Thursday, April 25, 2013

In the Shadow of Other Anthropologists: Ashok Tharu

I’ve begun a series of interviews with scholars and anthropologists who have also conducted research in Dangaura Tharu communities. I ask them about their own research experiences, and about observations or opinions about Tharu culture. This was an idea I had before beginning fieldwork, inspired by David Shorter’s analysis on the role that anthropologists have played in constructing Yoeme identity—a Native American group found along the border of southwestern US and Mexico. I was unsure of the possibility of doing this, but as I will demonstrate in these summaries, circumstances have both compelled and allowed me to conduct these interviews. These blog posts are not transcriptions of these interviews, but rather summaries of them, augmented with information from other interactions with these scholars. 

In the course of interviewing Man Pari Chaudhary—an elderly Dangaura Tharu woman of Banke district who had taught a particular oral epic for years—she off-handedly commented to me that Ashok Tharu had come and asked her about this same song years ago. Only she had been able to talk to him in her own Dangaura Tharu language (she was speaking to me in Nepali—a second language for her) and that had been so much easier for her.

While Ashok Tharu would be called a folklorist or cultural activist in academic circles in the States, Ashok once described his work to me as that of a cultural mason or carpenter (loksanskritik karmi). In his sixties, he has spent years researching various aspects of his own Dangaura Tharu culture, with a special attention to oral texts such as folk stories and epic songs. Ashok is the son of a jimindar, or Tharu landlord, and educated in India near Lucknow, thus could be considered part of a Dangaura Tharu elite. Yet he describes himself as being part of an indigenous group that has been oppressed and exploited by more dominant groups in Nepal.

I had been wanting to interview Ashok for a while, but decided to hold off until I got to know him and his work a little better. We had traveled in Banke and Bardiya together in November, where he introduced me to a number of musicians (and I became overwhelmed in the course of the week on the diversity of Dangaura Tharu performing arts), and he had recently helped me with a focus group interview in Dang.

I finally put together a series of questions to ask him. My questions consisted of his own research work—especially for his book on oral epics, which he refers to as “folk literature”—as well as his opinions and ideas concerning culture. For this interview, he took me to a hotel/restaurant owned by a friend of his in the town of Gorahi, the district headquarters of Dang. There, we appropriated one of the larger private dining rooms for the interview. With the door ajar, and the windows open, noise from hotel and restaurant clientele were still picked up on my recorder, but they weren’t distracting.

The desire to work with local culture was sparked in Ashok about twenty-five years ago, after he read a poem the Nepali historian Narendranath Yogi. He was part of a cultural discussion group when Giselle Krauskopff came to Dang to research the Dangaura Tharu (this would have been in the early 1980s). A teacher at the local school at the time, he found her research in Dangaura Tharu social structures through the lens of guruwas—shamans or traditional healers—to be so interesting that he left his teaching job at the local school to work with her full-time. Here, he did not describe himself as a “research assistant” but rather as a “collaborator”—asserting himself as a researcher in his own right. Since then, he has been associated with a variety of groups and organizations—including Nepal Folklore Society, and (formerly Royal) Nepal Academy—through which he has conducted research and cultural work.

I specifically asked about his book, Tharu Loksahityama Itihas, Kalaa, ra Darshan (Philosophy in Tharu Folk Literature, Art and History). I asked why he wanted to write such a book and when he started the research for this work. Ashok said that the idea’s genesis took place in 1989, and it came because, in his view, folk knowledge was not being transferred from the older generation to the younger generation, thus this knowledge was being lost. He found that many people could sing Tharu epics, but not everyone understood or knew what the meanings were. He hoped that, after reading the book, the new generation could understand these things again. This would be one way to transfer “intangible heritage” and “wisdom” (Ashok used these English terms) from the older to the newer generation.

It took Ashok five or six years to do the collection work (I could feel my stomach flip and sink as he said that—how would I ever collect the data I needed to write a dissertation in just twelve months?), and then another five to do the analysis (and my stomach sunk still lower). He not only conducted research in Dang district—his home district, and the district of origin for the Dangaura Tharu—but traveled to Kailali as well to talk to Dangaura Tharu living there. He commented that, after King Mahendra’s land reforms in 2022 VS/1962 AD, many Tharu from Dang moved to the districts of Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur and Surkhet. This he described not just as a physical migration, but a migration of “intangible heritage” as well.

I asked him how did he collect these songs? He didn’t have an audio recording device, so he would often transcribe the lyrics as the person sang or dictated the words to him. He said the biggest challenge to doing this work was, he would sometimes travel very far, only to have the person he had come to meet refuse to talk to him because they didn’t know him. So, he would have to travel back without having collected any information. Also, during the majority of his time of research, he was unemployed; often, friends would pay his transportation fees. (After hearing that people sometimes refused to talk to Ashok, someone from their own ethnic group, I felt better about my own challenge as a faceless, white, female researcher trying to arrange interviews with some members of Tharu community in which I as residing).  

