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Accueil > Recherche > Axes de recherche

Artistic expressions and heritage status

Coordinated by : P. Dollfus (up until 2021), G. Toffin ; Associate members : Serena Bindi, Kunsang Namgyal Lama, Irene Majo Garigliano

Under this heading, we propose to reflect on the various artistic expressions of the Himalayas, whether their aesthetic dimension remains discreet or is very assertive. Over the past few years, several members of the Centre for Himalayan Studies have gathered documentation, sometimes rather substantial (and deposited in the unit’s archives), on these subjects from their respective fields. We wish to review these practices and cultural products, not so much to take stock of them as to integrate them into current issues within the disciplines concerned (ethnology, study of literary texts, history of art).

The links between rituals and performance arts make up a first thematic field, very rich in theoretical reflections. Throughout the Himalayas, these two domains are closely related, as are non-human entities (deities, spirits and spirits of the dead) – or those deemed to be such – that intervene in theatre performances, dances or songs. Such links question notions of spectacle, actors, audience, and performing arts, which belong to the language of theatre studies or performance. In reality, there are many intermediate – semi-religious, semi-profane – situations. Investigations already carried out in the Kathmandu Valley suggest that a performance can function as a religious ceremony and arouse feelings and associated emotions (entertainment, appreciation of beauty). Our interest lies in these forms of hybridisation in Nepal, in the Tibetan cultural area and in the eastern Himalayas.

In the analysis of bards’ and shamans’ songs, of dialogical storytelling theatre or of narrative paintings, a recurrent question concerns the relationship between oral and written. Indeed, many of these expressions come across as purely oral, whereas they incorporate (by transforming them) elements taken from written literature, notably Sanskrit or Tibetan. Moreover, these so-called oral traditions have started to be published in the form of books or pamphlets, not only by the researcher who studies them, but also by the local populations who wish to perpetuate their traditions, to cancel out the destructive effects of time and to display their ethnic identity. What are the effects of writing them down ?

Another topic for research is the history of religious iconography (Hindu, Buddhist and Bön pantheons) and the production of cult and ornamental objects. Here too, the adoption of ancient heritages and forms of hybridity are at the heart of our reflection. Questions relating to the transmission of know-how and techniques deserve special consideration. How is this knowledge transmitted in workshops and under whose authority ? How are relationships between masters and apprentices, or between masters and actors, handled ? What role does innovation play here ? Current periods of change, which generate ruptures – sometimes following revolutionary events (Tibet, Nepal) –, technological changes in the dissemination and competition from other forms of cultural programmes, more attractive to the young, are particularly useful for studying these processes. Change means breaking away from the canons of the past and starting afresh. The artistic dynamism that can be observed today throughout the Himalayas, mainly in contact with modernity, must be analysed from this perspective. It implies the redefinition of cultural objects, a new relationship with the past (transformed into a symbolic resource), reconfigurations and new challenges.

From a sociological point of view, each era creates a special regime of singularities for artists and intellectuals belonging to a particular culture. This regime defines the place and status of these persons in society. It often reserves an exclusive right to the activity in question to one of the two sexes and determines the relationship between artists and their patrons. However, current changes have also transformed this regime of singularities. In Nepal, as in the western Himalayas, the former makers of ritual objects now define themselves as creators and artists. At the same time, women have made their mark in many different sectors and certain intellectuals have been given a new political role, especially in the vast movement of struggle of so-called indigenous or minority populations that we are witnessing today. A historicisation of these changes should make it possible to distinguish periods in the spread of modernity in the Himalayas.

One last subject on which several researchers of our unit are working directly or indirectly, sometimes in resonance with the other axes of this five-year programme, is ‘granting heritage status’. Listing ancient artistic/cultural practices or traditions as heritage status can be observed everywhere, in all fields, in the wake of what happened in the West in the 19th and 20th centuries. Our investigations will particularly concern cultural revivalism (festivals and costumes for example), its political stakes, the UNESCO categorisation as "intangible cultural heritage", which extends to ever wider fields, or the placing of cultural objects in museums, the constitution of collections and the development of conservation techniques relating to museology. We will especially study the expectations of local communities and the strategies they deploy to set up museums and to have their artistic heritages inscribed on the UNESCO lists.


Dollfus P. "Coiffe de femme, Hauts Plateaux du Ladakh oriental", Le monde en tête. La donation des coiffes Antoine de Galbert, 2019.

Dollfus P. "La tente noire du Ladakh et son aménagement textile", Architecture et Textile : aménager l’espace. Rôle et symbolique des textiles dans les cultures nomades et sédentaires, D. Véron-Denise, Sepia, 2018, pp.157–170

Dollfus P. "Buchen as Storytellers : Reading, Telling and Acting out
Edifying Stories", Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, 2017, The Spiti Valley Recovering the Past and Exploring the Present : Proceedings of the First International Conference on Spiti, 41, pp.323–348.

Toffin G. “Panorama du théâtre népalais”, Le Karma, Forum littéraire du Népal, France, No.1, Paris, December 2020, Cromtatik Ltd, pp. 41–44.

Toffin G. “Praṇāmī Sampradāy”, in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, and H. Basu, A. Malinar, V. Narayan. Brill, Leiden, May 2020.

Toffin G. “A Religious Drama in Nepal. The White Kālī Goddess Tantric Temple of Kathmandu and its Divine Gaṇa Pyākhã Dance”, Studies in Nepali History and Society, 24, 2, 2019, pp. 281–321.

Toffin G. “From Ritual to Theatre : Religious Drama of the Kathmandu Valley”, Newā Pragyā (The Journal of Newaa Academy), vol.2, No.3, 2019, pp. 26–34. (French translation, “Du rituel au théâtre : le drame religieux dansé Néwar de la vallée de Katmandou", published online in Arch, Himalaya, documentation, sept. 2019).

Toffin G. “Cultures en mouvement. Mutations et réinvention des traditions artistiques au Népal” in the journal : L’ethnographie. Création, Pratiques, Publics, No.1, Renouveau et revitalisation des arts traditionnels asiatiques (ed. Nathalie Gauthard), September 2019, 35 pages (.

Toffin G. “A Religious Drama in Nepal. The White Kālī Goddess Tantric Temple of Kathmandu and its Divine Gaṇa Pyākhã Dance”, Studies in Nepali History and Society, 24, 2, 2019, pp. 281–321.

Toffin G. “Caste and Indigeneity in the Valley of Nepal : Bumgadyah, the rain-making God, and Jyâpu peasants”, in Lumanti-Pau, Rajat Jayanti Vishesh (Silver Jubiliee) Souvenirs 2018. Jyapu Samaj, Yala, 2018, pp. 73–83.