|Arjun Guneratne (screenshot of his YouTube interview) (c) Earth Day Revival|
Arjun Guneratne, a socio-cultural anthropologist, is no new name to Tharus and followers of research on Tharus. He is the front-runner foreign researcher on Tharus along with Gisele Krauskopff, Chris McDonaugh, Ulrike Muller-Boker, Kurt Meyer and Pamela Deuel.
His research in Nepal on the emergence of an ethnic identity among the Tharus of Nepal and its relationship to processes of state formation has led to a number of published articles and a book, Many Tongues, One People: The Making of Tharu Identity in Nepal, published by Cornell University Press in 2002.
Arjun is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Asian Studies at Macalester College’s Department of Anthropology.
Sanjib Chaudhary from the Voice of Tharus spoke to Arjun about his research and future plans. Here’s the excerpt of the interview.
Voice of Tharus (VOT): Welcome to Voice of Tharus. You have carved a niche among scholars researching on Tharus and their history. Can you please tell our readers a bit about your research?
Arjun Guneratne (AG): When I started in the field of Nepal Studies about 26 years ago, my main interest was in how ethnic identities were formed and the relationship of that process to state formation. I was interested in this process in both Sri Lanka and Nepal, but chose to study it in Nepal because I believed (and still do) that one cannot learn to be a good anthropologist until one has come to understand a society very different from one’s own.
My interests have developed in the years since, and I am now focusing on environmental anthropology and the history of science. I’ve edited a book of papers by a number of scholars discussing how different communities in the Himalayan region conceptualise the environment, and I am currently working on a book about the development of ornithology in Sri Lanka. That’s my history of science project.
VOT: Why did you choose to research on Tharus? Can you cite any anecdote?
AG: Actually, I wanted at first to do research in Myanmar, but abandoned the idea when it became clear that I wouldn’t be allowed by the government there to do the kind of social science research I had in mind. I turned to Nepal as another interesting country in the South Asian region (I was mostly exposed to Buddhism growing up, so perhaps that had something to do with it). When I started reading up on Nepal I discovered that all the foreign scholars were writing about the mountains and their people but the Tarai was being largely ignored—not just by foreign scholars, but even the Nepali ones.
I thought there was more scope to say something original there, so I began to focus on the Tarai and discovered the very scanty literature about the Tharus (this was the 1980s). There were only three scholars, all anthropologists, who had written anything about Tharus in Nepal in contemporary times: Gisele Krauskopff and Chris McDonaugh, both Europeans, and the Nepali scholar Drone Rajaure. Most everything else had been written in the 19th and early 20th centuries by British colonial officials on the Tharus of their side of the border, except for a book on the Rana Tharu by an Indian anthropologist named S.K. Srivastava. Reading this material made me very interested in the Tharus and I ended up doing research in Chitwan, but I travelled all over the Tarai from there.
VOT: Your book Many Tongues, One People: The Making of Tharu Identity in Nepal is considered one of the milestones in Tharu research. Can you share a bit about the book, its content and how it materialised?
AG: My original research on the Tharus focused on how they came to see themselves as a single ethnic group, even though historically, the different groups of Tharus living in the Tarai thought of themselves as different people and didn’t intermarry. I discovered that this process of identity formation had a lot to do with the policies promoted by the Nepali state with respect to “national integration” on the one hand and the development of the Tarai on the other. Identity formation was a project pursued by the upper echelons of Tharu society, which became more mobile (both spatially and socially) as the Tarai was developed, and as Tharus were negatively impacted by the massive migration from the hills to the plains that took place after the eradication of malaria.
My book, Many Tongues, One People (the title captures the central conundrum I was trying to explain) describes all this, but in addition, I have written on other aspects of, specifically, the lives of the Tharu people of Chitwan. The book is based in part on the work I did for my PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago, but includes a lot of additional fieldwork conducted during the early 1990s. There’s a lot of material on the culture of the Chitwan Tharus in the dissertation that didn’t make it into the book. And my wife, Katherine, has written about her experiences of living in a Tharu village in Chitwan in her book, In the Circle of the Dance.
VOT: What is your view about the young Tharus? How can they be inspired and encouraged to dig their roots and research about Tharu origins?
AG: Many of them are in fact researching their origins. I was impressed by the extent of the activism I discovered among young Tharus when I was doing my initial research; many of them had started organisations and some were publishing magazines and pamphlets, and a few went on to pursue graduate education.
The Tharu Culture Museum in Bachhauli, Chitwan is entirely the work of young people in Chitwan, who have taken the initiative, in the context of rapid social and cultural change, to preserve the artifacts of their past and explain them to the new generation of Tharus as well as to other Nepalis and to foreigners. Perhaps people in other districts might do similar things, or perhaps the Bachhauli museum could be expanded and become a national museum to preserve artifacts of Tharu society and culture from all over the Tarai.
VOT: What is your advice to Tharus and scholars interested on researching about Tharu origin, culture and tradition?
AG: Just do it! And don’t stop with the Tharus; study the whole Tarai and the inter-relations of all the different peoples who live there.
One thing I might add is that throughout the Tarai there are organisations of Tharus putting out publications about their culture, history and society, but there is no way for someone interested in this material to access it conveniently. Often, much of it is eventually lost. It would be a good idea if it could be collected and preserved in some central place or places — perhaps a national or university library in Kathmandu, but also in the Tharu Culture Museum in Chitwan.
VOT: Are you continuing with your research and writing? Can you share with us your future plans?
AG: I am indeed continuing to do research, but although I still write from time to time on Tharu culture, my main focus at the moment is on Sri Lanka, the country of my birth. When the project I am working on is done, I’d like to return to work in Chitwan. I’m very interested in the knowledge people have of the natural world, and also how Chitwan Tharu society has changed over the years, for instance because of labour migration (a topic that one of my students is researching in Chitwan), and of course, there is scope for updating my book. So there are a number of avenues for future research in Nepal open to me, all of which I find interesting and compelling.
VOT: Thank you Arjun for your valuable words and time.
For more information, visit his website and browse through his publications.