The Annual Kathmandu Conference on Nepal and the Himalaya – Kathmandu, Nepal

Hotel Shanker, Lazimpat
27-29 July, 2022
Registration Open

 About the Conference

The Annual Kathmandu Conference on Nepal and the Himalaya has been hosted by Social Science Baha since 2012 in collaboration with the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, Britain-Nepal Academic Council, the Centre for Himalayan Studies-CNRS (since 2015) & Nepal Academic Network (Japan) (since 2016). The objective of the conference is to provide a scholarly platform in Kathmandu to scholars working on various aspects of social life in Nepal and the Himalaya from the perspective of social science as well as the arts and the humanities.

Conference 2021

Panel A1: Dissecting Labour Market Trends 17:00-18:20

Host: Shalini Gupta

Opening Remarks
Krishna Adhikari Research Fellow, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford (Britain-Nepal Academic Council)

Chair-cum-Discussant: Magnus Hatlebakk Senior Researcher, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen, Norway

Ishwor Adhikari
PhD Scholar, Economics, South Asian University, New Delhi
Anirban Dasgupta
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, South Asian University, New Delhi
Subhash Nepali
Economist and Policy Adviser, United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office, Kathmandu, Nepal

Break 18:30–19:00

Panel A2: Navigating Discrimination and Personhood 19:00-21:00

Host: Shalini Gupta

Krishna Adhikari
Research Fellow, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford

Ivan Deschenaux
ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Methodology, London School of Economics
Steve Folmar
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Wake Forest University, USA
Samuele Poletti
Postdoctoral fellow, Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative (LESC), Université Paris Nanterre

Panel B1: Exclusion Amid the Pandemic 17:00-18:00

Host: Nyima Dorjee

Opening Remarks/Chair-cum-Discussant

Steve Folmar Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Wake Forest University, USA (Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies)

Pramod R. Regmi
Academic-International Health and Global Engagement Lead (Department of Nursing), Faculty of Health & Social Sciences, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK
Shovita Dhakal Adhikari
Lecturer in Criminology, Faculty of Health & Social Sciences, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK
Nirmal Aryal
Post-doctoral Researcher, Faculty of Health & Social Sciences, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK
Edwin van Teijlingen
Professor, Faculty of Health & Social Sciences, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK
Sharada Prasad Wasti
Senior Research Fellow, School of Human and Health Sciences, University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, UK
Shreeman Sharma
Department of Conflict, Peace & Development Studies, Tribhuvan University, Nepal
Vishnu Tandon
PhD Candidate in Political Science, École Des Hautes Études En Sciences Sociales (EHESS) , Paris, France

Break 18:30–19:00

Panel B2: Dealing with Disasters

Host: Nyima Dorjee

Pasang Y Sherpa
Independent Researcher

Khem Shreesh
Editor, Social Science Baha
Mayank Shah
Research Scholar, Department of Economics, Kumaun University, Nainital, India
Tracy Fehr
PhD Candidate in Sociology, University of Colorado Boulder, USA

Panel A3: Migrants of Different Hues 17:00-19:00

Host: Shalini Gupta


Fraser Sugden Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, International Lead (Research), School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham

Swati Condrolli
PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh, India
Prem Phyak
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Amrit Kumar Bhandari
Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, Prithvi Narayan Campus, Pokhara

Break 19:00-19:30

Panel A4: Gender Norms and Communities 19:30-21:00

Host: Shalini Gupta


Kumud Rana Independent Researcher

Rajya Laxmi Gurung
Senior Researcher, Dignity Without Danger, Department of Sociology, Tribhuvan University
Stefanie Lotter
Senior Teaching Fellow and Research Fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies, UK
Anisha Bhattarai
Senior Research Associate, Social Science Baha
Kiran Giri
Station Manager, BMHD Television, Kathmandu

Panel B3: Understanding Sexualities

Host: Nyima Dorjee


Kalyan Bhandari Lecturer in Events, Hospitality and Tourism, University of the West of Scotland

