AE | Volumes | Asian Ethnology 79 (1)

Kutiyattam, Heritage, and the Dynamics of Culture

Claiming India’s Place within a Global Paradigm Shift

Leah Lowthorp

UNESCO intangible cultural heritage Kutiyattam theater heritage policy cultural continuity Kerala



UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) program, with its emphasis on the intergenerational transmission of expressive culture, has been characterized as part of an emergent “East Asian paradigm” of heritage at the international organization. Through an examination of the cultural dynamics of Kutiyattam Sanskrit theater in both policy and practice, this article stakes a claim for India within this global heritage paradigm shift. In so doing, it suggests the possibility of a wider “pan-Asian” heritage paradigm at work, distinguished by an emphasis on the intergenerational transmission of expressive culture as well as a recognition of its continually changing nature.

In recent years, global heritage discourse has increasingly focused upon the intangible, part of a movement led by the global South to decenter the hegemony of Eurocentric, materialist conceptions of heritage at international organizations such as ICOMOS and UNESCO (Aikawa-Faure 2009; Blake 2001; Munjeri 2004).1 These critiques have questioned the global dominance of an "authorized heritage discourse" facilitated by underlying colonialist power structures, which has served to naturalize particular ways of thinking about heritage that privilege materiality, expert knowledge, monumentality, and aesthetics (Smith 2006; Hemme; Bendix; Tauschek, eds. 2007). Accompanied by calls for greater global equity in the arena of international heritage recognition, these critiques inspired a significant shift in focus within global heritage policy from tangible to intangible heritage forms.2 This shift is most evident at UNESCO, with the development of the organization's Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) program beginning in the 1980s.3

As Valdimar Hafstein (2004) and Chiara Bortolotto (2007) have noted, the development of UNESCO's ICH program was characterized by two distinct phases—the first emphasizing documentation and archiving as the primary means of safeguarding, and the second emphasizing intergenerational transmission. Hafstein (2004) has termed the initial phase as operating within a "European-inspired archival paradigm" that emphasizes expert knowledge and materiality via documentation—in effect, that values the tangible vestiges of expressive culture. The latter phase, influenced by the emergence of Japan and the Republic of Korea as significant players in the development of the UNESCO ICH program in the 1990s, he terms an "East Asian paradigm" that emphasizes the continued transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. While the latter term accurately describes the political influence and national models upon which UNESCO ICH legislation came to be based, it does not fully encompass the wider conceptual underpinnings of intangible heritage that emerged at the organization during this time. This article argues for an expansion of Hafstein's regional characterization through an examination of heritage approaches toward Kutiyattam Sanskrit theater, India's first UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In staking a claim for India within this emergent paradigm at UNESCO, I suggest the possibility of a wider "pan-Asian" heritage paradigm at work, distinguished both by its emphasis on the intergenerational transmission of expressive culture and an explicit recognition of its dynamic nature.

To make a brief note about methodology, the observations and assertions I make here are based upon two years of ethnographic research in Kerala state and New Delhi, India, between 2008 and 2010, with follow-up visits in 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2020. My research consisted of participant observation, my own training in the art, semi-structured and informal interviews, archival research, and document surveys. While I spent the bulk of my time at Kutiyattam institutions in Kerala, I spent two months carrying out archival research and interviews at national and international institutions in New Delhi, namely at the UNESCO Delhi field office, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Indian Ministry of Culture, and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. In all, I conducted approximately one hundred fifty interviews with Kutiyattam actors, actresses, percussionists, make-up artists, scholars, and institutional administrators, as well as Indian government officials and UNESCO personnel.

A brief history of the UNESCO ICH program

UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) program is generally viewed as originating with a 1973 letter from the minister of foreign affairs and religion of the Republic of Bolivia to the director general of UNESCO (Hafstein 2018;Hafstein; Einarsdóttir 2018).4 In the letter, the Bolivian minister observed that all existing international instruments for cultural heritage protection at the time were "aimed at the protection of tangible objects, and not forms of expression such as music and dance," which he viewed to be "undergoing the most intensive clandestine commercialization and export, in a process of commercially oriented transculturation destructive of the traditional cultures" (UNESCO 1977). The letter recommended, on the one hand, that an "International Register of Folkloristic Cultural Property" be established and a convention signed to regulate folklore preservation, promotion, and diffusion, and on the other, that a protocol be added to the 1952 Universal Copyright Convention declaring all cultural expressions to be the property of the nation-state in which they are located, with any ownership disputes between States to be adjudicated by an intergovernmental committee.

Bolivia's call was eventually taken up in a joint effort by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and UNESCO that led to the development of the 1982 Model Provisions for National Laws on the Protection of Folklore against Illicit and Other Prejudicial Actions ( UNESCO; WIPO 1985).5 This collaboration partitioned the work of folklore protection between the two organizations, with WIPO focusing on the intellectual property aspects of protection, and UNESCO on the work of safeguarding. In 1984, the organizations jointly produced the Draft Treaty for the Protection of Expressions of Folklore against Illicit Exploitation and other Prejudicial Actions, which would obligate states to protect folklore as intellectual property. This effort failed, however, due to the draft convention's rejection by industrialized member states (Blake 2001; Sherkin 2001). Despite the inability of the two organizations to produce any lasting collaboration on the issue, this division of labor persisted over time. After their joint effort ended, WIPO continued its work on the legal protection of folklore through intellectual property and copyright regimes, eventually establishing the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore in 2000. Similarly, UNESCO continued its work on the safeguarding and promotion of folklore through several programs and non-binding legal instruments that ultimately culminated in the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.6

