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Nepal traditional dance comes to the American Folklife Center

In this guest post one of our archivists, Valda Morris, discusses the work she’s been doing behind the scenes to process an important collection and help create a finding aid that will assist researchers in discovering the richness of the materials. 

Carved Nepalese mask used in traditional dance.

Charya mask also known as the Shinghamukhi. The mask reflects the tantric female energy. Courtesy DTON

The American Folklife Center is proud to announce the availability of an online finding aid for The Dance Theater of Nepal collection, 1996-2010 (AFC 2011/002).

The finding aid describes a multi-format collection with 1,601 items—including photographs, sound recordings, videos, posters, artist biographies, administrative files, and reports of performances from Nepali newspapers. Combined, these items help tell the history of The Dance Theater of Nepal (DTON), an organization that uses dance to educate and share its story and tradition.

DTON is one of the first ensembles to bring the Nepali tradition to mainstream America. The group has performed at nationally recognized cultural institutions and universities—including the Smithsonian Institution, Rubin Museum of Art, Princeton University, and countless others worldwide.

A masked Nepalese dancer in performance.

Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya wearing the Charya mask while performing the Charya Nritya dance. Prajwal owns his own center in Portland, Oregon called Dance Mandal. Courtesy DTON.

DTON has been active since 1996 when Raj Kapoor formed the company. Before coming to the United States (U.S.), Kapoor was the Associate Director of Dramatic Art at the Royal Nepal Academy in Kathmandu, Nepal. Upon migrating to the U.S. and settling in New York City, he formed the Raj Kapoor Dance Ensemble. In 1996, he joined forces with Sherry Onna Handlin and formed the Dance Theater of Nepal.

Since its inception, DTON has striven to educate, sustain, and pass on the Nepali tradition to individuals of different age groups and ethnic backgrounds through music and dance. To that end, DTON performs at various venues to diverse audiences, holds interactive discussions to raise cultural awareness within the community, and regularly hosts dance and music workshops for young Nepalis as well as for patrons who are familiar with Nepal.

In addition to his work with the group, Kapoor independently shares his love and knowledge of Nepali culture with others by performing, teaching, participating in national and international folk arts festivals, and mentoring people of all ages in Nepali folk and film-style dance forms. An accomplished musician, Kapoor is also an expert on many Asian drums—including the madal, one of the traditional drums of Nepal.

Three musicians play traditional Nepalese instruments, including percussion and stringed.

Dance Theater of Nepal musicians performing at the Rubin Museum of Art. Left to right: Nhuchhe Narayan Dangol, Shisir Shrestha-Tungna playing and Bimal Budhathoki. Courtesy DTON.

Two Nepalese drums, with percussive rattles in the foreground.

Traditional Nepali drums, madals, played in DTON performances. Courtesy DTON.

DTON has over 30 performers who lend more than just their dance expertise to the company, one of whom is Sherry Onna Handlin—DTON’s cofounder, artistic director, and archivist. Handlin, a trained dancer and artist, has always had a keen interest in South Asian culture; however, after a 1995 trip to North India and Nepal, her interest and love for Himalayan culture deepened. Shortly after her trip, Handlin became more involved in the Himalayan performing arts by forming DTON along with Kapoor.

Handlin enjoyed showcasing her talents at many of the group’s events and performances; however, she was more eager to preserve the history of the group. It comes as no surprise that Handlin, who has dedicated her career to DTON, was a key player in donating a collection of dance materials (from 1996 to 2010) to the American Folklife Center to ensure the preservation of the group’s history. Handlin also shared the group’s collection of dance materials with two other libraries; the New York Public Library has the group’s records from 1996 to 2005 and the New York State Library has the group’s records from 1996 to 2013.

In January 2011, Kapoor and Handlin hand-delivered pieces of Nepal’s traditional dance culture to the Library of Congress. The boxes contained original documentation of the DTON’s history and provided an inside view (through the lens of dance and music) of folklife of people situated in the Kathmandu Valley, home of the Himalayas and Mt. Everest.

Three people in front of the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress displaying a box of collection materials being donated to the American Folklife Center.

Left to right: Former Head of the Archive of Folk Culture, Michael Taft, Sherry Onna Handlin and Raj Kapoor (founding members of the Dance Theater of Nepal), January 4, 2011.

Handlin recognized the importance of documenting the work the group was performing in the community for Nepali culture. She began collecting posters, clippings, photographs, videos, and more importantly—what she termed— “artist profiles” of all the dancers and musicians in the group. The profiles provide a snapshot into the lives of the members of DTON. Each profile provides a different story of the dancers and musicians, including information on where they are born, their careers outside of DTON, and the expertise they brought to the group. Much like Kapoor, many of DTON’s members are involved in other activities outside of the group. For example, Shashi Kala Tiwari is a professional artist, while Suraj Nepal and Shubha Bahadur are both musicians.

While processing the collection, it was a special treat to look at the photographs of the dancers. Some photos are of solo performers dressed in casual wear without an audience and others show the entire ensemble dressed in performance regalia and performing on stage. There are also photos of the group visiting and performing in temples and climbing Mt. Everest. The variety of photos covering all aspects of DTON’s activities, is the type of documentation that one would hope to find in a thorough ethnographic collection.

Three female Nepalese dancers in traditional costume.

Dance Theater of Nepal dancers performing onstage. Left to right: Prerita Sharma, Alisha and Dorthi. Courtesy DTON.

Researchers are welcome to visit the American Folklife Center to view this collection when the Library is open to the public. Check the Library’s status at loc.gov.

3 Comments

  1. sherry
    June 30, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    Wonderful piece and very important in helping to keep the history of world culture alive and for archival reference..Many thanks Valda and John

  2. Mahima Nawbagh
    July 9, 2020 at 9:31 am

    Hi,

    I’m from Nepal and its really wonderful reading this blog based on the traditional dances of Nepal.Thanks to the writer and the research team for this great effort which will surely help the enthusiasts,find dance forms and know more about Nepal in an easy way.

    Thank you
    Love from Nepal.

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