Break 19:00-19:30

Panel B4: Changes in Schooling 19:30-21:00

Host: Nyima Dorjee


Prem Phyak The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Shak Bahadur Budhathoki
Education Coordinator, Mercy Corps, Nepal
Ram Gurung
Lecturer, Saraswati Multiple Campus, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu

Panel A5: National Identity in Porous Boundaries 17:00-19:00

Host: Shalini Gupta


Katsuo Nawa Nepal Academic Network (Japan)

Aniket Alam
Associate Professor, Human Sciences Research Group, IIIT-Hyderabad, Telangana, India
Aman Kant Panta
Research Assistant, ICSSR Project: 'Change and Continuity in a Trans-Himalayan Buddhist Community: A Study of Monasteries in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India'
Kesang Thakur
Research Assistant, ICSSR Project: 'Change and Continuity in a Trans-Himalayan Buddhist Community: A Study of Monasteries in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India'
Neekee Chaturvedi
Associate Professor, Department of History and Indian Culture, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, India
Gautam Chandra Roy
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, B. N. College, Dhubri, Assam, India
Kalyan Bhandari
Lecturer in Events, Hospitality and Tourism, University of the West of Scotland, Paisley, UK

Break 19:00-19:30

Panel A6: Negotiating Ethnic Identity 19:30-21:00

Host: Shalini Gupta

Chair-cum-Discussant/Closing Remarks

Nirmal Man Tuladhar Chair, Social Science Baha

Anish Kumar Thokar
PhD candidate, Central Department of Sociology, Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur
Roji Maharjan
Student, Tribhuvan University