After the failure of the joint 1982 Model Provisions and related Draft Treaty, UNESCO's next step in safeguarding folklore came with its 1989 Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, a result of a number of meetings and seminars in the years following the Bolivian government's initial request (Kurin 2001).7 The document made a number of recommendations, which emphasized expert knowledge and materiality via the documentation of folklore. These included: (1) the identification of folklore, via collecting, cataloguing, transcribing, and classifying folklore; (2) the conservation of folklore, via the creation of national folklore archives, museums, and the training of folklore conservation specialists; (3) the preservation of folklore, via supporting communities to document, archive, and research their own folklore, as well as promote scientific research relevant to folklore; (4) the dissemination of folklore, via encouraging folklore-centered events, greater media coverage of folklore, and the establishment of full-time jobs for folklorists; (5) the protection of folklore, via the intellectual property regime as well as by protecting the rights of interlocutors and collectors, as well as the materials, against misuse; and (6) international cooperation, particularly via the exchange of scientific and technical information, international folklore documentation projects, and meetings between specialists.8 Some have criticized the recommendation for its primary privileging of folklore researchers and governmental officials, instead of stakeholder communities themselves (Blake 2001).

Throughout much of the work of both WIPO and UNESCO, what later came to be called intangible cultural heritage was initially referred to as folklore. In 1993, UNESCO held an international conference entitled "International Consultation on New Perspectives for UNESCO's Programme: The Intangible Cultural Heritage," funded in large part by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (UNESCO 1993a). This forum notably marked UNESCO's abandonment of the term "folklore," which it viewed as carrying significant colonial baggage, in favor of what the organization considered a more neutral term, "intangible cultural heritage" (van Zanten 2004). The main purpose of the conference was to draw up guidelines for an intangible cultural heritage program (Aikawa 2001). This terminological shift from "folklore" to "intangible cultural heritage" coincided with a conceptual shift at UNESCO in safeguarding approaches toward folklore, with the organization's subsequent initiatives on intangible cultural heritage representing the first time that skills and knowledge, rather than their material vestiges in the form of documentation, became the focus of conservation (Blake 2001; Smith 2006). As we have seen, Hafstein (2004) has characterized this as a move to an "East-Asian paradigm," which foregrounds intergenerational transmission over archiving, research, and documentation. He observes, "Intangible cultural heritage (was) brought into existence through an act of administration—as an instance of bureaucratic logic; it constitutes an East-Asian reformation of Western precepts of conservation that are grounded in materialism and a relationship to the past mediated through stone monuments" (2004, 20).

Japan and the Republic of Korea significantly led the way in encouraging and developing the ICH program at UNESCO.9 As this article will detail, both countries provided national models for the category of "intangible cultural heritage" as well as UNESCO's Living Human Treasures initiative. Japan has played a particularly important role in funding the program's development. As mentioned, the 1993 international conference on intangible cultural heritage was funded by the Japanese government, and the same year, the UNESCO/Japan Funds-in-Trust for the Safeguarding and Promotion of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was established to provide a lasting, yearly financial contribution to the ICH program (Aikawa 2001). UNESCO/Japan Funds-in-Trust has since played a vital role in the development of the program, for example in funding international meetings, providing funds to countries to prepare applications for ICH inscription, and in providing financial aid to many of the inscribed ICH forms to implement their action plans.

Also in 1993, UNESCO's Executive Board considered the Republic of Korea's proposal that a Living Human Treasures program be initiated as the next step in UNESCO's ICH trajectory, deciding instead to invite member states to establish their own such systems (UNESCO 1993b). These would formally recognize and remunerate as "Living Human Treasures" those persons "who embody traditional wisdom and are genuine holders by excellence of tangible and intangible cultural heritage," not only ensuring the continuation of their work but the passing on of their knowledge to younger generations through training programs (UNESCO 2002).9 The stated aim of such systems was to "play a decisive role in the perpetuation of intangible cultural heritage in time and space through the establishment of mechanisms that will ensure the continuous transmission of traditional know-how from generation to generation" (ibid.).

A set of guidelines was composed based on Living Human Treasures systems already existing at the time in four member states: Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. Japan's 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties (amended in 1954, 1975, 1996, and 2004) was the first national law to establish an intangible cultural heritage category and to set up an ICH protection system (Kikuchi 2007;Kikuchi 2008; UNESCO 2002). Japan added the category of "important intangible cultural properties" in 1954, including the recognition of individual "Holders" of intangible cultural property (i.e.,Living Human Treasures). Recognized "Holders" receive special stipends, as well as additional funds for training students. In 1995, Japan added the category of "folk cultural properties," which additionally offers group recognition and the training of successive generations.

The Republic of Korea's Cultural Property Preservation Law of 1962 also constitutes a significant early measure for the safeguarding of ICH focused on recognition and transmission (Yim 2007; UNESCO 2002). One of the four recognized categories for preservation in the Korean law is "important intangible cultural properties," which similarly recognizes "holders" to perform and teach their art or craft and provides financial support to "future holders," "assistants," and "primary students" to ensure transmission to future generations. The Philippines initiated its National Artists Award in 1972 to honor artists that have made major contributions to the nation's cultural heritage, and in 1988 established the National Living Treasures Award to recognize folk and indigenous artists and ensure the transmission of their arts (UNESCO 2002). And finally, Thailand established a National Artists project in 1985 that recognizes and provides artists with a monthly stipend and a number of other benefits, as well as the obligation to teach their art to younger generations (ibid.).

