A Response to the Criticism of Janani Mandayam Comar’s Reading Religion Review
Dr. Sabrina D. MisirHiralall, Montclair State University
While I welcome the constructive criticism of scholars in the field, I believe it is crucial to respond to the criticism of Janani Mandayam Comar who misunderstands and misrepresents my monograph Devotional Hindu Dance: A Return to the Sacred. Comar is a graduate student who did not seem to understand the methodology that I engaged in throughout the text or the main points of the book. For this reason, I consider it necessary to publicly respond to Comar to provide clarification on my text.
Background and Overview of Text
I focus primarily on my philosophy of education for teaching non-Hindus in my first text Confronting Orientalism: A Self-Study of Educating Through Hindu dance (MisirHiralall, 2017), which develops directly from my larger dissertation research. In this current text, Devotional Hindu Dance: A Return to the Sacred (MisirHiralall, 2021), I place attention on my philosophy of education for teaching primarily Hindus about Hinduism through Hindu dance. I do not mean to create a dichotomy between non-Hindus and Hindus. In fact, I urge non-Hindus to read Devotional Hindu Dance: A Return to the Sacred (MisirHiralall, 2021) because they will learn about Hinduism. Hindus ought to read my abovementioned text, Confronting Orientalism: A Self-Study of Educating Through Hindu dance (MisirHiralall, 2017) since it provides foundational insight on Hinduism. The reason I developed these undeniably intertwining projects as separate texts is because each text has a distinct pedagogical goal. Non-Hindus do not approach the text with a theological perspective based on Hinduism. Thus, I focus on teaching Hinduism academically in Confronting Orientalism: A Self-Study of Educating Through Hindu dance (MisirHiralall, 2017) as I shed light on the problems that I encountered when dancing primarily among non-Hindus. Hindus maintain a faith-based theological stance that stems from Hinduism. Therefore, my goal in this current project, Devotional Hindu Dance: A Return to the Sacred, is to enrich the education and worship of faith-based Hindus while simultaneously teaching non-Hindus about Hinduism. Moreover, I focus on addressing the current problems with Hindu dance education in this text as I present my philosophy for teaching Hindu dance. My texts are important because they endorse religious literacy based on a theological stance of Hinduism coupled with my actual lived realities as a faith-based Hindu.
With this background of my scholarship in mind, I will move onto provide an overview of Devotional Hindu Dance: A Return to the Sacred (MisirHiralall, 2021) since this is the text that Comar reviews. Due to the legacy of colonialism, the educational system of Hindu dance moved from the sacred teaching of dance to a Westernized approach. Many Hindu-based dance institutions adhere to a Western educational system that dismisses the sacred ethic of Hindu dance in a manner that disregards the traditional religious-educational system of Hindu dance. Current Hindu-based dance institutions that claim to maintain a tradition of Hindu dance focus on performing for stage commitments that emphasize culture rather than dance for devotional reasons, which was the intended purpose of Hindu dance, based on Hindu dance scriptures. In turn, viewers may perceive the dance as mere cultural entertainment. I consider it necessary to confront this by de-Orientalizing Hindu dance (MisirHiralall, 2017) as I dance especially among Hindus for this project.
In the text, I explore the concepts of bhakti (Hawley, 2015) and ethical responsibility as I present prerequisites for individuals who wish to be my students. These prerequisites develop from my ongoing self-study (Loughran, 2004) that explores pedagogy to teach about Hinduism through Hindu dance. In addition, I discuss how dance students should prepare to learn Hindu dance with me whereas viewers ought to prepare to view Hindu dances. Following this, I relate an introduction to the ethics of Hindu dance based on the Natya Shastra (BharataMuni, 2000) and introduce the language of Hindu dance as conveyed in the Abhinaya Darpanam (Nandikesv́ara, & Apparao, 1997).
Overall, I aim to provoke a devotional experience for Hindu dancers and a phenomenological experience for viewers of the dance. Specifically, I hope to move the cultural gaze of Hindus to an educational gaze (MisirHiralall, 2017), which seeks to learn about Hindu philosophy in a manner that considers the component of devotion. Dancers who dance without devotion repeatedly reduce Hindu dance to a phenomenon of cultural entertainment that denies the dancer and viewers the possibility of a devotional experience. My goal is to return Hindu dance to a sacred artform.
Response to Criticism
To begin with, Comar critiques the self-study methodology that I engage in as she states,
“In the book we do not actually see the presence of the peer scholars MisirHiralall engaged, and so it is difficult to ascertain the exact role these individuals played in shaping MisirHiralall’s understanding of the various topics she explores. Moreover, it would be useful for a reader to understand the contributions of her peer scholars in order to more comprehensively evaluate how she uses her reflections to make broader claims about the way the dance form should be taught and practiced.”
