Odissi and Digital Writing

Digital media and composing scholars have long written about the body as generator and channel of meaning-making in relation to the work of writing (Arola & Wysocki, 2012; Campbell, 2015; Fleckenstein, 2003; Johnson, 1987, 2007, 2017; Perl, 2004; Prior & Shipka, 2003; Shipka, 2011, 2015). Sondra Perl (2004), for example, identified the body as the source of writing knowledge via "felt sense": "Felt sense … is the physical place where we locate what the body knows. … [M]ore often than not, this knowing is present even before we have the words, before what we sense is expressed in language" (p. 4). However, digital writing and rhetoric has had less conversation with dance scholars on the expressive dancing body, and in particular on the communicative potential of the Odissi body in motion. This gap in conversation is one reason for the rich historical context we offer in Kaustavi's section of this webtext for those interested in learning more about Odissi in its historical context. To date, Shreelina Ghosh has been the leading voice in conversations at the intersections of Odissi dance and digital media writing. In this section, we address Ghosh's work on Odissi and digital media; situate the ways our work builds on hers; and highlight the main takeaways we see for scholars of digital writing and rhetoric to learn from explorations into Odissi and motion capture.

Ghosh, a scholar of cultural and digital rhetorics, has opened the conversation for Odissi dance and digital media studies through her own work as both Odissi performer and digital composer (Cushman et al., 2013; Cushman & Ghosh, 2012; Getto et al., 2011; Ghosh, 2012, 2014). We acknowledge her foundational work in this area and seek to expand the conversation further in our own project in ways that enter into dialogue with her scholarship. Ghosh raised important questions of negotiating boundaries in Odissi dance, with a particular emphasis on Odissi pedagogy and cultural memory: Who should learn the dance forms, and how? Who should access this cultural information, especially with its sacred information, and under what circumstances? How do digital technologies build on traditions of remediation in Odissi's history, and how do these same technologies threaten the traditional infrastructures of transmission? The issues of boundaries that she raised are significant especially in light of Odissi's religious history and the culturally situated pedagogical system of familial apprentice-learning, which cannot easily be replicated by technological mediation. According to Ghosh, in the new media representation of Odissi bodies, "the sacred bond between Guru and student is severed, thereby compromising the integrity of the transmission of culturally-situated knowledge essential to this practice. These new media representations are knowledge products that serve to both facilitate the learning of others and to mark community boundaries—they are at once syntheses and enactments that educate audiences while marking and delineating socio-cultural connections" (Getto et al., 2011, p. 164).

In our discussion, we seek to expand discussions of Odissi dance and digital media within digital composing studies, adding to the conversation that Ghosh's work has begun. Ghosh formulated the complex narratives building the Odissi tradition as "a two-thousand-year-old artistic practice whose memory has survived in bodies, texts, and artifacts over many centuries" (Getto et al., 2011, p. 170). Together with co-authors Guiseppe Getto and Ellen Cushman, Ghosh drew on her experiences as dance scholar and digital composer to develop a "framework for theorizing how new media can be composed in a way that honors the local efforts of communities to represent themselves to those both outside and inside of the community. … This framework begins with an understanding of mediation that includes the creation of meaning and the creation of boundaries that are at once inclusive and exclusive of people and practices" (p. 162). This framework positions questions of cultural access as central to discussions around Odissi and digital remediation of the dancing body.

Ghosh is concerned with issues of cultural preservation, and in particular the pedagogical relationship between teacher and student, with concerns that digital technologies might threaten this direct line of transmission. In contrast, while recognizing the important work of preserving cultural materials, our project emphasizes dance performance rather than pedagogy, highlighting the expressive possibilities that digital technologies open up for a "culturally reflective approach to analyzing, producing, and organizing bodies in digital texts" (Sano-Franchini, 2015, p. 55) that emphasizes "building as a way of knowing" (p. 60) through collaborative knowledge production. Furthermore, Ghosh's discussions emphasized the purity and continuity of Odissi's history as passed down through generations of students and teachers. In contrast, Kaustavi's work frames a different history that challenges dominant historical narratives within Odissi tradition and seeks to performatively put the marginalized Mahari, the historical temple-dancer and ritual specialist, back at the center of the story. Overall, we seek to align our project with the creative tradition of Odissi as dance across media that Ghosh delineates, while emphasizing digital technologies’ generative possibilities for expressively augmenting and analyzing Odissi performance through new ways of capturing and communicating motion-based information.

Three Focal Lenses

Overall, Kaustavi's digital Odissi motion capture videos intersect with and expand on conversations in digital writing studies via three main dimensions:

  1. Multimodality: Reading multimodal narrative
  2. Gesture: Encoding embodied gesture
  3. Culture: Accessing culturally specific performances

Additionally, our work together (as scholars and designers interested in digital humanities across disciplines) offers implications for collaborative digital humanities methods, and how we pursue research in common while remaining grounded in our distinct disciplinary perspectives. We address our three main dimensions in the next section, and our takeaways from our collaborative methods in a final joint section to close our webtext.