The Living Human Treasures initiative could be considered the first concrete example of the paradigm shift that Hafstein formulates regarding UNESCO's approach to folklore. The guidelines for Living Human Treasures systems acknowledge this shift, stating, "One effective way of safeguarding (intangible cultural heritage) is to conserve it by collecting, recording, and archiving. An even more effective way is to ensure that the bearers of the heritage continue to acquire knowledge and skills and transmit them to future generations" (ibid., 6). This new approach at UNESCO, spearheaded by Japan and the Republic of Korea, has persisted through the present day and was foundational to the later 1997 Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity program (with 2001, 2003, and 2005 lists), and, most significantly, the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, whose 2006 entry into force created both the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.10

Claiming a place for India

As evidenced in the Living Human Treasures guidelines, UNESCO was explicit about its conceptual shift in safeguarding practice away from documentation and archiving by outside "experts," toward intergenerational transmission within communities of practitioners themselves. While Japan and the Republic of Korea facilitated this shift politically, financially, and in terms of providing national legislative models, the conceptual model of heritage undergirding this change—one that is distinguished by an emphasis upon intergenerational transmission and an assumption of expressive culture as processual—extends beyond East Asia. In this section, I claim a place for India within this paradigm shift, via the example of Kutiyattam Sanskrit theater, India's first UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Taking both an institutional top-down and practice-oriented bottom-up perspective through the lens of Kutiyattam theater, I explore key elements of this paradigm that have long been evident in the Indian context—a focus on the intergenerational transmission of expressive culture as well as the recognition of its constantly changing nature.

The strong emphasis on intergenerational transmission in the emerging ICH program at UNESCO goes hand-in-hand with changing ideas of authenticity. A constituent part of the dominant, Eurocentric heritage discourse previously described is a static conception of culture that depicts change as inauthentic. Aikawa notes that UNESCO 1993 guidelines on ICH, in contrast, prioritized "revitalizing" cultures by "adapting them to the contemporary world," with an aim "not to crystallize the intangible cultural heritage, whose fundamental characteristic is to be permanently evolving" (2001, 14). As Bortolotto (2013; 2017) stresses, the UNESCO ICH program is distinguished exactly by its lack of reference to authenticity as a criterion for inscription. In fact, the UNESCO ICH subsidiary body explicitly requested that state parties avoid any references to the term (ibid.).

The recognition of culture as intrinsically dynamic is of course nothing new, and the scholarly employment of authenticity as a lens through which to judge expressive culture has long been cast aside (Bendix 19971997). While tradition and vernacular culture are widely acknowledged in the field of folkloristics to be continually "creating the future out of the past," it is a future that, within a Euro-American paradigm, is often conceived as unchanged (Glassie 1995, 395). Thomas (2005) notes that the framing of culture as heritage problematically formulates change as loss, while Bortolotto (2013) observes that authenticity is often conceptualized as "resistance to change." UNESCO's Yamamoto Declaration dispensed with the idea altogether in the realm of ICH, stating, "considering that intangible cultural heritage is constantly recreated, the term 'authenticity' as applied to tangible cultural heritage is not relevant when identifying and safeguarding intangible cultural heritage" (2004, 4).

This conceptualization of expressive culture as constantly recreated also goes hand-in-hand with that of safeguarding via intergenerational transmission. We can see these twin concepts at work in both state and practitioner approaches toward the safeguarding of Kutiyattam Sanskrit theater in India. Kutiyattam is generally considered the oldest continuously performed theater in the world, performed in what is now the southwestern Indian state of Kerala since the ninth to tenth or eleventh to twelfth centuries CE (Moser 2011; Raja 1980). It was integrated into Kerala's caste-based temple complex in the thirteenth or fourteenth century as a kulathozhil, or hereditary occupation, by the men and women of the Chakyar, Nambiar, and Nangiar castes, where it remained until 1949. It is especially notable that women have historically played female roles onstage, a relatively rare occurrence within South Asian theater forms. Kutiyattam is a theater of the imagination where actors and actresses have the power to spend hours improvising upon a single line of text, to embody heroes, heroines, demons, and goddesses, and to move backward and forward through millennia in a single sitting.

Kutiyattam presents plays dating from the second to tenth centuries ce composed by classical Sanskrit playwrights such as Bhasa, Saktibhadra, and Harsha. These predominantly depict stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, although a few address Buddhist themes. Narrated via mudra hand gestures, dramatic rasa facial expressions, stylized movements, and rich percussive accompaniment, Kutiyattam is distinguished by the fact that the art never performs a play in its entirety. Rather, only one act of a play is ever performed at a time, lasting anywhere from five to forty-one days on the temple stage, although public stage performances today are usually presented as a single two to three hour edited segment. The art is now performed upon both temple and public stages throughout Kerala, India, and the wider world, and was inscribed as India's first UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. Figure 1: Pothiyil Ranjith Chakyar (left) and Aparna Nangiar (right) in Balivadhom Kutiyattam, January 8, 2020. Photo credit: Leah Lowthorp.

