There are three ways to describe Pratyoush Onta. By training he is an historian. Ten years ago, for his PhD dissertation on Nepali nationalism, he examined how Bhanubhakta was anointed a Nepali language icon by Darjeeling-based activists in the 1930s, by using the then available printing presses, literary magazines and newspapers to disseminate nationalist ideologies.
That work set Onta off on the path to become a media specialist. In the last five years, together with Martin Chautari colleagues, he has produced 11 books on the state of Nepal's media, including a history of Radio Nepal. When I asked why he studies media, Onta replied that he wants "to help lay social science foundations in what is still a little studied discipline".
Onta's other identity is that of a questioning public intellectual who is interested in how knowledge is created and shared, and what that process means to us as Nepalis. He has hosted programs on radio, written newspaper columns, moderated discussions at Chautari and given public lectures inside and outside of Nepal.
It is Onta's third identity that is on display in this 210-page book, which he conceived as a visiting scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London in 2002. Explaining that Nepal has long been studied by British academics as a geographical curiosity, as a potential trading partner, as home of 'martial bodies', and, in modern times, as a recipient of development aid, Onta aims to understand the typology of recent and contemporary British social science scholarship on Nepal in a who-studies-what-where-why-and-how manner.
His methodology was to email 20-odd questions to a sample of 19 UK-educated non-Nepali academics, comprising of recent PhDs, active scholars and retired professors whose disciplines range from anthropology to sociology to literature to history and languages. The book is a compilation of their detailed answers.
And the picture those answers paint is depressing. Nepal studies-like Nepal itself on the global stage-is on the margin of even South Asian Studies. It is a discipline with no institutional money, no disciplinary recognition, no formal academic home, no flagship journals and with hardly any influence on other scholars and mainstream theories. The British press hardly cites these scholars' work in its reports about Nepal, and the functionaries of Her Majesty's Government and of development agencies rarely draw on their expertise when designing Nepal-specific interventions.
While those scholars who obtained jobs when British universities were expanding in the 1970s consider themselves lucky, others say that they do not see prospects for university-based jobs improving any time soon. As David Gellner puts it, "studying Nepal has always been a vocation, never a direct path to a job." Indeed, what sustains the field appears to be the energy of its geographically scattered yet academically close-knit members, who cobble together occasional 'high quality' seminars or bulletins, with Michael Hutt at SOAS serving as an informal dean.
But if, as per the Marxist scholar David Seddon, 'the investment is greater and the potential returns are smaller' in Nepal studies, what pushed these scholars into it? Some were nudged in Nepal's direction by advisers in graduate school. To others, Nepal offered a classic anthropology experience to study 'non-literate and pre-industrial' ethnic groups such as the Tharus, Tamangs or Gurungs. And for younger researchers, the year between high school and college spent working or travelling in the hills turned them into lifelong Nepalophiles.
However they entered the field, their level of engagement with Nepali scholars' work appears split along generational lines. Recent PhDs tend to be fluent in one or more of Nepal's languages and familiar with research papers coming out of Nepal. As the standards of social science research rise here, it's safe to say that we are seeing the last days of kuire academics parachuting in to shoehorn locally collected interview files into ready-made theoretical templates. Indeed, as Rhoderick Chalmers and Mark Turin imply, it's become increasingly important to study what native scholars are publishing and to engage as equals in critical dialogues with them.
All interviewees agree that in peaceful times, a 'high per capita cultural diversity' made Nepal an attractive, safe and easy place to conduct field work. In post-conflict Nepal some day, some of them hope to obtain funds to do research on conflict management, forced migration, war trauma, coping with violence and healing and psychotherapy. Most are concerned that Nepal has become risky as a site, giving them no choice but to send students to other countries for fieldwork.
This book provides a window to understand some of the personalities and institutions that are shaping research on Nepal in British academia today. It also gives a sense of the relative diversity of Nepal-related work that those with interdisciplinary and even non-academic career paths are exploring today. Researchers will find the bibliographies that accompany the interviews handy references.
My only quibble is that since the book adopts a checklist approach to asking questions, it does not give us controversies and disagreements that surround various theories and interpretations. Even after reading all the interviews, the image of Nepal Studies as an academic field is that it is still in its cataloguing phase-not yet intellectually bubbling over with ideas and insights that would attract the most ambitious graduate students.
As such, the book is not likely to be of interest to laypersons. But to those interested in the minutiae of scholarly life, Onta has provided a usefully detailed scenario of how knowledge about Nepal continues to be mapped, produced and shared in the UK-almost 200 years after William Kirkpatrick first published his Nepal report in 1811.
Nepal Studies in the UK: Conversations with Practitioners
by Pratyoush Onta
Martin Chautari, 2004