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Looking for Dor Bahadur Bista

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Kesang Tseten’s new documentary investigates the disappearance of Nepal’s foremost anthropologist 20 years ago


Dor Bahadur Bista

Dor Bahadur Bista

In 1995, Nepal’s pioneer anthropologist and crusader against the caste system vanished without trace. As with many such mysterious disappearances, there have been conspiracy theories but no plausible explanation. And no sign of the man.

Now, documentary maker Kesang Tseten has tried to piece together clues from Bista’s early years in a Chhetri family in Kathmandu,¬†his fieldwork as an anthropologist, his work in Jumla which brought him in direct confrontation with locals, and then re-tracing Bista’s last steps in January 1995. Tseten has retrieved archival audio and film, interviewed family, friends and contemporaries for a gripping cinematic portrayal of the man.

Tseten tells the story through Bista’s friend and colleague, Basanta Thapa the former editor of Himal magazine. Thapa starts and ends in the holy Indian town of Haridwar showing a faded black and white picture of Bista to sadhus in a futile attempt to find him. Haridwar was where he was rumoured to be last seen.

The young Dor Bahadur was a rebel, we find out, and had serious disagreements with his father about Brahmanical rituals. But he kept his outrage in check to conform to his family status. It was only after his first book, People of Nepal came out in 1967 and he was tagged as an ‘anti-national’ that he became radicalised.

He railed against Brahmanism, seeing it as the root of Nepal’s underdevelopment. The seeds of his book Fatalism and Development began germinating in his mind, and  Bista admits in an interview with American anthropologist Jim Fisher that he knew the book would be controversial. In fact, he says it was his intention to provoke a debate and shake things up.

His thesis was that ‚ÄėBrahmanical brainwashing‚Äô made most Nepalis fatalistic, they accepted their status because they were told it was pre-ordained in a previous life or by a divine power. The caste system thus destroyed the initiative in citizens to carve out their own destiny.

Needless to say, such beliefs brought Bista in direct confrontation with members of his own family, the royal palace (for saying that Nepal’s kings were descendants of Magars) and upper caste elders in Jumla where he retreated in 1991 to build a model caste-free commune in the village of Chaudabisa.

Tseten travels with Thapa to what remains of the Karnali Institute in Jumla. This is where Bista wanted to put his theories into practice to prove that eliminating the caste hierarchy could help a community develop. He was soon the victim of a vicious slander campaign in culturally conservative Jumla. There was a backlash against his attempt, for instance, to stop the custom of ‘jari’ payment when a local inter-caste couple eloped.

Despite his dogged work in remote Chaudabisa and his popularity among poor villagers, Bista made enemies in Khalanga Bazar. He had taken in an intelligent young local woman under his wing, educating her with the hope of giving her a future. His enemies seized upon this, publishing in a local paper that he was having an affair with her.  It was a week later that Bista flew down to Nepalganj, got his friend’s grandson to meet him in Kohalpur with his passport and camera, changed his mind about taking those items, and got on a bus to Chisapani and was never seen again.

We won’t be giving anything away when we say that Tseten doesn’t find Dor Bahadur Bista. But there are hints: Bista’s last words to his friend‚Äôs grandson: “One is born alone and dies alone.”¬†A long shot of the windy cliffs near Chisapani¬†bridge.

The cinematic craft here is classic Kesang Tseten, the director lets the story unfold through interviews, locales and talking heads of a cross-section of Nepalis describing how the caste system affects their everyday lives. Bista disappeared before the conflict began in 1996, a revolution to end ethnic discrimination. The film shows us Bista’s sparse room in Jumla, and we learn the heavy irony of how the Maoists trashed it and burnt all his books.

The caste system has eroded since the last two decades, but there are still incidents like the one of a Dalit youth who could not put up with a Janajati girl forsaking him because of his low caste and poured acid on her face.

Tseten shows us an archival clip of Bista burying a time capsule in a Jumla school in 1994 with instructions to open it in 100 years. What does it say? We will have to wait another 80 years to find out.

Castaway Man
Shunyata Films, 2015
Directed by Kesang Tseten
1 hr 22 min

Read also: 

Dor Bahadur Alive Salil Subedi

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12 Responses to “Looking for Dor Bahadur Bista”

  1. Diwakar Chettri on Says:

    Woohoo! This is something!!!

  2. Laxmi Ghimire on Says:

    I always wondered where this wonderful human disappeared.

  3. namah on Says:

    Kunda: the acid incident has elements of mental health issues. please don’t over simplify it.

  4. Anupam on Says:

    It may sound wild but there is a strong rumour about DB being in Japan with his “Japanese” family. Some are said to have come face to face with him there.
    Hope Kesang Tseten follows that aspect in his next documentary.

  5. Binod Bhattarai on Says:

    Cannot wait to see the film.

  6. nirmal niroula on Says:

    can’t wait to see it.. but how???

