|Victoria Dalzell (Tori) with Tharu researcher Ashok Tharu.|
Victoria Dalzell, an ethnomusicologist, conducted her research on musical practices of Tharus in Western Nepal from August 2012 to March 2014. Sanjib Chaudhary from Voice of Tharus caught up with her for a detailed interview on her research. Excerpts:
Voice of Tharus (VOT): Welcome to Voice of Tharus. Can you tell our readers about your dissertation on Tharu folk music practices and the publications you have published till date?
Victoria Dalzell (Tori): I'm an ethnomusicologist, or a researcher who looks at music in broad terms as a human activity revolving around sound. I focus on the people who make music, the situations in which they perform, and the musical choices they make to respond to circumstances around them. So looking at "the music" is a central component to what I do, but not the only aspect on which I focus.
My dissertation is entitled "Freedom, Margins and Music: Musical Discourses of Tharu Ethnicity in Nepal". For clarification, I overwhelmingly focus on the Dangaura Tharu, as I carried out my research in Dang district, and to a lesser degree in Banke, Bardiya and Kailali. So what I have to say about Tharu culture applies immediately to Tharu communities in the Western Terai; I have not travelled to the Eastern Terai. I elaborate on these distinctions for my readers in my work, but for simplicity's sake in the title, I just used the common ethnonym "Tharu". I conducted my research from August 2012 to March 2014.
My dissertation does not just categorise or describe the musical practices of Tharu communities in Western Nepal, but examines how Tharu people often respond to circumstances around them through musical performance. The majority of my written work focuses on three case studies.
First, I look at music's role within Tharu development efforts that emerged out of the Kamaiya freedom movement. A number of Tharu leaders have reframed Tharu experience with bonded labour in terms of human rights, and I look at how this language emerges in performers' music. In this part, I focus primarily on maghauta nach performances during Maghi.
Second, I look at how ethnicity is gendered within community and stage performances. For this, I focus on how different generations of Tharu women experience and perceive the sakhya-paiya nach, an oral epic performed almost exclusively by Dangaura Tharu girls during Dashai. I show how Tharu girls are not bearers of some untainted musical tradition, but actively shape and change it as they pass it on to their peers and the next generation of Tharu women. Within these two case studies, ethnic politics and ideas of modernity heavily influence contemporary Tharu musical performance.
In my third case study, I examine how ethnicity, modernity, and Nepal's changing political landscape effects the musical choices of Christian Tharus. This case study continues to explore how music factors into community belonging, but how it can simultaneously articulate difference.
In sum, musical performance is a site where the Tharu community not only responds to the cultural and social changes they are experiencing, but often negotiates what these changes look like within their respective communities.
A lot of good scholarship on Tharu ways of life has come out over the past several years, both from foreign researchers and local scholars and intellectuals. A lot of it has focused on political formations and social movements within the community, but the scholarship overwhelmingly focuses on the elite or state structures. I was interested in how a wider array of people--such as women and youth--lived out their Tharuness. So I see my work as a story from below. Music was a really good entry point for looking at this, as I'll describe below.
VOT: You have said that all Tharu performance practices occur in accordance with an agricultural and ritual calendar. Can you share with us in detail about the findings?
Tori: The Tharu agricultural and ritual season is book-ended by two rituals: the harya gurai and the durya gurai. The harya gurai is conducted in each village around August, and opens the music/dance season--people can now play drums and dance. After the durya gurai is conducted in May, people are not supposed to play the drum or dance, as it’s said to bring bad luck to the growing rice crop or exacerbates the danger of disease spreading in a village. Songs are still sung during this time, but traditionally no drumming or dancing is allowed. So most traditional musical performances in Tharu communities take place between August and May. That's a simplified description, but it’s the basic idea.
