Wednesday, June 19, 2013

In the Shadow of Other Anthropologists: D.P. Rajaure and Christian McDonaugh

“A man from Great Britain came to our village—Christian McDonaugh! He came to do his PhD; he did it in Tharu culture and language. Our own village bhai [younger brother] was Christian McDonaugh’s guide.”

Every time Amar Chaudhary sees me, he repeats this same monologue. This elderly man first came walking through the backyard of the village home I stay at, plopping himself down next to me as I sat by the outside stove on a January morning, trying to stay warm. I’ve seen him at every village wedding I’ve attended since—usually, he’s already had more than his fair share of jaar or raksi, and is drunk by the time he sees me—and his apparition occasionally haunts the bus out of Sukhrwar, or the storefront of a Sukhrwar bahini [younger sister] now married and living in Dang’s district center, Gorahi.

At the most recent wedding, I was sitting by myself, bored, so I was not opposed to him seating himself near me. I interrupted his predictable monologue with questions. “So has Christian McDonaugh returned since completing his fieldwork?” I asked. “Oh, yes—his son came last year to the village. I don’t know what he studies,” Amar told me. He started up his monologue again. “McDonaugh came to do his PhD in Tharu language and culture…”

“What did you think of his work?” I asked. “Oh, it was really good!” was the only response I got. “Christian McDonaugh…”

“How did he come to choose Sukhrwar anyway?” I asked.

“He was sent by D.P Rajaure, at Tribhuvan University. Rajaure had come first to study; he introduced him to the village. And our bhai became his guide. He took him all around, and showed him Tharu culture.” After a shocking pause, Amar asked me, “So what are you studying?”

“I’m looking at Tharu folk dance and music,” I said.

“But what did you study?”

“I studied music.”

“Sing me a song! Sing me a sweet song!” was Amar’s next exclamation. He leaned in close to me, so that his half-deaf ears could hear me sing.  


Upon my arrival back to Kathmandu, I emailed the director of the Fulbright Commission, asking him if he could connect me with someone who had D.P. Rajaure’s contact information. The director had never heard of Rajaure, and commented that, if he had done his research in the 1970s, he was probably retired by now. He gave me the email address and phone numbers of the current chair of the department of anthropology at Tribhuvan University—who also happened to be a Fulbright alum—saying he might know him. My emails bounced back, so I cold-called the guy. He knew D.P. Rajaure; he sometimes still saw him around the university. He would get his contact information for me. A few days later, I received an email from him, with Rajaure’s phone number. I called Rajaure up, introduced myself, and he invited me to meet him at his house in Sanepa—about a 30-minute walk from where I lived.

Rajaure met me at the Big Mart near his place as agreed. His house was just down a small gully from there. He asked me how he could help me. I told him that I was living in the village in which he had conducted his master’s research, and had heard his name several times from older members of that community, thus I had wanted to meet him. He laughed, surprised. He also asked me where in the States I was from? When I said Riverside, California, he was surprised again. His oldest son is in California with his family—not too far from Riverside actually; Rajaure had been there on his last visit to the States, so knew of the University of California Riverside.

I asked him how he came to choose Sukhrwar? He said that his family is originally from a village near Sukhrwar in Dang, so he had spent some time there previously, and consequently had done most of his research there. He commented that he doesn’t have family there now—his parents passed away, and during the Maoist insurgency, it wasn’t safe to stay in Dang, so his extended family had all relocated to Kathmandu.

His master’s thesis was actually a research report he wrote for CNAS—Center for Nepal and Asian Studies. At the time, this research center had just opened, and they wanted basic sociological data on various Nepali societies. He was hired by CNAS as a researcher; he already had his masters in History and Culture. So he had done his work on Dangaura Tharu. He was fluent in Tharu, as he had grown up in the area, so the research topic was a good fit for him. The report for CNAS was entitled “Land and Social Change in Far Western Nepal: A Study of the Tharus of Dang Deokhuri.” This was one of the first reports submitted to CNAS, and later, he forwarded as his master’s thesis for anthropology, titling it “An Anthropological Study of the Tharus of Dang Deokhuri.” So he has two masters’ degrees. Later, he went and got his PhD from a university in India.

I asked him who supervised his research—to whom had he given his reports? He said no one was really supervising him; he just went out and did it. He said that A.W. MacDonald—the French ethnologist—was in Nepal when he began his research; long-distance he gave comments and edits to the work after he returned to France. Lynn Bennet, another foreign anthropologist in Nepal at the time, helped him put together some questions, but other than that, he did the work himself.

