Sensory Ethnographic Methods in Kerala: Documenting Tradition, Documenting Change
In collaboration with my colleague Neelima Jeychandran (Pennsylvania State University) and a number of friends in India, I brought NYU Abu Dhabi students to Kerala for an intensive three-week J-term workshop in sensory ethnographic methods across diverse media including: drawing and painting, photography, video, sound recording, mapping, and recipe and texture collection. Student work is available to view at: senseofkerala.com
When societies invoke their past through art, religion, and politics, they often make profound statements about the present and potential futures. Thus the study of heritage can paradoxically track social change. Research in the preservation and transformation of expressive culture invites ethnographic experiments in multisensory data collection (e.g. videography, soundscapes, recipes), polyvocal collaborations (e.g. with interlocutors, between disciplines), and multimodal data presentation (e.g. image, text, interactive media, performance). Such documentation can make vividly visible otherwise imperceptible processes such as neglected histories of marginalized communities and the slow violence of environmental destruction.
Students in this seminar conduct fieldwork in Kerala, India, where history and culture have long synthesized global influences and where that history is now threatened by chronic flooding and rising sea levels. Our study will engage: 1) sites of material heritage, such as the mosques of Kozhikode (Calicut), that have long connected Kerala to the UAE and beyond through religion and trade networks; 2) religious rites such as spectacular Theyyam ceremonies; 3) confrontations with complex future challenges brought on by climate change, such as experiments in sustainability in the Kochi arts scene that integrate contemporary innovations with historic architecture. Before and after fieldwork, we explore the politics of heritage and religion, the ethics of ethnographic representation, and practical technical training as we build our own exhibition. Whether as prospective artists, social scientists, policy designers, or coders, students will devise novel forms to share humanistic and social science research.
TEACHING AND LEARNING METHODOLOGY
This course is by its nature interdisciplinary, immersive, and experimental. By embracing multimodal methods, we will be operating on the frontiers of contemporary ethnographic research, and students are encouraged to explore techniques informed by intellectual rigor, artistic creativity, and their own interests.
Before the trip to Kerala, classes will be divided between daily seminars and hands-on workshops. In the seminars, we discuss central theoretical concerns around the topics of our research—e.g. ritual, heritage, sustainability. In the workshops, we introduce technical skills in ethnographic data collection—e.g. fieldnotes, photography and video, interviews and audio, GIS. Students with experience in these areas are encouraged to participate in instruction, and all students are encouraged to experiment with unfamiliar practices. These courses will be supplemented by films and guest lectures.
The trip to Kerala is divided into three phases. In the first, we travel north to Kannur to explore the sensations and symbols of religious practice, engaging with Theyyam ceremonies as our central object of inquiry. In the second, we base ourselves in the region of Kozhikode to document architectural heritage and cultural spaces, especially those of the region’s longstanding Muslim community and its relations with the Arabian Peninsula. In the third, we engage with the contemporary arts and environmental design scene in Kochi, focusing on interviews with architects and artists and documentation of art in situ, while perhaps finding inspiration for our own exhibition. Our travels will be complemented by lectures from regional scholars and assisted by local artists and students.
On our return, we will discuss exhibition strategies and collaboratively develop a (virtual) exhibition of our research findings. Based on student interest and our fieldwork data, we will determine teams to complete various components: developing photos, editing film and audio, designing and programming websites, etc. We will have one general workshop on the broad question of editing, followed by meetings to discuss the overall shape of the project. We will conclude with a presentation open to the NYUAD community.