Individual Papers

Ambika Rai
PhD Research Scholar, Centre for Himalayan Studies, University of North Bengal, Darjeeling, India
Looking at ‘Circulation of Labour’ in the Himalayas: A Study of Bharias (Head Porters) In Darjeeling Hills
Anna Stirr
Director, Center for South Asian Studies; Associate Professor of Asian Studies, University of Hawaii Manoa
Mason Brown
Lecturer, University of Colorado Boulder & Kathmandu University
Lochan Rijal
Head of Department, Music, Kathmandu University
Embodied Theories of Melody in Nepali Music: A Case Study from Central Dhading
Anukta Gairola
PhD Scholar, Department of History, University of Delhi
Forays of the English East India Company into the Kumaon-Garhwal Belt of the Central Himalayas
Anup Shekhar Chakraborty
Assistant Professor, Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata, India
Queer Ecologies and Ecomasculinities in the Himalayas of Bhutan, India and Nepal
Bimla Kumari Gurung
Lecturer at Morgan International College, Basundhara, Kathmandu
Decisions-Making and Child Care among Intermarried Couples
Dechen Dolkar Bhutia
Research Scholar at School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, SRM University, Sikkim
Empire on High: The Absent People on the Mountains
Jigme Yeshe Lama
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta, Kolkata, India
Religious Syncretism in ‘Dorjeling’ – A Study of the Mahakal Mandir
Komal Phuyal
Lecturer in English, Central Department of English, Tribhuvan University
Why Does Fiction Matter? A Tale of the 1960s from Nepali Literature
Kshitij Sharma
PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, Panjab University
Growing Urban Waste in Himalayan Cities: Trends and Impact in Urban Local Bodies of Himachal Pradesh
Kumar Prasad Aryal
Research Associate, Social Science Baha
Inequality in Earthquake Reconstruction: An Ethnographic Account of Peri-Urban Locality in the Northern Part of Kathmandu
Lokranjan Parajuli
Senior Researcher, Martin Chautari
Concocting the Parliament: A Tale of a Momentary Institution
Mingma Lhamu Pakhrin
PhD student (2015-2021) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
The Beginning of the Making of Darjeeling: ‘Threatened Frontier’, Settlement and Labour
Mrinalini Singha
Co-founder of the Himalayan Folk Collective and Design Researcher at Alt News
Speculating Local Himalayan Futures: A Participatory Design Methodology
Nar Bahadur Saud
PhD Student, University for the Creative Arts (UCA), Farnham, Surrey, the United Kingdom
Performance Art as a Peace Promotion and Advocacy Tool in Nepal: An Arts-Based Research Perspective
Naresh Shakya
Lecturer at Lotus Academic College, Kathmandu, Nepal
Rich Buddhist Heritages in Nubri Valley along Tracks of Manaslu
Nirvan Pradhan
PhD Candidate, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
Detritus: On the Decay and Afterlives of Abandoned Tea Plantations in Darjeeling, West Bengal
Noëlle Counord
PhD Scholar (in phase of thesis submission), Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris
‘A Tribe or Forest People’: Two Administrative Measures and the Oral Culture of a Pastoral Population in the Western Himalayas
Ojaswee Bhattarai
Research Fellow, The Open Institute for Social Science
Moving Out from Nepal
Pankaj Pokhrel
Research Associate at Inter Disciplinary Analysts
Shreezal G.C
Research Associate at Inter Disciplinary Analysts
Shweta Acharya
Research Associate at Inter Disciplinary Analysts
Sudhindra Sharma
Executive Director at Inter Disciplinary Analysts
COVID-19, Nepal’s Political Economy and Rural Agricultural Households: Examining the Impacts and the Inter-Linkages
Pragya Paneru
Permanent Lecturer, Nepal Commerce Campus, Kathmandu
Implied Gender and Cultural Nuances in Young Children’s Responses to Textbook Images
Rajendra Sharma
Research Associate, Social Science Baha
Security Governance and Consensus in South Asia: What It Holds for Nepal and her National Security Council
Rajya Laxmi Gurung
Senior Researcher, Dignity Without Danger, Department of Sociology, Tribhuvan University
Bargaining with Patriarchy – Woman Quest for Power and Security within the Patriarchal Families
Rajya Laxmi Gurung
Senior Researcher, Dignity Without Danger, Department of Sociology, Tribhuvan University
Lina Baniya
Lecturer (Social Work), Presidential College
Madhusudan Subedi
Professor and Chair of Department of Community Health Sciences, and Coordinator of School of Public Health - PAHS Nepal / Central Department of Sociology, Tribhuvan University, Nepal
Stefanie Lotter
Senior Research Fellow, SOAS, University of London; Co-Investigator, 'Heritage as Placemaking: The Politics of Solidarity and Erasure in South Asia' (2021-2025 funded by the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond); Co-Investigator, 'Dignity without Danger' (2018 - 2021 BA/GCRF)
Intersectional Perspective on Menstrual Practises in Nepal: Lessons from ‘Dignity Without Danger’ Research Project
Ritu Mangar
Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Himalayan Studies, University of North Bengal, Darjeeling, India
Urban Married Women in Service Sectors of Darjeeling Hills: Gender Dynamics in Their Everyday Family Lives
Rukhsana Iftikhar
Professor of History, Department of History, University of the Punjab, Lahore, Pakistan
Taxila: The Home of Buddhism
Sabin Ninglekhu
Social Science Baha, Co-Investigator, ‘Heritage as Placemaking: The Politics of Solidarity and Erasure in South Asia’ (2021-2025, funded by the Riksbankens Jubilemsfond)
Patrick Daly
Nanyang Technological University
Pia Hollenbach
University of Lausanne
The Uneven Rebuilding of Newa Towns in the Aftermath of the 2015 Earthquakes
Shak Bahadur Budhathoki
Project Coordinator, Voluntary Services Overseas
Inclusion and Governance in Education Committees of Local Governments
Shushma Bhatta
Researcher, Dignity without Danger
Babu Kaji Shrestha
Director of Global Action Nepal
Helena Asha Knox
Curator Kaalo101
Sara Parker
Reader in Development Studies, Liverpool John Moores University
Creative Visual Outputs Matter: Visualising Menstruation in Nepal
Subodh Chandra Bharti
PhD Research Scholar, Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
Problems of Nation-Building and Identity Politics in Nepal
Tracy Fehr
Sociology PhD Candidate, University of Colorado Boulder
Ranjana Giri
Program Associate – Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law, and Development
The Multiplicity of Widowhood in Post-Earthquake Nepal: An Intersectional Analysis of Lived Experiences
Ujjwal Prasai
Faculty, Institute of Advanced Communication, Education and Research, Kathmandu
The Loneliness of Bhawani Bhikshu: An Exploration of Colored and Hill-Centric Nepali Nationalism
Vanicka Arora
PhD Candidate, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University
Reconstructing Pasts and Curating Futures in Bhaktapur, Nepal