How had his book been received? He said he had two reactions: for those who were not educated, the book was too philosophical and literary for them, but for those who were educated and academic, they really liked it. He mentioned people like Tulsi Diwas, the renowned Nepali folklorist. I also thought of Sushil Chaudhary, employed by INSEC, a human rights organization. When I asked him a question about the paiya naach, he answered my questions by summarizing a portion of Ashok’s book for me, before commenting that the book was really good—I should read it.

I commented that Ashok had told me numerous times that, for him, these oral epics on which he focused contain a Tharu philosophy of life, the key to a distinct Tharu cultural identity. What did he mean by that? Ashok’s answer was that, these works not only contain folk wisdom, but folk history, folk culture (many epics contained descriptions of material culture, farming techniques, or “cultural actions”) thus provided a distinct Tharu view of the world. However, not all Tharu viewed these epics this way; they just saw music and dance as entertainment, or a way to have fun, rather than “a philosophical thing.” Hence, many Tharu people had left of some performances, because they saw “no utility” in them. His job, as he sees it, is to inform the Tharu people that these cultural performance traditions are “Tharu self-things”—if they leave off performing them, they leave off the thing that make them a distinct people, and gives them an identity. I thought back to the workshops I had seen him conduct, where his arguments hinged on ILO 169, and UNESCO’s “intangible cultural heritage.” He often pointed to my presence, and that of Govinda Acharya—two people not of Tharu origin who saw Tharu culture as worth their time and energy to study.

Ashok Tharu and I at the opening of the exhibit on Astimki art at Nepal Academy of Fine Arts, Naxal, Kathmandu. Usually painted on the inside wall of the village leader's house during the festival celebrating the birth of Krishna, Ashok worked with local artists to reproduce this art form on paper specially for this exhibit. He is currently working on an article concerning Astimki art, funded by the Academy, and these art workshops were part of his research. 
Photo courtesy of a bystander, 26 June 2013.

Being a western-educated ethnographer (and a (A)TCK who has experienced the instability of culture in some rather stark ways), I asked Ashok “But doesn’t culture change?” This Ashok did acknowledge. He gave me the metaphor of a river: a river flows for twelve months, but in Asar, Saun, Badau (June, July, August—the monsoon season in Nepal) the river floods. During this time, the river is very dirty, but in Asoj (September), the river becomes clean again—all that dirt that came in the floods goes to the side, and the water is clean again, and goes forward again. The river changes, but the good things continue and the bad things get put aside. Such it is with culture—good things continue and bad things get put aside.

I thought back to another conversation we had where he used this same metaphor, but a little differently. Then, he had said that a river winds through several geographic areas, carrying a variety of things from many places. There were things that were now part of Tharu culture that had not been there before. Take Christianity for an example. There were lots of Tharu congregations now—some villages had more than one—and while this religion had come from another place, many Tharu had adopted it as their own. Another time, he had commented that many Tharu now celebrate bhai tikka—a day during the festival of Tihar where sisters return to their natal home to bless their brothers—but this is a recent adoption. However, this tradition strengthens the relationship between brothers and sisters and reifies the daughter’s relationship to her natal home after getting married; therefore, this was a good adoption of high-caste Hindu culture in Ashok’s opinion.

However, from other conversations we had had, Ashok also seemed to understand that too much change could mean a loss of identity. Take all these performances I was looking at. Younger Tharu could not sing, dance, act or express the way that the older generation could. Some learned more from popular culture than their own traditions, and were better at a Pahadi (hill—the Tharu live in the flat Tarai area of Nepal) style of dancing and singing than a Tharu style. They couldn’t even pronounce their own Tharu words right—according to Ashok, the Tharu language has no dental sounds, only retroflex. But since Tharu children attend Nepali schools from a young age, their mouths become accustomed to making dental sounds and they employ these indiscriminately in pronouncing their own Tharu words. Hence the Tharu language is also becoming “broken.”

Ashok’s cultural activities are not unique. I thought back to the “cultural orientation” during the Fulbright orientation when I first arrived in August of last year, given by a former Nepali Fulbrigth scholar, centered around structural inequality—a very different orientation of Nepal’s culture than the “ek bhasa, ek desh, ek bhesh [one language, one country, one dress]” that I was used to sitting through. Nepal is a country with significant cultural diversity; one pair of scholars estimates there to be over 100 distinct cultural groups, each with their own language (not just a dialect of the Nepali language). But with a 250+ year of Hindu rule, and an especially intense time of Hindu monarchial hegemony between 1960 and 1990—the country only emerged as a democracy in 1951—this cultural diversity was heavily downplayed in an attempt to create a pan-Nepali identity, based around high-caste Hindu norms. After two people’s movements demanding democratic rights (1990 and 2006) and a ten-year Maoist civil war (1996-2006—where the Maoists were quick to capitalize on the marginalization of various groups, creating ethnic fronts in addition to their People’s Liberation Army), the political climate within Nepal now heavily emphasizes distinct ethnic identities. Many groups are now seeking to regain cultures they believe to have been lost or taken away from them during previous nation-building projects.