Dancing at the Center of the Universe

Overlapping images of a woman performing Odissi.

By Stuart Parrish

Kaustavi Sarkar recently led a session at the Triangle Digital Humanities Institute on October 24, 2019, which was held at North Carolina Central University. This session was entitled “Plavana: Immersion Across Historical and Computational Registers.” She is an Assistant  Professor at UNC Charlotte and is a dancer-choreographer-educator-scholar. Dr. Sarkar has been performing and teaching Odissi, an Indian classical dance form from eastern India, for over two decades. Her research spans across the fields of South Asian Dance Studies, Practice-as-Research, Arts Entrepreneurship, and Digital Humanities embedded in critical cultural theory.

Sarkar holds a PhD in Dance Studies (focus on Digital Humanities) from the Ohio State University (2017).  She also holds an MS in Economics with Minor in Finance, Texas A&M University (2006).

The theme of immersion in “Plavana: Immersion Across Historical and Computational Registerscan be traced to the fact that Kaustavi Sarkar was only three years old when she began her apprenticeship with her Guru in the traditions of Indian classical dance. Her presentation at TDHI was centered on research and scholarly work since her dissertation in 2017 (https://u.osu.edu/mahari/author/sarkar-35-2/). This presentation uses multimedia including animation and VR created by using her own dance and choreography wearing a motion capture suit, further personalizing and personifying immersion as a theme. A world is created from her connectedness and control of movement of her own body. This weaves a thread with her body and identity intricately integrated into the data itself. Conscious of colonialism and power differentials, she addresses what it means to call upon tools of the digital humanities, graphic arts, architecture and other modalities to call to bear on her story, her journey. Dr. Sarkar’s personal journey covers a wide arc. She holds a Masters degree in economics and worked on Wall Street, then she returned to school and earned her Ph.D. to make Indian classical dance central to her life as a scholar and performer. Her presentation represents a thoroughly documented line of this journey of performance and practice, research, and experimentation using digital humanities tools. Her online footprint provides details of her methods and specific softwares, etc.(https://u.osu.edu/mediation/collaboration-kerry-murphy/https://u.osu.edu/mediation/collaboration-kerry-murphy/).

From the title of her presentation, let’s begin with ‘Immersion,’ and  ‘Plavana.’ Through the use of Virtual Reality, Kaustavi Sarkar as dancer/choreographer/scholar becomes immersed (plavana in Sanskrit means immersed, but also floating). The condition of immersion in virtuality is accompanied by diminishing awareness of the physical self. The ‘subject’ becomes engrossed in a total environment that is an alternative to physicality or embodiment. This is a perfect ‘embodiment’ or metaphor for digital humanities work through the lens or intermediary of historical and computational language. Through these lenses and post-structuralist imperatives regarding the body, identity, and context she brings to bear a deeply personal awareness of her subject, her own body, dance and choreography, as it is ‘translated’ into a digital medium, using a motion capture suit where subtle human movement becomes binary computer language, code, machine language.

Dr. Sarkar references N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthumanwhere in Chapter 1 (p.5) Hayles says, “I see deconstruction of the liberal human subject as an opportunity to put back into the picture the flesh that continues to be erased in contemporary discussions about cybernetic subjects.” In reference to Hayles’ work, Dr. Sarkar said, “There’s too much… scholarship in general where the body is erased. I’m really invested in dance and movement and the capacity of the body to be efficacious and to be at the center in communication, in knowledge and in knowledge making.”

Using digital humanities tools to quantize her movements, Kaustavi Sarkar goes on to raise many interesting points which lie in areas that tease out borders, boundaries, marginalization and speak to power differentials, historical and cultural norms, and theoretical topics not usually associated with an ancient art form, in this case, classical Indian temple dance. Dance, spoken word/oral history, and music exist, take place in time, and disappear unless recorded by some medium which is not necessarily integral to the art form itself. Dance may be recorded on videotape, televised, shared on Youtube,etc. There are means of recording choreography, a short hand, if you will, but seldom is the movement of dance thought of as the area of research, inquiry, and investigation in the way that textual analysis is. Perhaps even less so in the USA where Practice as Research is a less familiar academic form than elsewhere, such as the UK. There are far fewer dissertations written on dance that include a perspective of cultural and historical registers in contrast to computational registers and the digital humanities where post-structuralism, posthumanism, and deconstruction are often linked to literature, or journalism, or history, textbooks, etc.

I am grateful to Dr. Sarkar for her time and generosity in sharing materials from her presentation, her dissertation, and allowing me to conduct a telephone post-presentation interview. Sashimani, the last temple dancer or mahari1 in the line of over two millennia of Temple dancers in India passed away in 2015 at the age of 92 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/24/world/asia/sashimani-devi-last-of-indias-jagannath-temple-ritual-dancers-dies-at-92.html). In many ways Dr. Sarkar’s work stands as a bridge in digital humanities work, spanning tradition and history into an unknown future fraught with change and requiring definition and much continued work. Indeed, as Dr. Michele Ware said in an earlier interview, “her work perfectly embodies digital humanities.” She stands at a forefront of scholarly work, leading the way where an artist’s practice of their particular art form becomes central to theoretical and experimental work, as living text.

This article is based on Dr. Sarkar’s presentation at the October 2019 Triangle Digital Humanities Institute as well as a personal interview conducted over phone on November 13, 2019.


  1. The temple dancer, or mahari, is considered to be wed to the Lord Jagannath, a form of the Maha Vishnu, to whom the dance performance is dedicated, and from whose name we get the English word “juggernaut” for a force or object that sweeps everything in its path along with it.