Sunday, January 15, 2017

‘Tharu’ identity is part of a political agenda which does not necessarily correspond to the local reality – Gisele Krauskopff

Gisele Krauskopff. Image from her Facebook page.

Gisele Krauskopff, one of the first few researchers to conduct fieldwork in the Tharu dominant Dang Valley, is not a new name among the researchers working in the Himalayan region.

Though most of her works have been published in French, ‘A Marshland Culture : Fishing and Trapping among a Farming People of the Tarai’ gives an overview of different fishing techniques used by the Tharus in the Dang Valley.

Sanjib Chaudhary from Voice of Tharus spoke with Gisele about her research work and publications. Here’s an excerpt of the interview.

Voice of Tharus (VOT): Welcome to Voice of Tharus. Your pioneering research on Tharus has helped the Tharus to be recognised internationally. Can you tell our readers about your research and the publications you have published till date?

Gisele Krauskopff (GK): I am surprised to discover that my researches ‘helped the Tharu to be recognised internationally’. I think they managed themselves to be recognised. I doubt that books published in French could have such an influence.

Moreover, I should like to emphasise the following point (see also next question): I did not work on ‘The Tharu’ but did a study in a predominantly inhabited Tharu village in Dang valley in Western Nepal. At that time, the 1980s, (except for very few educated one) they had no contact with other groups called ‘Tharu’. The outsiders called them ‘Dangaurya Tharu’. The farmers in my residential village did not travel much outside of the valley and even to the neighbouring Deokhuri Valley. They did not like to go to the bazaar.

However, at the beginning of the 1960, after the land reform, whole villages had migrated to ‘Buran’, that is the Far Western district of Terai, mainly in Bardiya district. My most recent publication (to appear in English very soon) is about the so called migratory practices of the Tharu farmers that I trace in historical documents (Nepalese archives but also British colonial archives of the 19th century during the border conflicts between Nepal and British India from 1802 onward) and with the help of my ethnographic work. I considered this the most valuable part of my work (with my PhD).

My PhD research had a different perspective. My field work was done in 1981-1985, and according to the dominant ethnological approach at this period, was based on a monograph of a village of Western Dang where I spent two years and revisited often: a monograph of the rituals as I observed then, in this village, in the company of my best friend and informant, a gurwa, who was called in many houses or villages to treat illnesses and other disorders.

I taped all the events (I plan to deposit these tapes in protected archives or hopefully an open database) and was helped for their translation by Ashok Chaudhary, from Hekuli village. I used these documents to deepen my knowledge of the rituals and of the language with my gurwa friend. I also worked a lot with the women. Being myself a woman, it was easier and the deep and affectionate relationship I built with women was very very important for my day to day life and the progress in the local language and understanding of the culture.

But already then I was much interested by history and the processes by which the Tharu social organisation in Dang was moulded through an agrarian system in which the political and agrarian authority was delegated by a ‘Hindu’ king (living in the hills) to Tharu local headmen who had a pivotal and very important role in the centralisation of the system at the local level.  Hence, I framed my ‘village’ study taking into account the larger territorial organisation of the Dang Valley, which was divided into several ‘rajya’ or parganna.

The main goal of my thesis and first book (Maitres et Possédés that I plan to translate and publish in English) was to demonstrate how the division between priestly clans and ‘client’ clans was rooted in this historical development and the history of subjection of the Tharu to hill kingdoms. This bipolar structure, extremely important in Dang, was not found in other area of Terai among other Tharu groups. It shows how the social and religious order that bounded the Dangaurya Tharu society at this time was locally rooted and inscribed in the agrarian and political history of the area. This local order is of course now part of history: the change brought by the transformation of Nepal in the last 25 years has changed the situation and local is no more local.

VOT: What is opinion about the Tharus? Did you find any clues on the origin of Tharus during your research?

GK: I have opinion on the human beings I met during my fieldwork, and very different ones, but none on ‘The Tharu’.