India has been at the forefront of institutional safeguarding and promotion of intangible heritage since the early days of the Indian state. In the 1950s, India's newly created Ministry of Culture undertook initiatives to promote the continuity of its varied cultural practices, most notably the founding of the national academies for music, dance, and drama (Sangeet Natak Akademi), for the literary arts (Sahitya Akademi), and for the visual arts (Lalit Kala Akademi). Each of these academies took on the responsibility of preserving and promoting Indian arts in their respective domains, which quickly became formulated as "heritage" within a newly established national framework. As heritage formation is considered a political process that privileges certain groups of people within the national imaginary while excluding others, scholars have made the critical observation that Indian national heritage tends to be Hindu, with strong emphasis upon the Sanskritic, and upper-caste, constructing the nation as culturally Hindu (Anderson 1983; Bhatti 2005; Dalmia 1997).11

In the wider postcolonial Indian context, change is conceptualized as a constituent characteristic of expressive culture. This concept is exemplified by the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), the Indian national academy for dance, drama, and music, which was founded in newly independent India to "create conditions for a healthy growth and development of art traditions" (SNA n.d.1953–58). Here we see the terms "growth" and "development," both of which imply change, associated with the health of expressive traditions. From early on, the SNA associated creativity with continuity, stating as its founding priorities the "setting up of high standards for creative activity," and "provid[ing] necessary field of expression for creative urge [sic] by opening new avenues and giving various incentives . . . to help continue the art traditions which stood in imminent danger of decay and total extinctions [sic]" (SNA n.d.1958–59). This idea is particularly clear in the SNA's 1953 inaugural speech by then education minister Maulana Azad, who emphasized, "Nowhere is it truer than in the field of art that to sustain means to create. Traditions cannot be preserved but can only be created afresh" (SNA n.d.1953–58). The SNA also stressed knowledge exchange as part of artistic growth, asserting: "The Akademi formulated and implemented its policy in a way that it was able to overcome the barrier [between the classes], even if partially, and thus making the renewed free and natural exchange of artistic experience and knowledge between the different strata of our people in reality" (SNA n.d.1958–59). From the founding days of Indian national institutions dealing with expressive culture, therefore, we see an assumption of cultural sustainability taking place via artistic development, creation, and exchange.12

With this founding principle of cultural sustainability via dynamic notions of safeguarding and cultural change, the SNA has since supported Indian "folk" and "classical" performing arts in the form of recognition, performance opportunities, public promotion, and financial support for artists and students to foster intergenerational transmission.13 While the SNA has consistently supported programs for diverse folk and traditional forms over the years, much of its efforts have focused on a smaller group of "classical" arts. By dint of their smaller number, these elite arts have received a comparatively disproportionate amount of attention and funding from the organization.14 As it imagined its founding function as meant to fill the gap left by the destruction of royal patronage of elite arts, as well as to facilitate the new nation's cultural unity, this focus is unsurprising (SNA n.d.1593–58). Anita Cherian has argued that the SNA played a seminal role in performing India's modernity via a cultural unity constructed as a "sovereign and pan-Indian space of an ancient culture and aesthetics rooted in a vocabulary of (Hindu) spirituality" (2009, 34).

An upper-caste, Hindu, and Sanskrit-based theater, Kutiyattam easily fits the idealized model of Indian national heritage. Its engagement with the SNA began in 1964, when Mani Madhava Chakyar became the first Kutiyattam artist to be awarded a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the highest national recognition given to performing artists, as well as to perform in the nation's capital, sponsored by the SNA in collaboration with the Paderewski Foundation of Poland (SNA n.d.1963–64). The same year, he was filmed under the scheme "Filming the Repertoire of Outstanding Exponents of Traditional Dance Forms," which demonstrates the fluidity of the SNA's classification of Kutiyattam as folk, traditional, and classical dance, drama, and theater (Lowthorp 2013a; SNA n.d.1963–64). In 1971, the SNA began funding the training of higher-level students in Kutiyattam under the scheme "Fellowship for Specialised Training in Music, Dance, & Drama," a program that the SNA conducted between 1968 and 1983, which paired students with gurus in order to promote the transmission of a number of performing arts, providing stipends to both of them (SNA n.d.1972–73).15 A few years later in 1976/77, scholarships for students of both Kutiyattam acting and percussion were added (SNA n.d.1976–77). The same year, Kutiyattam was incorporated into the new scheme "Promotion and Preservation of Rare Forms of Traditional Performing Arts," which provided financial assistance to practitioners to train pupils in endangered forms so as to "ensure their continuation," promoting them "with a view to reviving and supporting (endangered arts) by making (them) better known among the people" (ibid.).16 This scheme supported Kutiyattam through 1991.

The next major initiative the SNA implemented with Kutiyattam came in 1991 with the introduction of the scheme "National Centres for Specialized Training in Music and Dance," which aimed to "preserve performing arts traditions threatened by a changing socio-economic environment." The program encompassed a "total-care plan" for Kutiyattam by ensuring "systematic transmission of the art from ageing gurus to the younger generation of artists" and sponsored regular year-round performances "in order to provide economic sustenance to artists and to create a better understanding of and an appreciative audience for the art" (SNA n.d.1991–92).17 This "total care" came in the form of financial remuneration to teachers, fellowships and stipends to students, artist pensions, and performance opportunities, all with the ultimate aim of facilitating artistic continuity. It further provided performance subsidies to three Kutiyattam training institutions, notably excluding the Kerala state-funded performing arts institution, Kerala Kalamandalam.18 Whereas all dependable state support had formerly been concentrated at Kalamandalam, this scheme was the first to provide regular support to the art form across several institutions, thereby allowing alternative training centers access to state financial support.

