6. The Embodied Palimpsest: Dancing Kinesthetic Empathy in Bharatanatyam

The Religious Body Imagined - Pamela D. Winfield

Katherine C. Zubko [+-]
University of North Carolina Asheville
Katherine C. Zubko (Ph.D. Emory University) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and NEH Distinguished Professor of the Humanities (2018-22) at University of North Carolina Asheville. Her areas of expertise include aesthetics, ritual, performance and embodied religion in South Asia. Zubko is the author of Dancing Bodies of Devotion: Fluid Gestures in Bharata Natyam (Lexington Books, 2014) in addition to several articles. She has recently accepted the role of general editor of Equinox’s interdisciplinary journal, Body and Religion. Current research interests include exploring the bodied aspects of conflict transformation, in particular the role of gestures of compassion and hospitality. Zubko currently co-chairs the Body and Religion group and serves on the Teaching Religion unit at the American Academy of Religion.


In the South Asian dance style of bharatanatyam, the devotional bodies of dancers and of the gods they portray model a performative porosity about “religious bodies.” But what embodied resonances of religiosity transfer when the intention of the dancer or topic is not marked as devotional? Apsaras Arts’ Agathi: The Plight of the Refugee (2017-18) offers an ethnographic case study through which I aim to deepen the theory around the porosity of bodies by developing the theoretical construct of an embodied palimpsest: a framework that allows previous “erased” layers to become present and interactive with later layers. I demonstrate how the choreographed gestures and rasas, or aesthetic moods, utilized to embody certain Hindu myths inform this danced portrayal of immigration experiences, but also note how the interactive layers of the palimpsest reshape classical theories about rasa, in particular karuna rasa, the mood of compassion, and can be used to particularize theories about kinesthetic empathy.

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Zubko, Katherine. 6. The Embodied Palimpsest: Dancing Kinesthetic Empathy in Bharatanatyam. The Religious Body Imagined. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. Nov 2023. ISBN 9781781799727. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=39650. Date accessed: 12 Aug 2022 doi: 10.1558/equinox.39650. Nov 2023

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