Tharu repertoire is really vast, so I chose to focus on song-and-dance genres, namely the sakhya-paiya, and the maghauta, and to a lesser extent, genres like the hurdungwa and latwa. The sakya-paiya is a ritual genre performed by Tharu teenage girls during Dashai, and maghauta is associated with Maghi and participated in by members of both genders and all ages. While these two genres are associated with specific holidays, the hurdungwa and latwa can be performed any time between the gurai rituals and are traditionally performed only by men. Even though most Tharu performance practices can be categorised seasonally or are associated with various holidays or rituals, people are changing that as these practices are increasingly moved to the stage, or become presentational.
I want to introduce two terms that some ethnomusicologists use to describe different kinds of music making situations. "Participatory" is often used to describe a performance where a divide between audience and artist is blurry or non-existent--there are only various participants or potential participants who have roles varying in length and intensity.
"Presentational" refers to musical situations where one group of people--musicians, artists--provide music for another group of people--the audience--who do not participate in music making or dancing.
Most Tharu performances are participatory. For example, teenage girls are the primary performers at sakhya-paiya, but men will rotate accompanying them on drums; older women will comment, chide, and encourage the girls' performance (and sometimes join them just for fun!); and the performing girls will rotate in and out of the dance to attend to guests and visitors as asked. Because it’s a ritual, the village leader and shaman have additional roles. Participants’ roles are constantly changing over the course of a performance. Even though it’s a ritual, the event is far from solemn; a lot of flirting and teasing between boys and girls goes on. But I also saw sakhya-paiya performances during a folk festival in February, months after Dashai. This performance was mostly made up of paiya dances, not the sakhya song, and because the performers were on a stage, there was a definite divide between performer and audience. The dances were much more choreographed, and took into account the time limit given by the organisers. The audience of non-Tharu onlookers and judges made this performance not about community or ritual life, but about presenting a particular Tharu image, so the performance genre was altered to fit that new objective.
VOT: You have also mentioned that one of your interlocutors Bejlal Chaudhary performed excerpts of various songs for specific festivals, rituals, life cycle events, work and pleasure, all of which depended on the season of the year. It would be great if you can elucidate a bit for our readers.
Tori: I interviewed Bejlal near the end of my fieldwork. It was only about an hour long. The interview was more to check my understanding of the various genres I had been seeing and hearing throughout my fieldwork. Bejlal answered my questions, but was much more interested that I hear what these various songs sounded like, and was aware of musical variations within the genres.
This interview helped me make connections between much of what I was hearing and seeing at my various field sites. Tharu culture is incredibly diverse; not only are there several subgroups but various waves of migration westward have also contributed to cultural differences between Dangaura Tharus living in various districts. Bejlal was able to show me that some of the recordings I had made across districts were in fact recordings of the same genre, even though people called it by different names and each rendition sounded different.
VOT: Can you cite any interesting anecdote during your stay with the Tharus in Dang?
Tori: In order to be effective in my research, I had to get to know the community in more ways than just music. I would accept invitation to visit people at work or in their homes, and look for ways to become involved in what they did. Before the onset of the monsoon, one of my host family's relatives worked with the Red Cross to distribute mosquito nets to various wards within her VDC (Village Development Committee) and I got to go with her on one occasion. She gave me the job of collecting the coupons that she and her co-workers had distributed weeks before that people redeemed for their free mosquito nets. So I stayed all day collecting stacks of coupons. When it came time for the village I stayed in to get the mosquito nets, my host sister couldn't get away from her house and fieldwork to go pick up the family's allotted mosquito nets. Because there wasn't any other adult in the family to go pick them up (her husband was away with his mother, who was hospitalised at the time, and her two boys were at school), she sent me to go pick up the mosquito nets. Most people in the village knew who I was, who I was staying with, and understood why I had been sent to pick up the mosquito nets, but I still turned a lot of heads when I showed up with the coupons. People asked why the bideshi (foreigner) was getting free mosquito nets!