The Indian state's dynamic safeguarding approach is evidenced over the years through its policy toward Kutiyattam theater, with the governmental funding of artistic transmission from guru to student, as I have discussed, as well as various projects for artistic innovation and new choreographies.19 An example of the former is the SNA's 1995 "Kutiyattam to the People" project that funded performances by a mix of hereditary and non-hereditary performers in temple theaters that had fallen out of use. As non-hereditary Kutiyattam artists are still generally not permitted to perform in temple theaters in Kerala today, this program expressly sought to defy orthodoxy and promote change. An example of the latter is when the Ministry of Culture awarded a Junior Fellowship to actress Margi Sathi in 1997 for scripting and choreographing an entirely new women's solo performance corpus of forty to fifty days, entitled Ramacharitam (the story of Rama). This choreography radically expanded the repertoire of women's solo performance, previously focused exclusively on the story of Krishna.20

The 1991 scheme for endangered arts continued to provide financial support to Kutiyattam until the art's declaration by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001, which the SNA celebrated as the culmination of its "years of intensive work under the Kutiyattam project" (SNA n.d.2004–05). I was told by an arts administrator critical of the process at the national level that Kutiyattam's recognition did not come as a surprise. Rather, it was seen by many as the perfect combination of the characteristics that those in the national cultural sector favor as Indian heritage: upper-caste and Sanskrit-based. This was also viewed as further evidence of the power that Kerala state holds in the national cultural arena. Cherian has described Kerala's function in the wider national imaginary as "a metaphor for the idealized nation, a space which had developed the essence of India, that is, its Sanskritic civilization" (2005, 311).

As a result of Kutiyattam's UNESCO designation, the SNA established a national center for the art called Kutiyattam Kendra in Kerala's capital city of Trivandrum in 2007.21 Kutiyattam Kendra works toward the support and promotion of the art, distributing funding in the form of teacher's salaries and student stipends to several old and new training institutions, as well as funding for equipment, costumes, and annual performance festivals. Kutiyattam artists have welcomed this development, which represents the largest allocation of state resources to the art to date. However, many view its UNESCO inscription and the associated opening of Kutiyattam Kendra as a complicated issue that has both positive and negative implications. On the one hand, the number of Kutiyattam institutions has more than doubled, giving many artists a stable, living wage for the first time in their lives, although this income has become increasingly unstable in recent years. State and societal recognition of the art has also substantially increased, giving the artists and their students a greater sense of confidence and pride in the art than ever before.

On the other hand, increased state funding has brought increased state regulation, imposing a much stricter model of attendance and formal leave taking (to be granted or refused by authorities) that many artists perceive as a loss of artistic freedom.22 It has also upended previous power dynamics within the community to a certain degree and introduced a number of new inequities between junior and senior artists who are institutionally affiliated and those who are not. And finally, there are concerns that the increase in funding has sparked a more individually oriented focus within the art, along with an explosion of new choreographies by both junior and senior artists that are permeated by a sense of individual ownership, which is seen by some artists as a troubling move away from the more traditional practice of innovation as an act restricted to senior artists for the greater good of the art as a whole.23

As in Japan and the Republic of Korea, we see both UNESCO's understanding of expressive culture as "constantly recreated" and its focus upon the intergenerational transmission of "living" heritage preceded by decades of similar heritage discourse and practice in India, despite the relatively recent incorporation of these concepts into international heritage discourse. With an emphasis on cultural sustainability, defined since the early days of the Indian nation as meaning that "traditions cannot be preserved, but (only) . . . created afresh," along with state-sponsored programs steadily supporting both intergenerational transmission and innovation since that time, we see a larger national context where change is both assumed and encouraged as part of artistic practice. Rather than representing a radical new heritage paradigm, UNESCO's ICH program, as introduced through the 2001 recognition of Kutiyattam, instead represented a closely aligned continuity with decades of existing heritage discourse and practice within India.

For their part, Kutiyattam artists conceptualize change as a defining feature of art, with theater viewed as needing to adapt to the changing tastes of audiences over time in order to survive. Artists understand Kutiyattam as having undergone inevitable and continuous adaptation throughout its history, and in the sense of Mary Douglas (1973) they perceive the performing body as continually responding to shifts in the social body over time. Several have stressed to me that Kutiyattam is not a "museum piece" that has remained static over time, and that it is only still in existence because it has adapted to the changing times. Many have also emphasized that artists are contemporary individuals who live and think according to the times in which they live, and that art, as a dynamic creative endeavor, is meant to change. As one young artist remarked, "You can't only do the old pieces, because the world we are seeing is new, so an actor has to do new things."

The concept of change as inherent to art is evident in many artists' narratives about twentieth-century safeguarding efforts that were largely initiated by two respected gurus, Painkulam Rama Chakyar and Mani Madhava Chakyar. These efforts happened during a time of extreme social, political, and economic upheavals in twentieth-century Kerala that Robin Jeffrey has characterized as "a social collapse more complete than anywhere in India" (1992, 2). This collapse entailed the destruction of the matrilineal joint-family system, the spread of formal education and associated rising political activism, and the end of the feudal system via land redistribution legislation by one of the world's first (1957) democratically elected Communist governments (Jeffrey 1992). As a matrilineal, home-educated, land-owning community, Kutiyattam was intimately affected by these changes.