Even in the ‘Tharu’ village where I did my field researches, I met different kinds of ‘Tharu’, I mean: landless farmers, rich jimindar, educated fellows, illiterate people, women, men, kids and some villagers from other ethnic background.

In all my researches I have tried to deconstruct this category ‘the Tharu’ used as an ethnic, caste oriented, or racial category: many groups called Tharu have different social organisation, and some other groups differently called have very similar culture (as far as the lowlands of Assam). And inside any local communities, there are class distinctions (landless labourers, wealthy jimindar).

In the present political context of Nepal, ethnic groups have redefined themselves and ‘Tharu’ identity is part of a political agenda which does not necessarily correspond to the local reality I encountered in the past.

Concerning the ‘origin’ of the Tharu I suggest to read some of my English papers where I discussed this question which is political rhetoric. Since I do not know my own origin (I am French, have a German name, and was born in North Africa) but only the context (economic and social) in which I was educated, I do not know how I could propose a theory on the Tharu origin!

More seriously, considering my historical approach, origin has no meaning and looking for it postulates that a group could have existed from time immemorial without transformation. Each classificatory order, class or term is historically rooted and takes meaning in the context of its use. This is why when I wrote on this topic, I consider it as an historical narration to support a political agenda, in the past as in the present.

VOT: Can you cite any anecdote during your stay with the Tharus in Dang?

GK: I remember the beginning of my fieldwork in Dang during the rainy season. From January to June, I had travelled all over Western Tarai to find the right place to study. But finally I choose Dang Valley and started to settle there at the beginning of the rainy season.

Two images remain in my memory. Once I was crossing the Patu Khola River but could not fight against the current. Boulders were hurting my Western too soft feet and I could not walk in the water. Happily, a Tharu villager wearing his loin cloth and bare feet rushed to me, took my hand, and forced me to run to reach the bank of the river. You can easily imagine how even trained local people could die drowning in the rivers. 

The other image is of myself trying to reach the village: The paths were so muddy that I sank to the thighs in the mud. It was the only rainy season I spent in the Terai but it was worthwhile since most of the very interesting village rituals were done during this season. And in September, suddenly the sky opened and I discovered the beauty of this magnificent and rich valley covered with green rice fields. A fascinating and meaningful contrast!

VOT: You were again back in Dang for your research on Tharu masks? Can you tell our readers about it?

GK: I have never done researches on Tharu masks since I never saw any masks in Dang. But it seems that jokers intervening in some dances like the cokra dance could wear masks made by Tharu or sometimes by Magar people who settled in Dang.

VOT: During your research, you worked with many international and Nepali researchers. Can you share your experiences with us?

GK: Most of my research colleagues do not work on the Tharu but other topics in the Himalaya (see for instance the CEH web site, ‘Centre for Himalayan studies’ on my own laboratory in Paris Nanterre University, LESC.

VOT: Can you share with us link to your writings and publications?

GK: I have not yet posted my publications on Academia or other websites. More important for me is to translate my publications into English. Nevertheless, you can find some of the French ones published in journals on the internet (for instance Persee or, for French journals). You can also trace them through my name. For those published in collective books.  I plan to post them on Academia in close future.

VOT: What are your personal views about the Tharu? Do you have any advice for the young generation?

GK: I already answered this question: I have no personal view on ‘The Tharus’. Concerning the ‘young generation’ in Nepal in the global context, I am afraid by the consumering trend and think that emigration, particularly to the Gulf countries, will bring a big change.

Some Tharu do PhD some others are working in the Gulf countries, some remain farmers in the villages with less and less land to till, so their conditions and aspirations are different.

VOT: Are you continuing with your research and writing? Can you share with us your future plans?

GK: I am interested by other topics. Concerning my research on the Tharu, I am planning to publish my first book in English, and to translate some of my French papers (not all). It is possible also that I write a more personal account of my experience in a non-academic format.