This comment clearly displays Comar’s lack of knowledge of the self-study methodology. While some research methods call for the sharing of data, the data of one’s self-study research is very personal and thus, very vulnerable data. In self-study research, the researcher chooses what to share with the public for this reason. In this particular self-study project, my Peer Scholars wished to remain anonymous. The research is not the research of my Peer Scholars. The goal of the Peer Scholars is to assist with my research. What matters here, especially in a short text where publishers demand a limited word count, are the themes that emerge from the research. As I state in the text, the role of the Peer Scholars is to help me deliberate philosophically about the themes of the research to confirm and challenge my suspicions that arise in the data. This is the “behind the scenes” analysis of the data.
Comar then suggests a text that does not relate to the main goal of my book. Comar states,
“It would have been interesting to see MisirHiralall put her argument in conversation with Matthew Allen’s thesis in ‘Rewriting the Script for South Indian Dance’ (The Drama Review, 1997) where he argues that the narrative about the ‘sacred origins’ of dance was part of a larger cultural nationalist project to distance the art form from hereditary practitioners who were charged with secularizing the art.”
The suggested resource is an academic journal article that discusses the revival of Indian Classical dance as the author theorizes about the re-construction, re-naming, re-situating, and re-storation of the artform (Allen, 1997). While this article holds theoretical merit, it is not relevant for the purposes of my text. The goal of my text is not to move into the nuanced history of the colonization of Indian classical Hindu dance or to theorize about modern day Indian classical Hindu dance practices. Rather, the goal of my book is to relate how my philosophy of Indian classical Hindu dance develops based on Hindu theology and influences my identity as a Hindu dance educator as I share my expectations for my future students. This text, albeit published with a highly reputable academic scholarly press, is not meant to be a theoretical text primarily for academia. In my previous text, Confronting Orientalism: A Self-Study of Educating Through Hindu dance, I focus significantly on a postcolonial theoretical analysis (Bhabha, 1994; Nandy, 2002; Said, 1979). In fact, many criticize the text for being highly intellectual and academic to the point that non-academic scholars have a difficult time reading. My current text is designed for those within and outside of academia who have a passion for Indian classical Hindu dance. For this reason, I selected sources very carefully with my audience and goals in mind.
Following this, Comar critiques my conclusion as she states,
“MisirHiralall concludes that the major contribution of her study has been that it ‘sheds light on the origin and purpose of Hindu dance’ (123). However, a reader would appreciate a more nuanced understanding of ‘origin’ and ‘purpose’ as scholars have noted know that the historical narrative surrounding classical dance in India is contested especially by hereditary practitioners who push back on the idea that their community tarnished the sacredness of the art form.”
In the text, I state the origin of Hindu dance theologically based on the Natya Shastra (BharataMuni, 2000), the Hindu scripture that focuses on Hindu dance. I understand that others may not begin from a theological approach that centers on the faith of Hinduism. I also understand that not all dance forms that fall under the genre of Indian classical dance stem directly from the Natya Shastra (BharataMuni, 2000). However, for the purposes of my text, the Natya Shastra (BharataMuni, 2000) is my point of departure. My aim here is not to debate the origins of Hindu dance, which academic scholars may engage in, but rather my goal is to share how my theological stance on the origins of Hindu dance influence my Hindu dance practice and who I am as a Hindu dance educator. Here, it is clear that Comar does not understand the audience that the text is designed for or the purpose of self-study.
Comar continues to criticize the text as she states,
“The arguments MisirHiralall makes would be greatly strengthened with reference to the vast body of scholarship on the history of classical Indian dance in the 20th century (e.g., Davesh Soneji, Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India, University Chicago Press, 2012). Indeed, this history, which MisirHiralall ignores, exposes how nationalizing and Sanskritizing forces shaped the very idea of ‘classical dance,’ and demonstrates that the discourse about the ‘ancient origins’ and religious basis of dance emerged from the colonial encounter. She problematically attributes the ‘cultural turn’ of dance to orientalism without adequately accounting for how her understanding of ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ are themselves products of colonial discourses and modernity.”
Evidently, Comar has not followed my scholarship on Hindu dance because if she did, she would know that my first text Confronting Orientalism:A Self-Study of Educating Through Hindu Dance discusses the colonial encounter. In my first text, I move into detail about the depth of history of Hindu dance from a postcolonial theoretical lens. I specifically focus on how to educate primarily non-Hindus about Hinduism with postcolonialism in mind. Moreover, that is once again not the goal of the current text. Comar simply does not understand the audience of this text. This text is not meant to be a theoretical academic text that drowns readers in postcolonial theory. On the contrary, this text is designed to be a straightforward text that prepares students, within and outside of academia, to study Hindu dance with me.
The unwarranted criticism continues as Comar states,
“Moreover, many of MisirHiralall’s claims about Western orientalism causing Hindu dance to lose its religious basis fail to engage with Indian efforts in the 20th century to reinvent classical dance to be both religiously pure and culturally unifying (see the introduction in Soneji’s Unfinished Gestures (2012) for a good summary of this history.”