Having lost their primary income, members of the community increasingly sought other occupations. Painkulam Rama Chakyar and Mani Madhava Chakyar sought new ways to sustain the art—taking it outside of the temple to new performance spaces, teaching it to non-hereditary community members, revamping the costume and standards for the Kutiyattam body in performance, vastly shortening performance length, and introducing new choreographies—all of which were highly controversial at the time. Contemporary artists now celebrate these gurus' revolutionary efforts as necessary for Kutiyattam's survival, by providing it the means to change with the changing times. Next I describe the first three of these changes—taking the art to new performance spaces, teaching it to those outside of the hereditary community, and reinventing the female costume—that are now considered crucial elements of contemporary performance. Within fifteen years of Indian independence, Kutiyattam was taken both outside of the temple and outside of Kerala for the first time. Inspired by Joseph Mundasseri, a radical literary critic and future Communist education minister of Kerala, and who as a Christian was not permitted to enter the temple theater to watch the art, Painkulam Rama Chakyar brought the art to audiences outside of the temple in 1949 (Varma 1978a;Varma 1978b). He continued thereafter to perform at non-temple venues throughout Kerala, despite intense criticism from the Kutiyattam community and purported attempts to banish him from performing in temple theaters altogether (Gopalakrishnan 2004). Mani Madhava Chakyar, on the other hand, first brought Kutiyattam on tour outside of Kerala to Chennai in 1962 and north India in 1964. He was also the first Kutiyattam artist to win the national Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1964, thus bringing Kutiyattam to wider national attention, as previously mentioned. In 1980, it was again Painkulam Rama Chakyar who was the first to take a Kutiyattam troupe on tour internationally, to Paris. K. T. Rama Varma (Varma 1978a;Varma 1978b), from his perspective only thirty years after Kutiyattam's first temple exit, significantly marked the changing times by writing: "Today people will laugh if they hear that once Chakyars considered it a grievous sin to perform outside the temple." And today forty years after Varma, Kutiyattam is performed more often on public stages than it is on temple stages and regularly circulates throughout Kerala, India, and the wider world.

Similarly, both gurus played a significant role democratizing the art by teaching it to non-hereditary performers. Mani Madhava Chakyar was the first to teachKutiyattam to non-hereditary actors—his two sons, who as a result of matrilineal inheritance were not hereditary actors (Chakyars), but hereditary drummers (Nambiars). While they primarily trained in Kutiyattam's mizhavu drum,he taught them several acting roles as well, and they debuted publicly onstage in the late 1950s. He was severely criticized by many others in the Kutiyattam community who demanded he cease their teaching and formally apologize for his "mistake," and who sought his banishment from temple performance when he refused. In 1963, Mani Madhava Chakyar also trained the first foreign student of Kutiyattam, Maria Krzysztof Byrski of Poland, beginning an important trend that would continue through the present day. During his three-month stay, Byrski (2008–09) describes being welcomed into the family "almost like one of (Guruji's) sons," both living in the house and eating together with them, a progressive gesture at the time for a family of the "half-Brahmin" Chakyar and Nambiar temple castes with strict rules of bodily purity and pollution.

Painkulam Rama Chakyar, as the first head of the new Kutiyattam department at Kerala state arts institution Kerala Kalamandalam in 1965, is largely credited with the widespread democratization of the art to those outside of Kutiyattam's hereditary community. Despite the fact that, as a public institution, Kerala state mandated this democratization, he nevertheless faced intense opposition from many members of the greater Kutiyattam community, with several fearing that their right to temple performances would be threatened by the opening of performance to non-community members. Even though his first student, Sivan Namboodiri, occupied a higher caste position than Kutiyattam performers, he was widely shunned at the time, and today vividly recounts his guru's fierce defense of him, with intense emotion.24 One such rejection in the early 1970s at a temple performance in Manjeri resulted in Painkulam Rama Chakyar boycotting the performance, reportedly saying: "If my disciple is not acceptable to you, then you are not acceptable to me." Both gurus thus braved censure from the wider Kutiyattam community for the sake of making radical changes they both saw as necessary for the continuity of the art.

Finally, we turn to the reinvention of the female costume and make-up at Kerala Kalamandalam, whose complete redesign was spearheaded by Painkulam Rama Chakyar beginning in the mid-1960s. The earlier costume—which is still sometimes used by non-professional hereditary actresses on the temple stage today—is characterized by both impermanence and immobility. It consisted of a cone-shaped crown constructed anew out of natural materials for each performance, with a bark base, red fabric covering, and decorative natural flowers and other ornaments according to the individual taste of the actress. It had split skirts that reflected the actress's limited movement onstage, usually either standing in place or remaining seated on a stool for the duration of the performance. As one non-hereditary actress put it, "it was not beautiful." She mirthfully recounted a performance in the transition period in which she, playing the heroine, got the "good costume" while her co-actress was left to wear the old, and by association, "bad" costume.

By contrast, the new costume, and that used in performances on public stages (as well as temple stages by professional hereditary actresses), entails a permanent female crown out of wood in the shape of the crown of the Krishna character in the allied art form of Kathakali. Decorated with red-colored yarn, gold foil, and mirrors, it is widely viewed as a vast improvement over the previous one, being both more beautiful and more durable. Following the same trend, yarn garlands replaced natural flower garlands. The revitalized female performance entailed a lot of movement around the stage, jumping and taking high steps with raised legs and a stronger, more active body than that previously described. Thus, the former split skirt was no longer in line with notions of female propriety and was substituted for a full skirt, with pants added underneath. With the standardization of the body came the standardization of the costume on public stages, with a guiding principle toward the greater aestheticization of the costume and performance undergirded by the belief that if it was made more beautiful, new, "modern" audiences would take interest, and the art would thereby be "saved." Kutiyattam artists thus operate with a fundamental assumption of change and adaptation as core elements of artistic continuity via intergenerational transmission. It is an assumption that art maintains its relevance only through the connections it makes with contemporary audiences over time. Rather than assuming culture as static, this formulation recognizes its intrinsic dynamism. As one artist eloquently told me:

Kutiyattam is like a river. We bathe ourselves in only one small corner of the river, so how can we know the whole river? We enter the river to bathe, just that. Where does the river come from? We don't know. The river of Kutiyattam has flowed for one, two thousand years. I've been in this river for only thirty years in one small corner, so how I can know where the river will flow from here? Maybe it will flow into an ocean; it should go its own way.