1. Title of Panel: Heritage as Placemaking: The Politics of Erasure and Solidarity
The proposed panel takes into account myriad and multifarious functions, uses and values of heritage that are put to work for the purposes of governance, self-governance, sense of place, community as well as urban planning. These politics and practices are relationally co-constituted in the production of place, space and subjectivities with regressive and progressive possibilities. To this end, the papers in this proposed panel together document and examine the role of heritage in forming cleavages of divisiveness and difference on the one hand, and the possibilities for solidarity and commoning, on the other.
Chair / Convener: Tom Robertson, Kathmandu University
Discussant: Amina Singh, Kathmandu University

Paper 1.1:
Author: Binita Magaiya1, Alina Tamrakar2, Rija Joshi3, Shristina Shrestha4 and Stefanie Lotter5
Affiliation: 1Conservation Architect, Kasthamandap Reconstruction Committee; 2Consultant Architect at UNESCO Office in Kathmandu till July 2021; Co-founder of Baakhan Nyane Waa; 3Urban Planner, Genesis Consultancy; 4Conservation Architect (Urban Planner); 5Senior Research Fellow, SOAS, University of London; Co-Investigator, ‘Heritage as Placemaking: The Politics of Solidarity and Erasure in South Asia’ (2021-2025 funded by the Riksbankens Jubilemsfond); Co-Investigator, ‘Dignity without Danger’ (2018-2021 BA/GCRF)
Paper Title:‘Baakhan Nyane Waa’: Local Heritage Documentation for the Future
Abstract: Baakhan in Nepal Bhasa means stories. The phrase most commonly used by the older generation is “aa la baakhan ye jula ka”, which translates as, ‘all of these have become stories now!’. Once elders in Newa society told stories during family gatherings and during interactions in public spaces. However, changes in the use of public spaces and the increase of media consumption led to a recent decline in storytelling and the intergenerational transfer of knowledge has been broken. 

Baakhan Nyane Waa’ emerged in the aftermath of the 2015 Gorkha earthquake, addressing this lack of heritage knowledge transfer. Forming as a multidisciplinary informal group of heritage enthusiasts, members included architects such as Alina Tamrakar, Binita Magaiya and Shristina Shrestha, engineers such as Aswain Bir Singh Tamrakar, Rija Joshi, Raj Bikram Maharjan, Prajwol Shakya and multimedia experts Shailesh Rajbhandari and IT consultant Rajeev Bajracharya. 

Storytelling lay at the center of the group’s interest who organised events around thematic blocks (Festivals, Places, Karunamaya Series, Yenya Series). Public storytelling sessions were organised in the public spaces of chowks, nani, courtyards of baha and bahis, daboos, that once served the purpose of collective learning. After a year in which interviews with elders in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Patan, Panauti and Banepa were conducted, the group entered the UNESCO ICHCAP competition in 2019 and won the Participatory Prize. With this stamp of approval, a growing online audience and a children’s book publication and the successful collaboration with ward offices and local clubs the group registered as an NGO. 

