Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Terai Speaks: Giving a voice to the Tharus

Dr Charles Wagner Norris-Brown
Dr Charles Wagner Norris-Brown hails from Burlington, Vermont in the USA. An anthropologist by profession and an artist by choice, Dr Charles is working on two story books for children based on the Tharus, tigers and conservation. An admirer of Tharus and their culture, he has visited far west Nepal twice since 2011 for his project The Terai Speaks and plans to visit Nepal again this year.

Sanjib Chaudhary from Voice of Tharus spoke to Dr Charles about his project. Here’s an excerpt of the interview. 

Voice of Tharus (VOT): How did you become interested in Tharus and their culture?

Dr Charles Wagner Norris-Brown (C W Norris-Brown): My background is social anthropology, most of it done in Uttarakhand, India. Getting to that region required crossing the terai, and somewhere along the line I heard about the indigenous people living in that region. I remember setting up a meeting with some of them in 1985 in the Khatima region, and, being drawn to the kind of rugged, self-reliant people that I grew up among in northern Appalachia, I had wanted to return.

In 1999 I was trying to get a tiger conservation project started in the Corbett Park area, India, with what would become the Terai Arc Landscape Project. Seeing that I was an artist as well as an anthropologist, someone suggested that I write and illustrate children’s books.

It took twelve years to get myself together enough to return; this time to Nepal, and to the Rana Tharus of the far west. They were close to the area I already knew, and it would give me a chance to finally meet the Rana Tharus in their homeland. I arranged a visit in 2011 to finally meet them and get started on my children’s book. I learned much from those wonderful people -- and they certainly did not let me down in my expectations.

VOT: Can you tell our readers about your project The Terai Speaks?

C W Norris-Brown: Although my background was anthropology, I knew I could do much better work in providing a link between what people say and experience with the bigger world through a means other than dusty studies on academic shelves. I envisioned a project that would make me a voice for the people who have lived for ages in the terai and were an intimate part of that challenging region. This is like the voice that Native Americans could give for their land and culture, and their trials and tribulations, in the USA. The parallels are quite accurate.

Between the two times I visited the Nepal far west, I learned, and changed some of my focus (thanks to the Tharus) so that the project The Terai Speaks was to become more and more of a format to help Tharus express their role as “keepers of the terai forest”. My focus has been that they, as the indigenous people of the terai, could become the protectors of the terai jungles, parks and reserves, and this way find a way to empower them -- at least with respect to ecotourism, and such things.

From my original project description (2011): “What I hoped to produce from the visit would be based on two discourses. One, the voice of the people who have lived, worked, slept and dreamed among the jungles of the terai. Of those people, the ones who have had the most intimate contact through the ages with that environment are the Tharus. Using my anthropological interview strategy, I hoped to let them speak -- to give them the voice that we all need to hear, unrestrained by either academic confinement or officially condoned views -- the voice of the terai in both its pain and its beauty.

The strategy was to produce a series of drawings, paintings, and photographs executed firstly to document the Tharu and their milieu and secondly to provide illustrations to texts I planned to develop based on that visit. The ultimate success of this effort would be in its degree of connection with the lives of real people in the terai buffer zones. It would focus on the stories: the lives, the milieu, the thoughts and dreams of the people of the terai, the lore of the tiger, the intertwining of fates, the spirituality of wild nature and of conservation.”

So far I have written and illustrated one children’s book and another is in progress. I have also co-written “A String of Pearls” about the line of tiger reserves that make up the Terai Arc Landscape Project. I still have a dream of seeing a Tharu-based ecotourism plan take shape in a format similar to the one being managed by the Saami people of northern Sweden. This way it might be possible to help provide some funds to Tharu girls to go to school.

VOT: What is your perception about the Tharu people?

C W Norris-Brown: I would describe them as very friendly, helpful, sharing people whose traits come from their being the salt of the earth, hard-working, smart, and equitable. Seeing them in their amazingly colourful clothes and knowing them on a personal level is beyond my expectations. For me, it seems there must be a way for Tharus to empower themselves. They are some of the hardest working, socially equitable, and most enterprising people in Nepal and should be fully capable of this, in spite of the issues that divide them so much at this time, 2015.

The fact that they have been treated so poorly is beyond my comprehension, but real enough for me to say to everyone: believe in yourselves, and you will reach great heights, but do so by building on your strengths (of which there are many).

VOT: Can you share with our readers any interesting incident during your travel to Western Nepal?

C W Norris-Brown: Other than dusty, bumpy jeep rides in places that did not seem to have any kind of road, what stands out were the peaceful farming villages and the beauty of Rana Tharu women in their traditional outfits. As an indication of their friendliness, there was a wedding procession one day that everyone went down to watch. The groom was being carried in a special, closed-in seat. When they came near me, the procession stopped and the groom got out so I could take a photo of him. Everyone was happy, dancing and singing, but still took care of me. It was a wonderful feeling of being included.

One of the illustrations from his upcoming book.
VOT: You have been working on an illustrated story book for children on conservation. Can you elaborate a bit about the book?

C W Norris-Brown: There are now two books. One is to be published soon, and the other is still being written. Both are about how Tharu villagers react to a tiger entering the village during a drought. In the first book, the response to the tiger is carried out by children who go off into the jungle to find out why the tiger came to the village. There they meet with a jackal and some langurs who explain the forest and its animals and plants, and why it is so important to keep the forests healthy.

The second book builds on what a baidwan does when confronted with the same challenge. In both cases, the approach is part of what I wanted to take with “The Terai Speaks”, since it is based on what the Tharus themselves have to say and uses Tharu people in the stories.

VOT: When do you plan to visit Nepal and what are your future plans?

C W Norris-Brown: My wife and I plan to be in Nepal fairly soon (November 2015) as part of a trip to both India and Nepal. We hope to be able to visit the Tharus again, depending on the situation.
My future plans right now focus on the children’s books. It would be wonderful if I were able to help visualize the idea of a Tharu initiative along the lines of “protectors of the forests”, and which that (or in some other way) could provide funding to allow Tharu girls to continue to get an education.

VOT: Anything you would like to share with the Tharus and our readers?

C W Norris-Brown: It is tempting to have an opinion of what is going on around the constitution, but, being an outsider, it is something I should not get involved in. But I will repeat that, to me, a combination of education and the retention of progressive values is the key to great success, and knowing Tharus I will state conclusively that they are capable of reaching great heights.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! All of Dr. Norris-Brown's projects sound interesting. I would love to read his "The Terai Speaks" book. Living in the West and making friendship with a few Native Americans here in Canada, I do see the parallel between the Tharus of Nepal and the Native Americans in North America.