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‘Who Is My Good Neighbor?’ Classical Indian Dance in the Prophetic Work of the Church

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AbstractThe use of the classical dance form bharatanatyam by Catholic Christians has inspired vigorous resistance from Hindus and Christians alike. The most salient of these objections relate to the use of power. Some see this form of ministry as a colonialist appropriation; others argue that it perpetuates caste and religious values that do not belong to the majority of Indian Christians, who are Dalits. While the Church may eventually abandon this form of ministry for such reasons, I argue that the case of Nav Sadhana Kala Kendra, a Catholic school of dance and music in Varanasi that produces dance programs on video disc and YouTube, subverts both forms of hegemony.

1. FN11 I would like to thank the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning and the Rhodes College CAP-Mellon Grant for funding in support of this research. I am also grateful to Jyoti Sahi, Katherine Zubko, and Angela Yarber, who have been invaluable conversation partners, and to Ananda Mitra and Jay Seghal, who provided language assistance.
2. FN22 For an excellent overview of this history and the attendant issues for the Indian Catholic Church, see Paul M. Collins, Christian Inculturation in India, Burlington VT: Ashgate 2007.
3. FN33 For a Hindu articulation of this view, see Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan, Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines, New Delhi: Amaryllis 2011, 111-123. For a Christian articulation, see Michael Prabhu, The Saint Pauls’ New Community Bible [ncb], the Papal Seminary, Pune, Indian Theologians, and the Catholic Ashrams Movement, Chennai: Metamorphose 2008, 13 (Website Metamorphose,, accessed 15 March 2012).
4. FN44 For an example of this narrative in India’s self-understanding, see Padma Subrahmanyam, Nāṭyaśāstra and National Unity, Kerala: Sri Ramavarma 1997.
5. FN55 Anne-Marie Gaston, ‘Dance and the Hindu Woman: Bharatanatyam Re-ritualized’, in: Julia Leslie (ed.), Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass 1992, 149-171.
6. FN66 Katherine C. Zubko, ‘Embodying Bhakti Rasa in Bharata Natyam: An Indian-Christian Interpretation of Gayatri Mantra through Dance’, Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies 19 (2006), 38.
7. FN77 Malhotra and Neelakandan, 119.
8. FN88 Jyoti Sahi, Stepping Stones: Reflections on the Theology of Indian Christian Culture, Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation 1986, 76-78.
9. FN99 There is a large body of literature on dance in scripture and in Christian history. See, for example, Doug Adams and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (eds.), Dance as Religious Studies, New York: Crossroad 1990. A history of Christian engagement with India’s dance forms can be found in Francis Peter Barboza, Christianity in Indian Dance Forms, Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications 1985.
10. FN1010 Sahi, 78.
11. FN1111 Hindus are not uniformly comfortable with the eroticism of this dance form either, and the devadāsī legacy has led to similar qualms about bharatanatyam from the Hindu side. One prominent response to the erotic content of the repertoire has been to allegorize it as an expression of love for God; another response has been to avoid programming such pieces altogether. See Katherine C. Zubko, ‘Embodying Bhakti Rasa: Dancing Across Religious Boundaries in Bharata Natyam’, Atlanta GA: Emory University 2008: 107-133.
12. FN1212 Sita Ram Goel, Catholic Ashrams: Adopting and Adapting Hindu Dharma, New Delhi: Voice of India 1988, x, lxv. Goel represents an extreme view of Christianity that has become popular in the Hindutva movement. I cite him and others sharing his views not in order to represent the reaction of all Hindus to Christian uses of Indian dance forms, but to highlight the political force of objections that appear in less extreme forms among Hindus who see Christianity as a foreign or colonizing religion.