This paper is based on a content analysis of Baakhan Nyane Waa’s 32 storytelling sessions. It further combines interviews with members of Baakhan Nyane Waa as well as interviews with selected elders on their experience of storytelling for wider audiences. It critically evaluates how an informal friendship group centered on a common interest in heritage reformed as an NGO. This study concludes that storytelling can be a rewarding intergenerational urban experience. The multidisciplinary approach on which the group was founded resulted in skills sharing and enhancement as well and a varied project output. The codification of fluid oral history into recorded documented text has been identified as potentially problematic. However the group advocates that with a growing body of documented material variance and individual narrative style will be reintroduced to mediated storytelling. Access to documented content and its output has been limited to Nepal Bhasa and Nepali speakers. The project legacy is temporarily safe on the designated youtube channel and the project’s facebook page. Decisions over long term storage of data is pending as is the decision over output generation in other languages.
Keywords: Oral history, story telling, Baakhan Nyane Waa, public space

Paper 1.2:
Author: Sabin Ninglekhu1 and Monica Mottin2
Affiliation: 1Social Science Baha, Co-Investigator, ‘Heritage as Placemaking: The Politics of Solidarity and Erasure in South Asia’ (2021-2025, funded by the Riksbankens Jubilemsfond); 2Research Fellow at Heidelberg University, Heidelberg Centre for Transnational Studies
Paper Title: Placemaking and Placelessness in Janakpur: ‘Saffron City’ and the Subversive Politics of Mithila Heritage
Abstract: Placemaking as a tool for urban planning has its roots in the works of urban thinkers such as Jane Jacobs who coined the phrase ‘eyes on the street’ to indicate inclusive spaces in the city (Jacobs, 1961). Central to this approach to planning is the creation of a ‘sense of place’ in which the neighborhood is to adorn an ‘identity’ that is people-catered and people-centered. However, when actively mobilised, placemaking can create ‘placelessness’ too. In the age of identity politics on the one hand, and ‘united colors of capitalism’ under the guise of ‘multiculturalism’ (Mitchell, 1993), on the other, it can be argued that the ‘people’ are an increasingly variegated category. In other words, a ‘sense of place’ for some, can designate someone else as ‘out of place’, through logics that may be both cultural and political-economic. This paper brings these ideas of placemaking and placelessness into the cultural landscapes of Janakpur, in which ‘Mithila heritage’ has become a center-piece in rebranding the place as a ‘saffron city’ – a ‘Hindu’ city and a tourist hotspot. It does so to ask the following questions: Under what logic of planning, governance and bureaucracy is the discourse of ‘Mithila heritage’ being mobilized to legitimize the making of ‘saffron city’?  And concomitantly, what kind of ‘erasure’ is taking ‘place’, as an attendant politics, in creating the cultural ‘other’ of the ‘saffron city’? 

The preceding two questions form the first part of the paper. The second part of the paper focuses on what might be seen as an obverse of the coin that is ‘Mithila heritage’: a counter-politics from below in which the power of art is mobilized as a discursive tool to fashion a potent critique of the ‘saffron city’. This mode of activism, which may be called ‘subaltern urbanism’ in action (Roy, 2011), subversively mobilizes Mithila heritage that can help reveal the dominant cultural political and political economic logic underpinning the Hindutva narrative that is the ‘saffron city’. Therefore, this dual use of heritage forces us to ‘expose’, ‘propose’ and ‘politicize’ (Marcuse, 2009) how the logic of ‘urban planning’ has been used to co-opt the discourse of heritage in service of Hindutva, on the one hand. On the other, by exalting the ‘subversive turn’ in the Mithila heritage, this paper forces us to radically re-conceptualize the Mithila heritage as an ‘inventive’ and ‘insurgent’ (Miraftab and Wills, 2005) counter-politics from below forged to reimagine Janakpur anew – as a necessary counterpoint to the ‘saffron city’. The paper is based on an ongoing long-term collaborative ethnographic research project called ‘heritage as placemaking: the politics of erasure and solidarity in South Asia’.
Key words: planning, activism, subversive politics, heritage, erasure, solidarity, placemaking