To make one last observation regarding Kutiyattam, intergenerational transmission, and UNESCO, I note that artists significantly view financial sustainability as a crucial element of intergenerational transmission and cultural continuity. While many artists are generally satisfied that the current generation of Kutiyattam performers has been "safeguarded" through the increased financial stability that UNESCO recognition has brought them in teaching the art to the next generation, many fear for the fate of their students.27 With most salaried teaching positions filled, and retirement for the current generation still far off, it is uncertain how senior students will be able to continue a career as performing artists without the prospect of financial stability that their teachers currently have. Teachers fear that, after years of rigorous training, students will be financially forced to seek other professions, a fate familiar to Kutiyattam students for over half a century, and one that Kutiyattam's post-UNESCO safeguarding project was unfortunately not farsighted enough to avoid.

Conclusion: Toward a pan-Asian paradigm?

The emergence of the ICH program represented a substantial shift in UNESCO discourses of authenticity, representation, and membership since the 1972 World Heritage Convention (Meyer-Rath 2007). I have argued here for the twofold expansion of Hafstein's (2004) "East Asian paradigm" at UNESCO: its regional expansion to include India, which has a demonstrated history of both top-down institutional and bottom-up practice-oriented expression of similar principles; and for its conceptual expansion to include the assumption of the fundamental dynamism of expressive culture. The distinguishing factor here is not the dynamic approaches to expressive culture within the Kutiyattam community, as many communities around the world consider creativity a necessary element of their ever-evolving traditions. Rather, what sets the Indian case apart is the early institutionalization of these ideas at the governmental level, which we have seen clearly demonstrated in the policies and programs of the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Emily Wilcox (2018) has recently observed a similar concept at work in the Chinese state's approach toward the creation and curation of the national dance form known as Chinese dance. Proposing the term "dynamic inheritance," she argues for viewing artistic innovation as a necessary component of the continuity of tradition in a Chinese national context. She further notes the conflict that this conception of tradition has had with European conceptions of authenticity, citing the case of Chinese traditional music and the central importance therein not of preserving static form but of making sure it remains relevant to contemporary audiences.25 As we observed with UNESCO's Living Human Treasures initiative, the guidelines were modeled not only upon the existing national systems of the East Asian nations of Japan and the Republic of Korea but upon those of the Southeast Asian nations of Thailand and the Philippines as well.26 Combined with the evidence from India, these examples suggest the possibility that this larger emergent paradigm at UNESCO could more aptly be considered a wider "pan-Asian" heritage paradigm, characterized by an emphasis on the intergenerational transmission of expressive culture and a processual approach toward expressive culture. However, further research into conceptions of cultural continuity and the safeguarding of expressive culture in additional countries is needed.


Leah Lowthorp is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at the University of Oregon. Her work spans the impact of global cultural policy on artist communities in South Asia, community advocacy and the arts, and the digital folklore of human reproductive and genetic technologies. Her current book project takes a postcolonial approach to cosmopolitanism, UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, and the politics of culture in India through the lens of Kutiyattam Sanskrit theater. Leah has published articles in the Journal of American Folklore, Western Folklore,and the Journal of Folklore Research,among others. She is also co-editor of the book South Asian Folklore in Transition: Crafting New Horizons (Routledge, 2018).


  1. ICOMOS is the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. As Ahmed Skounti (2009) notes, in his capacity as a Moroccan delegate in sessions working toward the creation of the UNESCO Convention of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2002 and 2003, "it was not rare to hear government experts from southern countries describe the instrument being drafted as a revenge from those countries on the 'monopoly exercised by the North on the 1972 Convention'" (90, footnote). 

  2. See Bumbaru 2003 for a description of this process at ICOMOS and how the recognition of intangible heritage there was significantly facilitated through collaboration with African colleagues. 

  3. This shift also entailed changes to the World Heritage program, namely creating the category of cultural landscapes and allowing for greater inclusion of intangible values associated with sites; see Beazley and Deacon 2007; Deacon et. al. 2004. 

  4. Bortolotto (2007) notes an earlier 1963 critique of the UNESCO World Heritage Program's definition of heritage as monuments from the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies, namely that this definition does not apply to aboriginal culture. 

  5. For more details on this collaboration and timeline, see Blake 2001

  6. For studies of the parallel development of the WIPO Committee in reaction against dominant Western discourses, in this case the hegemonic conception of the individual, instead of the collective, as author, see Wendland 2004

  7. The failure of the 1982 Model Provisions is twofold—both of UNESCO and WIPO's attempt to create a convention, and of the model provisions to be adopted in national legislation by member states. 

