State-of-the-art Folk Culture Study In Nepal (1): Prem Khatry

Nepal is best known as the home of cultural pluralism, a blessed treasure for the students of culture, in general, and folk culture, in particular, and a beautifully carved and crafted picture for strangers and visitors. The 125 plus jatis (castes), ethnic groups and  adivasis (natives) spread throughout the length, breadth and width of this small Himalayan nation live with their own language, dialect, their special culture and other features, and make Nepal a union of diversities. 


Early pilgrims and natives

There was a time when Nepal was considered a Shangri-la and a haven for foreign historians and anthropologists. Several British historians, European Christian missionaries, travelers and employees of the British India government crisscrossed the length and breadth of this country many times over with different interests, assignments and missions. What always amazed them all was the colourful variety of lifestyles, belief systems, social-cultural organisations and the art people created.


When missionaries were not allowed to stay to preach and spread the gospel of Christ, British citizens and authorities were here on different assignments from late 18th century to early 20th century. Nearly all these people made notes while traveling and working, and many such notes were published later as the 'history' of Nepal.


Gone are those days when we did not have our very own research scholars, institutions and teachers to invest their energy, skill and academic training. Nepal's history has been written by native historians. Culture studies are also going on from different institutions inside and outside the government. In the recent times, culture study has found space in the government undertakings through the initiatives of the Ministry of Culture and Department of Archaeology. Some works have also been carried out through the auspices of the Nepal Academy and Tribhuvan University.


Language, as the carrier and strong and effective symbol of culture, has also been studied through projects such as the 'Linguistic Survey of Nepal' conducted by the Central Department of Linguistics, TU, Kirtipur. The department has surveyed and documented languages of Nepal in a comprehensive manner. Languages with a small number of speakers like Kusunda have also been documented using scientific methodology. The scientific world outside awaits the final outcome of this project in readable form, such as published reports, books and monographs.


Language is the most important heritage, a cultural legacy and an effective tool for communication within and outside the speakers' community. The development of language from the spoken to literary status marks the development of a culture. In Nepal there are still many languages without literature and scripts. Some are recreating their scripts, and many now are on the way to developing their literature and be able to have it as a medium of instruction at least at the primary level education.


Like languages, oral literature, traditions and customs also form strong assets for the documentation and study of folk culture and tradition. These are important in order to expand the horizon of culture studies, especially in the field of intangible heritage. Many tribes, peoples and cultures do not possess their written history. That does not mean they lack history. History cannot be defined only in terms of archeological and other scientific documents as taught by our old style 'gurus'.


Oral history is equally important to learn the past of a people. The Central Department of History, TU Kirtipur has, in recent times, incorporated this concept in the curricula at the degree level. Students and researchers will now go to study people using proper methodology to document the oral history and tradition with respect to the people's origin, migration, settlement and major events in their life.


Traditionally history has a standard of writing. Nepali historiography evolved from the writings of foreign scholars. From 1950 onwards, Nepali writers and scholars began to focus on the need to use archaeological and reliable sources to write history. Students of history have learnt that stone inscriptions, copper-plates, chronicles, art-architecture, monuments, among other sources, have their significance in terms of their use as reliable sources.  But it is also a universally accepted fact that in pre-literate and agricultural societies, where education has no or little space in their life, it is not easy to find such source materials to write their history.


Anthropologists have long practiced the art of documenting oral history, legends, myths and life history as sources to pull necessary data. And it is gratifying to note that in the context of Nepal, historians have now started to recognise the value of oral tradition. This will make folk history, folk culture and tradition richer and significant to frame development policy and programmes in these societies and cultures. At this point in time when the country is heading toward federalism, each province will have to compile the history and culture of its people. There will be number of scholars entrusted with these tasks.


Folk culture studies

Folk culture in the form of language and dialects, oral history, traditions, customs, folk art, folk music, songs, folk medicine, folk technology, oral literature in the form of story, poems, legends, proverbs, among other areas will be in the agenda of the regional governments for documentation, publication and preservation. Linguists, historians, culture experts, art historians and other experts will have a handful of responsibilities to discharge in the years ahead.


Tribhuvan University has in the recent past framed a curriculum for the establishment of the Department of Folklore and Literature. This will be a graduate level academic programme that will bear the responsibility of listing the intangible heritage with special focus on folk culture and folklore. That will be followed by research and publication activity for public consumption. 


In the past few years, Nepal Folklore Council (est.2013), a duly registered organisation, has now been committing itself to undertake the responsibility of holding national seminars in various districts outside the Kathmandu Valley on an annual basis and promote the importance of folk culture. There are always more than 60 seminar papers to be presented.


Each year the Council brings out a compendium of the seminar in book form. This year (2016) the annual seminar will take place in Surkhet, but before that, the team of scholars will visit Salyan, Dailekh, Dullu and possibly other places for local level seminars and observation.       


Finally, folk culture is the strong base of Nepali culture. Having many ethnic groups means many languages spoken, many festivals and occasions celebrated and a rich cultural heritage preserved for posterity. It is now time organisations like Folk Culture Council paid attention to  throw light on the folk culture across the region and the diverse communities living with their  past. (To be contd..)




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