Paper 1.3:
Author: Monalisa Maharjan1 and Sabin Ninglekhu2
Affiliation: 1Post-Doctoral Scholar, Social Science Baha; 2Social Science Baha, Co-Investigator, ‘Heritage as Placemaking: The Politics of Solidarity and Erasure in South Asia’ (2021-2025, funded by the Riksbankens Jubilemsfond)
Paper Title: When Are Water Sprouts (Hiti) Part of Basic Needs Provision and When Do They Become Cultural Heritage?
Abstract: Water sprouts (Hiti) are ubiquitous build structures omnipresent in the Kathmandu Valley. For generations, people depended on these stone sprouts for their drinking water and to bath. Water and water spouts are part of religious activities and the upkeep of Hiti lies within the community. Over time, the number, size, and functionality of Hiti changed. This research contributes to the discourse of vernacular everyday Heritage. The paper explores the gendered everyday usage of Hiti as urban basic needs provision. Beyond the functional value of meeting household needs, the paper asks, how does a Hiti take up culture meanings to become part of urban heritage that communities strive to protect through means that, among others, include activism? As such, the paper discusses the Newa everyday life vis-à-vis Hiti as an everyday functional space, (in)tangible heritage as well as a mode of activism under the larger ambit of the Newa heritage movement.

For the qualitative study, eight Hiti were studied through participant observation. The Hiti were chosen on the basis of aesthetics, functionality, user friendliness and accessibility. Formal and informal interviews were conducted with users, non-users living in the vicinity of Hiti, caretakers and ward officers. Stemming from the discourse analysis of the study we conclude that while there is a discrepancy between user needs and planning provision, Hiti have been and are today focal points of community cohesion as well as solidarity formation. This research is part of the ‘Heritage as Placemaking’ project a collaborative research project between Heidelberg University, South Asian University, SOAS and the Social Science Baha funded.
Key words: Heritage, urban, community, space, everyday life, activism, solidarity

Title of Panel: Youth Deliberation on Post-federalism and Political Culture Nepal
Most Nepali youth today were born after the people’s movement of 1991 ended the absolute authority of the monarchy and established a parliamentary democracy.  They were children during the years of the Maoist “People’s War” that culminated in a second people’s movement in 2006 that established Nepal as a republic.  Now, as young adults, they are being called on to engage with new federal democratic institutions that were intended to reform Nepal’s centralized, patrimonial political culture. Our project explored deliberative democracy as an alternative political practice that engages young citizens in participatory decision making.  In 2018 and 2019, we organized seven deliberative “mini-publics” in Lalitpur, Itahari, Birgunj, and Surkhet in which we asked the following questions:

How do Nepali youth engage with democratic institutions?
How do Nepali youth perceive structures of political authority in Nepal?
What political aspirations motivate youth?
Can deliberative democracy facilitate a consensus on how these aspirations can be realized?

In this panel we will present a 45-minute documentary video “Chalphal” which resulted from these youth assemblies.  “Chalphal” is in Nepali, with English subtitles.  In it, Nepali youth debate their priorities for Nepal’s new political architecture, and then present these priorities to local, provincial, and federal political leaders.  The video contends that structured dialogue and deliberation are effective ways to pursue political outcomes, but also that centralization and patrimonialism are deeper structures that continue to shape Nepal’s political culture.  At the conclusion of the video, the Nepali activists who collaborated with the principal investigator on the youth assembly program will provide brief responses to the video, after which we will open the discussion to the conference audience.
Convener: Thomas O’Neill, Professor, Department of Child and Youth Studies, Brock University
Chair: Bijay Poudel, Hands-On Institute, Lalitpur
Discussant: Dan Hirslund, Independent Scholar, Copenhagen
Presenters: Thomas O’Neill1, Brabim Kumar KC2, Kalawati Rai3, Kanchan Jha4, Pradip Pariyar5, Bijay Poudel6, and Samrat Katwal7
Affiliation: 1Professor, Department of Child and Youth Studies, Brock University; 2Former Communications Advisor at UNDP – UNESP; 3Economic Inclusion Coordinator at Rural Enterprises and Remittances Project; 4Founder, Sano Paila, Birgunj; 5Executive Chairperson, Samata Foundation; 6Director, Hands-On Institute; 7Hands-On Institute