These kinds of activities were not a waste of my time, and often showed me how real community issues were. For example, collecting the coupons showed me how widespread migrant labour was. Each coupon listed the family members currently living in the household. I was amazed that almost a whole generation of 20 and 30 somethings were missing; often, the only people listed in the household were school aged children and grandparents--most parents were abroad working. Living in Dang for a year, I got to know a number of the women and children in the vicinity, but I found that men were often away working in cities or in India--they would come back to the villages to plant rice in June, and for the holiday season and harvest in October/November, and quite possibly for Maghi in January. If they were farther away, such as in Malaysia or the Middle-East, they may come back once every three to five years.
VOT: During your research, you worked with many international and Nepali researchers. Can you share your experiences with us?
Tori: Because of anthropology's colonial roots, there's a longstanding myth of researcher-as-discoverer. Even with all the changes that anthropology has gone through, going and doing fieldwork still involves a lot of romanticism--meaning the primacy of the researcher as an inspirational figure. But when I did my research in Western Nepal, I really had a sense that my work was as successful as it was because of what previous researchers--foreign, Nepali, and Tharu--had done. I did the majority of my work in the same Tharu village as British anthropologist Christian McDonaugh. I did not plan this; because of who I knew I just happened to end up in the same place almost thirty years after him. Talking to older members of the village got me to look not only for him, but his mentor, D.P. Rajaure. When I met Rajaure, he asked me how I had come to know about him and his work, and he was really surprised that I had heard about him from older members of the Dang village. Rajaure and McDonaugh's previous work gave Tharu residents a category for me--researcher--and so that made explaining the work I came to do so much easier. At the beginning, I was connected with Ashok Tharu and Govinda Acharya, who connected me with a lot of people in Dang and beyond. I was a nobody, but a lot of people paid attention to me and gave me time because they respected and trusted these men, who had referred me. So I had a very real sense of not breaking new ground, but building on the work of other researchers before me.
VOT: Can you share with us link to your writings and publications?
Tori: I published an article on the sakhya-paiya nac in the December 2013 issue of Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS). Unfortunately, because it’s a more recent issue, they do not have the article available on their website; however, they can be contacted for copies.
UCR published my dissertation as an Open Source document, meaning anyone with an internet connection can access it. Here's the link to download the PDF file.
Additionally, I wrote a short blog review for two albums of Nepali ritual music released by Smithsonian Folkways, a non-profit record company that produces traditional music from around the world. The review can be accessed at the following link.
In addition, the songs on the albums can be listened to for free on the website.
VOT: What are your personal views about the Tharu? Do you have any advice for the young generation?
Tori: I loved my time in Tharu communities! One of the things that impressed me about the Tharu people was their initiative--they don't wait for someone else to bring change to their communities.
I understand that swift social and economic changes have caused a lot of societal restructuring, and made some of the previous ways of life difficult to maintain. Getting an education, participating in the labour market (office jobs and migrant labour, etc.) are necessary today. However, I think music still has a vital role to play in community life. For one, musical participation builds much needed leadership experience and confidence in young people. The morhinyas and pachginhyas (song and dance leaders) of the sakhya-paiya performances that I wrote about in my dissertation were leaders. Not only did their peers look up to them, but they were well-respected by all members of their village community. Some of the women I encountered working at NGOs and in school classrooms were previous morhinyas and pachginhyas. I'm sure that early leadership experience in the dance provided them with the leadership skills they needed for their school and office jobs. Learning how to speak in front of a crowd, organising and implementing a programme, or working as a liaison between community members are things that are not always learned through modern schooling.
VOT: Are you continuing with your research and writing? Can you share with us your future plans?
Tori: I just finished my PhD in August, and am currently on the job market. The academic job market in the USA is not that good at the moment, so I'm doing a lot of temporary work. I'm still presenting at conferences. I presented at the Society for Ethnomusicology's Annual conference in December, and will be presenting at the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies conference in February. When time allows, I'm hoping to revise one of my internal dissertation chapters as a journal article for publication in Ethnomusicology, one of my discipline's flagship journals.