Aesthetics of ritual performance 
Sumbul Farah (University of Delhi)
Convention Centre Lecture Hall-II
Start time:
5 April, 2012 at 8:30 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

Devotional practices are, of necessity, rooted in an aesthetic that draws upon a religious tradition to validate and legitimize itself. The explicit form of ritual performance makes manifest the aesthetic that informs it and renders it meaningful.

Long Abstract

Religious practice and performance is seldom random or arbitrary. All ritual performance follows a predictable, familiar form because the idiom that it employs to express itself, is circumscribed by an aesthetic that is unique to its context, having been instituted through specific social and religious mores over a period of time. Expression of reverence or abhorrence, humility or fear, penitence or deliverance, or such emotions that are inspired by varying aspects of religion must draw upon the aesthetic of a particular tradition in order to articulate themselves appropriately. Aesthetics offer the linguistic means, so to speak, in terms of which acts must speak in order to be interpreted correctly.

An analysis of both the form and content of ritual performance, therefore, offers the interesting prospect of exploring the aesthetic in terms of which the ritual expresses itself and which must, in turn, speak of the ordering principles of the faith.

Accepted papers:


Sumbul Farah (University of Delhi)

Paper short abstract:

Barelwi belief must be embodied, enacted and put forth in the form of explicit performance in everyday life. This practice draws on the aesthetics underlying Barelwiyat in order to express itself and in the process, reifies these aesthetics as Barelwi practice itself.

Paper long abstract:

Saints, shrines and the rituals associated therewith are an integral part of Muslim consciousness in the Indian subcontinent. The Barelwi school of thought offers a defence for these devotional practices and its proponents argue that instead of being heretical 'innovations', these are unimpeachably Islamic. Belief in the intercessory power of saints and extreme devotion to Prophet Mohammad renders Barelwis distinctive from other schools of thought. This paper seeks to explore the rituals that are integral to Barelwi thought - niyaz, fateha, urs, milad and Juloos e Mohammadi and situate these in the context of the aesthetic that informs them. In the explicit performance of these practices they partake of the overarching Barelwi aesthetic, an understanding of which is shared by all the practitioners of the faith. The Barelwi aesthetic is rooted in the distinctive tradition revived by Ahmad Raza Khan, an Islamic scholar in nineteenth century India. The emphasis on personal devotion to the Prophet and the importance of a spiritual preceptor results in the particular form that Barelwi practice takes. Understanding the myriad ways in which one lives Barelwiyat in the everyday makes evident the underlying structure of aesthetics in terms of which one acts. This aesthetic not just makes available the means through which belief can be embodied and enacted, but also allows one to judge one's own or others' acts as being in accordance with or in opposition to it. In so doing, the underlying aesthetic sometimes gets reified as practice in its own right.


Fiza Ishaq (Heidelberg University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper will document and analyze the performance of rituals and the role of Karbala imagery in the context of ashura processions in Hyderabad.

Paper long abstract:

The community, according to Heinz Halm, "is created through the process of rituals" more than "the profession of belief in dogma." In Islamic history, the battle of Karbala is the single event that has had an immense impact in shaping the sectarian identity of Shia community worldwide and their sense of Husain's martyrdom. Since then, Shia religious practice has incorporated rites and rituals commemorating the martyrs and Prophet Muhammad's family. Ashura procession is one such ritual which makes up the core performance of the annual observance of Muharram. Mourning the martyrs of Karbala during these processions involves mimetic rituals of self-flagellation, weeping and carrying alams (standards). In Hyderabad, the processions have been held since the reign of the Qutb Shahi dynasty (1518-1687). Present day ashura processions of Hyderabad are well known throughout India and in Shia communities of other countries for their pageantry.

A remarkable feature of the performance of Shia religious rituals is the display of popular devotional art, which depicts the narrative of Karbala. I use the term Karbala imagery to refer to these contemporary productions of devotional art. This artwork is displayed in shrines and streets of Shia neighborhoods and serves a crucial function during the performance of rituals. This paper aims to offer a description of Shia commemorative rituals as well as analyze ritual performance. It will focus on the function of Karbala imagery in the context of these rituals, particularly the bodily practice of self-flagellation known as matam.


Fátima Tavares (Universidade Federal da Bahia)
Carlos Caroso (Universidade Federal da Bahia)

Paper short abstract:

This paper accounts for the presence of religious healing agencies and agents in the State of Bahia, Brazil, and explores how their reputation is constructed through agencying processes constituted by mediators from various religious and healing traditions.

Paper long abstract:

This paper supports the idea that religious healing practice and performance is seldom random or arbitrary. By using the theoretical concept of agencying (agencement) by Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour, we look into religious healing as part of a long historical tradition in Brazil which is at present found both in urban and rural milieus and encompasses various forms of agencying. Our argument is further developed by an analysis of the manner in which the reputation of a man having extraordinary and supernatural powers is enacted through an elaborate ritual aesthetics and rhetoric performance. To support our argument, we have taken into account both the ethnographic field notes of the anthropologist Carlo Castaldi (1953-54), and the recent field study that we have conducted in the island of Itaparica, where this holy man lived and performed medical acts from the mid forties to the early sixties, when he "passionately" died upon being displaced from the sacred grounds that bestowed and granted him the recognized healing powers.