Scenarios of Endangered Culture, Shifting Cosmopolitanisms: Kutiyattam and UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in Kerala, India

Leah Lowthorp, University of Pennsylvania


In an ethnographic exploration of Kutiyattam theatre of Kerala, India, this dissertation broadly examines how changes in cultural practice reflect wider social and political changes over time, particularly as implicated in a universalizing modernity and shifting constellations of cosmopolitanism. It charts how changes in Kutiyattam's form and practice, from an upper-caste, exclusively temple-based theatre in the mid-twentieth century to a democratized, cosmopolitan UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the early twenty-first, both index, and represent a creative response to, broader shifts happening in Kerala, postcolonial India, and the world at large. In so doing, it employs a dual frame of scenarios of endangered culture and shifting cosmopolitanisms, taking Kutiyattam's 2001 recognition as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity as a reference point, a moment in which these two frames significantly converge.

Adapting Diana Taylor's (2003) notion of scenarios, the dissertation posits scenarios of endangered culture as a fundamental part of the narrative of a universalizing modernity and its constitutive relation to a "pre-modern" Other. It argues that scenarios of endangered culture are inevitably rooted in the politics of identity, and that Kutiyattam artists have been situated in several such scenarios at the regional, national, and global levels, inevitably interpolated by several cosmopolitan imaginings. Providing an interesting contrast to recent studies of reflexive cultural commodification in a globalized world (e.g. Comaroff and Comaroff 2009; Yúdice 2004), it shows how Kutiyattam artists have mobilized these scenarios to (re-)create economic opportunity in ways that have consistently circumvented the market. Responding to the impetus within studies of new cosmopolitanism to both decenter Western genealogies of cosmopolitanism and expand inquiry into alternative cosmopolitan ways of being, it further examines how Kutiyattam has represented a nexus of multiple cosmopolitan constellations and imaginings over the course of its millenial history, aiming thereby to pluralize, decenter, and radically expand the temporal scope of cosmopolitan possibility today.