity in South Asia. There is, of course, the obligatory examination of the Kumbha [End Page 620] Mela (which, in this case, actually is refreshing in its attention to specific individuals who participated in the 2010 festival at Haridwar), and more than one contribution concerned with kutiyattam. But other topics include an infrequent multicultural festival in Nepal, a folk art festival in Delhi, and royal ceremonies conducted in the City Palace complex of Jaipur. Furthermore, the volume offers a look at the religious life of relatively small Tamil communities in Canada and Germany. Coexistence alongside better-known phenomena in this book gives some just elevation to these lesser-known events, practices, and communities in a region of genuinely great variation and diversity.
The book is long—more than four hundred pages—but it reads quickly, and it wisely offers a preponderance of color photographs to help readers visualize the authors’ objects of study. In four parts, the volume’s fifteen essays examine the way festivals mediate between populations, global and local convergence in festivals, the implications on public life of festival processions, and South Asian festivals observed outside of South Asia.
For the neophyte, the rather thick descriptions of festival-ritual activity in many of the articles, such as in editor Axel Michaels’s own treatment of the Dīpankara procession in Nepal, some meticulous ethnographies, such as Paul Younger’s assessment of certain Tamil communities in Canada, and detailed histories, such as Heike Moser’s digest of the course of kutiyattam, introduce South Asian religion in fine and comprehensive detail. A case in point is the opening essay by Eva Ambrose and William S. Sax, which provides a dense two-page history of the tooth relic that features in Sri Lanka’s annual Äsala festivals. Perhaps all the elements of this history are not necessary to the theoretical argument concerning the festivals that follows (asserting that the festivals’ activities create social relationships). But for a reader who is unfamiliar with these festivals and their featured object, the details in this historical narrative are both fascinating and a meaningful primer with regard to this region’s public religion. The bulk of the article that follows is a comprehensive description, in fine detail, of all the activities comprising two separate, and different, Äsala festivals. Many of the book’s remaining articles are similarly meticulous. Even the student or scholar with significant experience in South Asia will not have been directly exposed to the breadth of practices that the contributions to this book describe—often in minute detail. The authors’ attention to nuances, consequently, offer most...