Rajaure did mention that he taught at the college in Dang for about five years before he started work at CNAS. At CNAS though, he was mostly reading and editing and evaluating reports of similar nature to his own, and giving his time to students who were submitting the reports. He was also the editor and on the board of the CNAS journal, in which he is still involved.

I asked him what field methods he used for his study of the Tharus? He said that, at that time, there wasn’t really a talk about “methods.” He just went and talked to people. People would come smoke in his rooms with him; he would take notes during conversations, and distribute candy to the children in the village. While he did make some recordings of interviews and songs, and given the tapes to CNAS, he has no idea what they did with them, or even if they still exist. He does remember just making all the data he did collect accessible—the structure of guruwas, the relationships between guruwas and their clients; community rituals and festivals, etc. etc.—in written form.

I took a look at the report; he had a copy. He said he had put two copies in CNAS, but they were in really bad condition; students had used them so much. His introductory chapter, and the last three chapters had all been published in the Himalayan studies journal Kailash, and were the ones I had read. He also wrote a short piece on the women in Sukhrwar, for a series on the condition of women in Nepal that CNAS had asked for.

I commented that the older Sukhrwar villagers had told me Rajaure was the one to recommend Christian McDonaugh to Sukhrwar. Rajaure seemed surprised, and laughed again—yes, it was true; he had introduced McDonaugh to the village. I asked him how McDonaugh had decided to do research on the Tharu. He said that he must have met with A.W. MacDonald, and MacDonald may have suggested he look at Tharus. When McDonaugh arrived in Kathmandu, he came to Rajaure and gave him a letter of introduction from MacDonald—that was how they did it in those days; now, everyone has “gadgets.” Rajaure commented that his iPhone was an older model. His oldest son in California sends him his older models.

Rajaure had set McDonaugh up at his family’s house in Dang for the first few months, and stayed with him; after that, he visited him often to see how he was getting along. I asked Rajaure if he had McDonaugh’s contact information. He just had his phone numbers and physical address, no email address. I commented that it might be less disruptive if I emailed him instead of called him (though I have been cold-called myself at times in Nepal, and in the States, so its not completely unusual). He suggested I ask at CNAS; they should have his contact information. He had pictures of McDonaugh on his phone, which he showed me. He informed me that these were taken last year, on the couch adjoining the one we were sitting on, when McDonaugh had come to visit with his son (the villagers in Sukhrwar also talked about this visit, commenting that he had brought his son). His son is probably fifteen or sixteen, and McDonaugh, while all grey hairs, was obviously much younger than I had expected him to be.  

I asked Rajaure what Nepali anthropology looked like, and how it had changed over the years. He said that at first, when he did his research, he was not read in theory at all. There were no books on anthropological theory in Nepal for him to read. So he just did research, and wrote as descriptively as he could. I commented that you need data before making theories anyway (anyone who didn’t know I was an ethnomusicologist would assume I was quoting Sherlock Holmes), and Rajaure commented that the report had been incredibly helpful to McDonaugh. He had cited it extensively in his own dissertation.

It was only after doing his PhD in India that Rajure was introduced to theory. At first, many Nepali masters and PhD student thesis and dissertations were like that. He said that now, students are more widely read, and have access to more resources than previously. He had a copy of a recent student’s dissertation on the coffee table in front of us. She had done work on an ethnic group I had never heard of in some place in far eastern Nepal, and focused on ethnic formation. Her extensive bibliography included Barth, Cohen, and several foundational thinkers like Durkheim and Weber.

I asked Rajaure if Nepali students often chose to look at their own cultures, or cultures in the areas where they grew up. He said that many did, mainly because—unlike me, he pointed out—they were unfunded, so could not travel far. Hence, they would stay with their family or extended family, and do research around their home. I also asked Rajaure why students wrote their dissertations in English. He said there was no rule as such; there were several dissertations written in Nepali as well. Students did what they thought best. He said that for some anthropological terms, it was easier to write it in English. Many students also think that, if they write their work in English, then they will have a better opportunity of getting hired at an NGO or INGO. 

As we parted, Rajaure suggested that I visit CNAS, and see his thesis and McDonaugh’s dissertation. They would also have McDonaugh’s email contact information. He said to drop his name, and introduce myself to the director of CNAS, telling him that he (Rajaure) had sent me. I gave Rajaure my visiting card, and Rajaure took my picture with his iPhone—he commented that it was sometimes nice to just have a picture of someone.