Movement and Meaning in Indian Diplomacy

Nicole Cox (Anthropology) is a 2022–2023 HRI Graduate Fellow. Cox’s project, “Re/Moving the State: Multiple Productivities of Embodied Practice in Indian Diplomacy” focuses on the role of embodied practices such as dance and yoga in India’s public diplomacy and seeks to undo invisible and oversimplified notions about global Indian heritage, state power, and the moving body.

Learn more about HRI’s Campus Fellowship Program, which supports a cohort of faculty and graduate students through a year of dedicated research and writing in a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment.

What is unique about your research on this topic?

My research calls attention to the role that people, embodied practices, and movement can play in a country’s international relations. Using anthropological approaches to examine the role of dance and yoga in India’s public diplomacy brings humanities perspectives to scholarship on political state strategies. It also pushes our understandings of embodied citizenship, transnational mobilization of soft power, and the value of intangible heritage.

I have been working with artists and movement practitioners across several global sites who have interacted with India’s local public diplomacy programs. These participants are navigating landscapes of power, identity, and meaning as they engage in various movement practices from South Asia, adapting them to local contexts. This multi-sited perspective is challenging simplified assumptions about Indian cultural identity in the international realm, and also reveals information about how India is navigating its relationship with countries and people around the world in the 21st century.

What drives your interest in this research?

At different points in my career, I have been a dance student, teacher, performer, and researcher. Training in Kathak, a classical Indian dance form, piqued my interest in India’s rich landscape of movement and performing arts practices and the way India uses international interest in these movement forms and their aesthetics to connect with people abroad. Interacting over many years with cultural diplomacy programs and with artists from around the world raised questions for me about the relationship between the interests of states and the interests and abilities of movement practitioners, especially in the global realm.

I have found that the daily work of movement practitioners—from dance, to yoga, to martial arts, to athletics—enculture a set of skills that include knowledge about embodiment, aesthetics, culture, and non-verbal communication. These skills have proven to interest state governments, especially in their attempts to reach international communities.

“My work aims to amplify the important work of movement practitioners in classes, rehearsals, and on stage, and to recognize that participants are active agents, making their own meaning and paths within and around state structures.” — Nicole Cox

How has the fellowship seminar impacted the way you approach your research?

To be in conversation with an incredible group of scholars over the last several months has been a wonderful experience and has affirmed the value of being and creating in community. The fellowship seminar has been a supportive space to grow as a scholar. The seminar has encouraged me to embrace the interdisciplinarity of my work and to continue striving for ways to humanize the structures and processes I’m researching. It is also a unique privilege to engage with the ideas of fellow scholars as they are in production. I appreciate the energy and confluence of ideas that grow from the seminar space, and the opportunity to learn from one another while reaching together towards similar goals. These shared spaces of production have impacted how I think about refining ideas and creating scholarship.