  8. See Blake 2001 for an expanded discussion of the UNESCO 1989 Recommendation. 

  9. Bortolotto (2007) notes that Japan made a concerted political and economic effort, between 1993 and 2003, to export its "paradigm of heritage based on a non-linear view of history" to UNESCO and the wider world (24). This entailed financing (via UNESCO/Japan Funds-in-Trust) the new Safeguarding and Promotion of the Intangible Cultural Heritage program, and having Japanese officials in high-level, key UNESCO positions prioritizing the ICH program. Dawson Munjeri (2009) also states that Japan played a large role in the adoption of the 2003 Convention by accelerating its ratification in "developing countries." 

  10. Because of the strength of existing ICH programs in both Japan and the Republic of Korea, each country's adoption of the 2003 Convention has raised the necessity of reworking their national systems to comply with the new international standard. For example, for both this has meant adapting to a much broader definition of ICH as well as integrating a greater emphasis on community involvement; see Miyata 2008; Park 2008. 

  11. Among others, Dalmia (1997) charts a joint Orientalist-nationalist reconstruction of culture and religion in India that was both Hindu and upper-caste, and Bhatti (2005) characterizes India's postcolonial period as exhibiting a tension between constitutional utopia and social reality, in which heritage claims are made by one particular religious group (Hindus). See also Lowthorp 2013b, Lowthorp 2017. This trend has been exacerbated in the periods in which the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has held power in India, namely in a coalition government in 1999–2004, and winning the general elections in 2014 and 2019. 

  12. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), another national institution that works in the arena of expressive culture, also evidences a dynamic view of expressive culture in its aims and objectives, among which are: "to provide a forum for a creative and critical dialogue . . . amongst the diverse arts, traditional and contemporary," "to evolve models of research programmes and arts administration more pertinent to the Indian ethos," and "to elucidate the formative and dynamic factors in the complex web of interactions between diverse social strata, communities and regions" (IGNCA n.d.). In the arena of material culture, Himanshu Ray (2012) observes that monuments such as Bodh Gaya and Gaya were historically considered "living" shrines, and thereby continually changed and updated, reminiscent of the dynamic approach to traditional structures currently taken in Japan (see Hafstein 2018; Munjeri 2009). As Ray notes, however, British colonialist logic transformed these multi-religious shrines into static mono-religious "relics," in a legacy that persists today. In Decolonising Heritage in South Asia,Ray (2019) argues for the decolonization of approaches toward ancient heritage sites in the region. 

  13. It has also supported modern theater over the years, with the National School of Drama under the SNA from 1958–1974, and a funding scheme it offered for many years entitled "Assistance to Young Theatre Workers," whose objective was to encourage the creation of an indigenous modern theater inspired by traditional/folk theater forms. See Lowthorp 2017 and Fiol 2017 for greater discussion of the concepts of "folk" and "classical" in India. 

  14. This could be a partial result of the SNA's 1964/65 decision that the primary concern of the state academies should be "preservation of the local art forms in the field of dance, drama and music, including folk music, folk dance, and folk drama" (SNA 1964–65, 12). An example of this disproportionate attention and funding is the permanent institutions created for certain forms like Kathak, Manipuri, Sattriya, and Kutiyattam (see footnote xxi). 

  15. Although Kutiyattam is not listed as a beneficiary of this program in the SNA 1971–72 annual report, the 1972–73 report notes that the support to Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar and his student Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar under this scheme was extended for one year. 

  16. Other forms included in the scheme this first year were Bhagavata Mela, Chandaini, Chhau, Dhrupad, and Pavakoothu, with Alaha, Bhand Pathor, Bhavai, Maach, and Ravanchhaya added the following year. 

  17. While the program initially only funded Kutiyattam, it has since added Chhau and Sattriya dances. 

  18. Namely Margi, Mani Madhava Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, and Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam. 

  19. For a discussion of how governmental initiatives represented a translation process of Kutiyattam into national heritage, see Lowthorp 2013b; 2017. One example of a program promoting innovation that did not involve Kutiyattam is the SNA co-sponsored program, "Tradition and Innovation in Indian Dance," which "featured newly choreographed works by leading dancers, both Indian and foreign" (SNA 1984–85, 17). 

  20. The Ministry of Culture granted this award to a few other Kutiyattam artists over the years as well. For more on innovation and freedom in women's Kutiyattam performance, see Casassas 2012 and Lowthorp 2016. 

  21. SNA has also established other permanent institutions for art forms and their teaching, namely the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipuri Dance Academy for the promotion of Manipuri dance, taken over by SNA in 1957; Kathak Kendra for the fostering of Kathak dance, taken over by SNA in 1964; and the Sattriya Kendra in 2008. 

  22. As Hafstein asks, "When is (heritage) protection not a means of dispossession?" (2018, 49). 

  23. For a more in-depth discussion of the effects of UNESCO recognition upon Kutiyattam artists, see Lowthorp 2013a, 2015. 

  24. While I heard this story from him firsthand, he also recounts the story during his interview for the UNESCO/Japan Funds-in-Trust funded documentary, "The Master of Valour: Kalamandalam Sivan Namboothiri" (C-DIT n.d.). 

  25. See Wu 2015 and Qing; Zheng 2018 for examples of this concept in traditional arts communities in China. Wu notes that "women villagers who practiced the newly invented tradition [making paper cuts into handmade garments] were conscious of seeing tradition as a process of active engagement and reflection, instead of replicating some essentialized unchanging practices" (2015, 78). Lin Qing and Lian Zheng (2018) observe that historic "bold" innovations within the Chinese Gu embroidery community had a profound impact on subsequent generations. 

  26. See Lowthorp 2010 and Vaivade; Wagener 2017 for examples of ICH legislation in several other countries. 


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