1. Author: Rose Schwietz
Affiliation: Fulbright US Student Research Nepal; Affiliate organizations: One World Theatre and Actor’s Studio Nepal
Paper Title: Trance-Dance & Actor-Gods: From Himalayan Storytelling to Contemporary Nepali Theater
Abstract: Nestled in Nepal’s mountain villages, traditional dance-drama forms like the Gurung people’s trance-like Ghatu dance and the Buddhist monks’ masked Mani Rimdu dance use trance-like methods to tell ancient stories of local people and their gods. In Mani Rimdu’s festival cycle, masked monks show over a dozen dances to complete a Buddhist tantric practice; Ghatu dancers align in perfect motion but with closed eyes, dancing an ancient royal love story on the feast of Buddha Jayanti. The entranced states, synchronized steps, and ceremonial purpose make these dances especially compelling to study together; moreover, as the root of humanity, non-commercial ritual art forms like these can shape the work of modern artists. As Nepal’s urban theater scene booms and its artists juxtapose Western acting against their Nepali heritage, local artists hope to forge a unique Nepali theatrical identity. However, Nepal also currently faces huge demographic shifts due to natural disasters, globalization, the recent civil war, and now the pandemic; villages are increasingly drained of their youth and thus of preservation of their cultural memory. Delicate forms like Ghatu and Mani Rimdu risk total disappearance, while the urban theater scene experiences a tug-of-war between Western theater and local performance traditions.

What is the current artistic and cultural state of Nepal’s traditional storytelling forms (particularly Ghatu and Mani Rimdu), and what can contemporary urban artists in Nepal and beyond learn from these styles? This project explores this question and the timely conversation between traditional and commercial art. There are three core concerns. First, to develop detailed artistic documentation of and engagement with Ghatu (in Lamjung) and Mani Rimdu (in Tengboche), using the Suzuki method of actor training as a performance template by which to catalog these forms. Second, to conduct interviews that gauge how audiences experience and connect with these dances, as these cultural arts face dwindling interest and changing times. Third, to investigate the extent to which traditional art forms are relevant to and applicable in contemporary urban theater contexts through a series of workshops with urban Nepalese theater artists.

Field research in Tengboche and Lamjung will involve observation of training, preparation, and performance, with practical engagement when culturally appropriate. To gauge audience experience and impact, interviews will be conducted among villagers, performers, and dance teachers. Following the field research, a series of collaborative workshops will take place with artists from Actor’s Studio Nepal and One World Theatre. These workshops will explore the performance methods of Ghatu and Mani Rimdu and their application to contemporary urban theater, resulting in a final showcase performance.

This research impacts Nepal in three ways: it increases access to and appreciation of Nepal’s exquisite but fading art forms; it contributes to the rapidly developing urban theater scene; and it provides important insight into rural communities’ evolving relationship to their culture. Lastly, by using an artist’s lens to document this information, this project lays the foundation for future research into Nepal’s many other dance-drama forms and their communities.

Davis, Carol C. Theatre of Nepal and the People Who Make It. Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Kohn, Richard J. Lord of the Dance: The Mani Rimdu Festival in Tibet and Nepal. Albany, State
University of New York, 2001.
Lama, Tshampa Megi. The Gurung: Their Hidden History. West Bengal Gurung Development and Culture Board, 2018.
Liu, Siyuan, editor. Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre. Routledge, 2017.
Suzuki, Tadashi, and Kameron H. Steele. Culture Is the Body: The Theatre Writings of Tadashi Suzuki. Theatre Communications Group, 2015.
Vatsyayan, Kapila. Traditions of Indian Folk Dance. Indian Book Company, 1976.