  7. Grimalzee on Says:

    As rumored Nepal,s pioneer anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista was last seen in Haridwar-Hrisikesh ashrams.It was also in discussion among some circles that he was deeply studying about Karma yoga ( may be speculation by some), with the Gurus.No wonder his root was Chhetria as reported in your column.
    In Sanatana Dharma, Karma Yoga is of utmost importance. ,as Sri Krishna himself says in the Gita :” Tasmat Yogi bhavarjuna.’ ( that is why Arjuna you become an Yogi.’

    Karma is the unalterable law of effect from previous action done or causes. Fatalism is a break -down of faith with human effort.
    In Vedanta ,in destiny effort is not ruled out when in fatalism ,effort is ruled out.
    Rajaji, C. Rajagopalachari in his seminal book ,- Hinduism -Doctrine and Way of Life says :”It is wrong to think of Karma in terms of what is understood by the word fatalism . Destiny as taught in Vedanta does not involve an unscientific attitude towards natural laws or a break-down of faith in human efforts , which is fatalism. Kama is the unalterable law of effect following o previous causes . This is what distinguishes Vedanta from its half-brother , This is in short and it can be discussed further more.
    It is timely to remember him at present.

  8. Gaurab KC on Says:

    I disagree with the claim the reviewer made on the film Castaway Man, which reads, ‚ÄėIt was only after his first book, People of Nepal came out in 1967 and he was tagged as an ‚Äėanti-national‚Äô that he became radicalized‚Äô.

    In 1962 Dor Bahadur Bista returned back to Nepal without completing his MA in cultural anthropology from SOAS, London. He joined USAID, started his independent research, established good relationship with King Mahendra and published this monograph People of Nepal (PON) in 1967 when King Mahendra was all pervasive and powerful.

    PON is a book which was produced and disseminated during the Panchayat. State sponsored the book. His Majesty’s Government (HMG) Department of Publicity, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was the publisher. After the publication the book gave leverage to Bista to be the first anthropologist of Nepal and the book anthropological. The book was highly cited by many people both Nepalis and foreigners. During the International visit King Mahendra and Birendra had gifted this book to many international dignitaries and head of the state.

    The book became a benchmark for a long period of time and had also contributed to King Mahendra’s nationalist project of consolidated Nepali identity. Inside the book Bista had highly acknowledged King Mahendra by giving direction to a new Nepal by breaking the shackles of isolationism. Being highly critical to the 1854 legal code Bista inspiringly highlights and welcomes the constitution of 1962 promulgated by King Mahendra. It can be said Bista’s anthropology and Mahendra’s politics overlapped.

    After the death of King Mahendra, Bista was equally trusted by King Birendra. From 1970 to 1975 Bista served His Majesty’s Government in various capacities including the position of the Consul General in Lhasa. In 1978 he was awarded as a professor of anthropology and appointed the Executive Director of the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) at TU.

    Bista‚Äôs PON was by the state and for the state unlike stimulating ‚Äėanti-national‚Äô as Dixit states.

    (KC is making a film on the life and work of Dor Bahadur Bista jointly with Sachin Ghimire)

  9. Tapan Das on Says:

    Self-Alienation! …Self-repudiation!

    The problem with Western educated persons in our sub-continent is that we all become a Brown Sahib without our own root or we are blind in our one eye.
    One eye must focus on the Western scientific temper /outlook/or vision; the other on the Eastern spiritual/dharmic/yogic vision or temper. That will surely open the third eye dormant on us. ;which will make us a complete person/or human being..
    The Oriental philosophic plus Occidental scientific visionary( person) is the call of the hour.The fundamentalist ,Talibanist etc are the bane for the present generation ,the product of the West and the Soudi/the wahabbists , that is now the headache to themselves.
    So in short ,even Mr.Bist has failed to understand the Karma Yoga of his own Dharma and has failed in distinguishing between Fatalism and Service or Karma Yoga , it seems.
    Fatalism is without effort ;buit Karma is with effort which is the gist of Hindu- even Buddhist religion or tradition. Pl. refer to Bhagbad Gita..if you are in doubt about this.
    So we must first and foremost study our own cultural ,religious tradition or roots before trying to caricature the West. That is the short coming in the Bist.

    Self-condemnation is no virtue nor self-complacency.

  10. Grimalzee on Says:

    Brickbats & Bouquets
    ( to Prof. Bista). May his soul rest in Peace.

    Thousand of rose petals.
    Bouquet for opposing caste system ,the evil social practice prevailing in the country and creating awareness.
    Also brickbats for forgeting or neglecting the rich dharmic Karma Yoga ( service yoga) ofas preached by no less a personage as Shri Krishna, his own root.
    Karma yoga is the quitessence of Hinduism say the sages. We have to remove the chaff from the grains. Mixing Karma with Fatalism is in itself Deady or explosive and add to further confusion an injustice to the rich yraditionof ours.
    Too much of Snellgrove or Heimendorf?

  11. Pusker Kafle on Says:

    Interesting; #time_capsule in Jumla school (1994) open it in (100) years…. And we have to wait (80) years…. To know about Bista’s #life_achievement ?????

  12. Daniel on Says:

    Some times we do worship..”.THE False GODS” as well. ( apology to Arun Souri ).

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