Fading influence

  • The compilation of Dor Bahadur Bista’s articles neither does justice to the scholar nor Nepali anthropology
Fading influence

Jul 6, 2015-

Dor Bahadur Bista is a well-known figure in the discipline of anthropology and beyond. As a school headmaster turned self-trained anthropologist—all without a formal degree—Bista made significant contributions to institutionalising and fostering Nepali anthropology and then vanished into thin air. Twenty years after his disappearance, his life story and career trajectory have become a treasure trove for social science researchers.

A brief overview

The Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) at Tribhuvan University has compiled some of Bista’s already published academic writings. The compendium titled Anthropology of Nepal: A Compilation of Dor Bahadur Bista’s Articles was released by the CNAS in late April and is publicly available. Apart from a few popular books by Bista, most people are not familiar with his other articles. This is because most of those writings were published during the Panchayat and are scattered throughout various publications. It is therefore commendable that the published works of Bista have been compiled into a single book for easy reading. The book contains a one-and-a-half page publisher’s note by Naniram Khatri, executive director of the CNAS, and seven articles by Bista published between the 1970s and late 80s. The book also includes a very interesting interview of Bista conducted by James F Fisher and published in 1996 in Current Anthropology 37 (2) soon after he disappeared. Finally, the book ends with some memorable photographs of Bista and a bibliography of the publications of Bista, jointly prepared by Pratyoush Onta and me.

The book begins with the article ‘The Political Innovators of Upper Kali Gandaki’ which was published in Man in 1971 and ends with our bibliography (‘Bibliography of Social Scientific Writings by Dor Bahadur Bista) uploaded on Martin Chautari’s website in 2013. These thought-provoking writings by Bista inform the reader about the various facets of Nepali society, Bista’s advocacy on the urgent need of Nepal’s own school of anthropology, his conflict with Christoph von Furer Haimendorf (revealed in Fisher’s interview) and a short biography of his life with the published materials he had generated between the late 50s and 1990.  

Six articles, one book

The first article informs the reader about the historical evolution of the Thakali community. Bista’s understanding is different from the rest. He documents how this community cleverly established itself in business by gaining political power and authority, which resulted in the formation of a hierarchy within the region. The article makes us rethink whether the separation of the majority of the younger generation of Thakalis from their original place is due to Hiduisation or the impact of modern day policies and modern education. The second article ‘Padipur: A Central Tarai Village’ is very crucial in understanding the case of Tarai at the time in which a majority of anthropological works were confined within mountainous and hilly regions. The work contributes to our discipline significantly because it was already submitted as a report to the USAID in 1968 before Frederick Gaige published his book Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal in 1975. The third article ‘Encounter with the Raute: The Last Hunting Nomads of Nepal’ is Bista’s quest to unravel the gradual disappearance of Rautes, the only hunting nomads of Nepal.The fourth article ‘Nepalis in Tibet’ ventures upon the relationship that existed between Tibet and Nepal by providing case studies of different Nepalis residing there. Bista also stresses how the Western press inaccurately portrayed Tibet and misguided the rest of the world.

The fifth article ‘The Process of Nepalization’ is a fascinating  read. I am perplexed by how an author who promotes Nepalisation and holds the view that ‘…[Nepal’s] entire history is one of syncretism of different cultures, religions, languages and people’, could write a book as problematic and contradictory as Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization (1991). The sixth article ‘Nepal School of Sociology and Anthropology’ is a call for organic anthropology and the need for the collaboration of sociology and anthropology in Nepal.

Questions left unanswered

Bista’s works immensely contribute to understanding the context and growth of Nepali anthropology and the history of our intellectual thought. These works benefited many Western anthropologists who were interested in Nepal and followed in the footsteps of Bista.

However, the renowned institute that published this book did so in complete haste. The people engaged in this project were equivocal and very casual in the organisation of this book. Why didn’t they allot a separate ‘Introduction’ section? Neither Bista’s personal life nor his professional work was charted thoroughly. The least they could have done was carefully evaluated the works of Bista as an anthropologist.

Can we pinpoint Bista’s anthropological start? The timeline of his published works does not begin with Man. He had already started writing in the late 50s, soon after assisting Haimendorf. Bista commenced by collecting and documenting our folklores, ‘Ramilo Khumbu ra Kehi Sherpa Lok Git’ (1957) published in Dafechari 6(5) and ‘Himalka Chaunrigoth ra Kehi Gothale Git’ (1960) published in Sangam 1(3). Similarly, in 1958 he produced a couple of articles in Educational Quarterly while he was an educational trainer in Norman School. The Thakali article was first published in 1969 in Ramjham before being published in Man in 1971.

This corpus of articles produced from the 50s to the 90s is a sign of respect for Bista. The book strengthens our knowledge of Nepali anthropology and allows us to understand what he was advocating from the very beginning—‘Nepal’s own school of anthropology’. The interesting thing to uncover is that Bista’s write-ups were affected by whatever institution he was affiliated with between 1950 and 1990. The themes of his writing differ in magnitude, evoking distinct insights, experiences and observations.

Though it is important that these chronologies were documented, this partial effort does not do justice to Bista or Nepali anthropology; the book does not immerse the reader in Bista’s archival work nor does it provide a textual interpretation. Why should someone read this book? Why is it necessary that Bista’s articles are republished? Are they still relevant? What kind of anthropology did Bista practice and advocate? Is the Thakali article something different than the one produced by other bidesi anthropologist? How and why do Bista’s modes of writing differ over time?  

The book leaves all of these questions, which are important to both readers and Nepali anthropology, entirely unanswered. This book had the chance to add something new to Nepali anthropology.


- KC is a freelance researcher affiliated with Martin Chautari

Published: 07-07-2015 08:11

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