Again, Comar points to the need to delve into postcolonial theory in this text, which as I have continuously said is not the goal of this text. Comar assumes that I ignore the literature, yet this is not the case. I am aware of Indian efforts to reinvent classical dance religiously and culturally in the 20th century (Prasad, 1991; Putcha, 2013, Thobhani, 2019). However, this text focused on the West Indian community, which I am a part of. Here, West Indian refers to those from the Caribbean, particularly Guyana and Trinidad, with Indian ancestry. As I discuss in my first text, my great grandparents were indentured servants who were taken from India to work on British plantations in Guyana, South America. Comar is simply unaware of my background, which plays a crucial role in my self-study. With the goals of my text in mind, I chose to focus on the West Indian community and not the Indian community of India. Comar completely misses this in my book.
Comar moves on with her inadequate critique as she says,
“Lastly, MisirHiralall spends most of the book trying to explain to their readers what Hindu dance ‘really’ is and how it should be correctly learned, performed, and taught. For an academic discussion, one would expect more historically grounded work that reflects more broadly on how classical dancers in the US and West Indies (which she takes as her primary sites of analysis) perceive their art and how they engage with the troubling binary of religion and culture. MisirHiralall’s self-study method appears limiting for this reason because as readers we only see her experiences and perspective of learning and teaching dance.”
Every educator has a philosophy of education that influences teaching and learning. I consider it necessary to say that in Devotional Hindu Dance: A Return to the Sacred, I do not mean to convey that my method of teaching Hindu dance is the ultimate “correct” way but rather what I am saying in the text is that I have particular experiences as a faith-based Hindu and dance educator that has shaped my philosophy of education for teaching Hindu dance. To reiterate, this text was not written for academic purposes in higher education. This text was written for those within and outside of higher education. The goal of this text is to present my philosophy of Hindu dance and share how I choose to engage in Hindu dance pedagogy. As I mentioned earlier, I begin from a theological perspective that does not dispute what Hindu dance is. While the origins of Hindu dance (BharataMuni, 2000) are subject to debate in higher education, I share my lens of Hindu dance and present how I choose to teach my students. For this reason, the text is filled with my experiences and how I engage in the teaching and learning process. Comar completely misses this. Furthermore, Comar inaccurately portrays the community that I write about as she refers to the West Indies. “West Indies” is a reference to the isolated island groups of the North American continental shelf and the South American continental shelf. I specifically use the term “West Indian” which deceivingly does not refer to the “West Indies” but rather is a term used to describe people from Guyana along with Trinidad and Tobago of Indian descent. I explain this in my text and also move into a deeper explanation in my first text, Confronting Orientalism: A Self-Study of Educating Through Hindu Dance.
The misunderstanding of my text proceeds as Comar states,
“MisirHiralall’s work attempts to rectify what she perceives as incorrect understandings of ‘Hindu dance.’ However, as the other works mentioned above speak to strongly, there is not one, monolithic ‘purpose’ or ‘origin’ of dance from the Indian subcontinent and such a claim is itself a part of orientalist discourse, which MisirHiralall argues she is fighting against. Her book does not speak directly to religious studies or dance studies, but her self-reflexive approach and self-study method for teaching dance may be of interest to those in the field of education.”
I consider it necessary to say that my text is not a part of the Orientalist discourse. According to Edward Said (1979), Orientalism occurs when the West misrepresents the East and causes misconceptions of the East to develop. Here, Said refers to the schools of thought between the West and East since the West and East are illusionary for Said. My monographs serve to de-Orientalize Hinduism through Hindu dance based on my actual lived-reality as a faith-based Hindu and academic scholar. Comar has no grounds for providing such harsh criticism of my text, especially when she clearly has not read any of my other published books or articles. My project confronts the Orientalist discourse by returning Hindu dance to a sacred art form while simultaneously acknowledging how Hindu dance has transformed throughout history. While Hindu dance educators and scholars may not reach a consensus on the “origins” of Hindu dance or a “correct” way to teach, each Hindu dance educator brings forth a philosophy of education to teach. My text speaks to the theological aspect of Hindu dance, which therefore speaks to religious studies, and shares who I am as a Hindu dance educator.
It is evident that Comar misunderstands my scholarly work, which causes her to misrepresent my text. Here, Comar adds to the Orientalist discourse. Comar read Devotional Hindu Dance: A Return to the Sacred in isolation. In the text, I repeatedly reference my first text Confronting Orientalism: A Self-Study of Educating Through Hindu Dance. Despite this, Comar ignored the longitudal aspects of my scholarship. Scholars usually develop texts based on previous works when tackling a large subject. While Comar set out to review a particular text, she lacked knowledge of my scholarship because she was unfamiliar with my previous publications that provides background knowledge. Although she has some valid points to consider, she completely misses the purpose and goals of my current book Devotional Hindu Dance: A Return to the Sacred. Thus, I ask readers to accept my text for what it is – a text for those interested in learning about a theological stance of Hindu dance for those who wish to pursue a Hindu dance education.
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