13. FN1313 Goel, x, xiv. Citing Deuteronomy 6:10, Goel likens the process to the Biblical plundering of the Egyptians and the Israelite conquest of ‘a land with large and prosperous cities which [they] did not build’ (p. xiv).
14. FN1414 Malhotra and Neelakandan, 115.
15. FN1515 Hitaya, Hinduism under Threat! (n.d.), Website Hindu News Online,, 55, accessed 2 November 2011.
16. FN1616 Prabhu, The Saint Paul’s New Community Bible, 1.
17. FN1717 Website of the Diocese of Varanasi,, accessed 25 October 2011.
18. FN1818 Website of Navsadhana,, accessed 25 October 2011.
19. FN1919 Website of Navsadhana,, accessed 26 October 2011.
20. FN2020 Website of Navsadhana., accessed 26 October 2011.
21. FN2121 A small number of male students commutes to the campus from the city. Most of the boys are Hindus. Sr. Pauline, personal conversation with the author, Nav Sadhana, 15 April 2010.
22. FN2222 Fr. Paul D’Souza, personal conversation with the author, Nav Sadhana, 15 April 2010.
23. FN2323 Fr. Paul D’Souza, personal conversation with the author, Nav Sadhana, 15 April 2010.
24. FN2424 Website of Navsadhana,, accessed 26 October 2011.
25. FN2525 Fr. Paul D’Souza, personal conversation with the author, Nav Sadhana, 15 April 2010.
26. FN2626 Website of Navsadhana,, accessed 25 October 2011.
27. FN2727 Website of Navsadhana,, accessed 26 October 2011.
28. FN2828 A list of the Centre’s audio, video, and print publications is available at the website of Navsadhana,
29. FN2929 The Cultural Fusion vcd (Varanasi: Nav Sadhana n.d.) consists entirely of folk forms, featuring a Dandiya stick dance that recalls Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, a Rajasthani dance that celebrates of the resurrection of Jesus, and a style native to Maharashtra’s fishing communities that narrates the calling of Christ’s first disciples. These can be viewed at Navsadhana on YouTube:, accessed 26 October 2011.
30. FN3030 Sachiya Padosi, VCD, Varanasi: Nav Sadhana n.d.
31. FN3131 All Hindi translations are by Jay Seghal, personal communication to the author, 28 November 2011.
32. FN3232 Fr. S. Joseph, conversation with the author, Nav Sadhana, April 19, 2010. He has programmed the same music to express the eschatological unity of all nations in Jesus Event: Nritya or Pure Classical Dance to the Tune of Instrumental Music, VCD, Varanasi: Nav Sadhana n.d.
33. FN3333 Goel, x, lxv, x.
34. FN3434 Fr. Paul D’Souza, personal conversation with the author, Nav Sadhana, 15 April 2010.
35. FN3535 Website of Navsadhana,, accessed 25 October 2011.
36. FN3636 Arvind P. Nirmal, ‘Towards a Christian Dalit Theology’, in: Arvind P. Nirmal (ed.), A Reader in Dalit Theology, Madras: Gurukul 1991, 55.
37. FN3737 S.M. Michael, ‘Dalit Encounter with Christianity: Change and Continuity’, in: Rowena Robinson and Joseph Marianus Kujur (ed.), Margins of Faith: Dalit and Tribal Christianity in India, New Delhi: Sage Publications 2010, 68-69.
38. FN3838 Michael, 70.
39. FN3939 M. Gnanavaram, ‘ “Dalit Theology” and the Parable of the Good Samaritan’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 50 (1992), 73.
40. FN4040 Gnanavaram elaborates this analogy in ‘ “Dalit Theology” ’, 75-80.
41. FN4141 Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, Freedom CA: The Crossing Press 1984, 110.
42. FN4242 Sahi, 79.
43. FN4343 Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier, ‘Comparative Theology as a Theology of Liberation’, in: Francis X. Clooney SJ (ed.), The New Comparative Theology: Interreligious Insights from the Next Generation, London et al.: T&T Clark 2010, 132.

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Affiliations: 1: Wake Forest University School of Divinity Winston-Salem NC USA, Email:, URL:


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