Some castes and ethnic groups have been and continue to be marginalized in Nepal, and the Tharus, the country's fourth ethnic group, is one of those peoples. Through his art series ‘Masinya Dastoor'Tharu artist Lavkant Chaudhary struggles to tell his silenced stories and delves into his story of the Tharu's marginalization.
Chaudhary cites a six-month art research project on the history of the Tharu as a revealing experience of one-dimensional stereotypes about his own community:
All I came across were recurring stereotypical ideas about the Tharu. We were just water snail eaters, jungle dwellers, alcohol drinkers, and an honest tribe. That was our identity.
All I found were frequent stereotypical ideas about the tharu. We ate snails, we lived in the jungle, we drank alcohol, and we were an honest tribe. That was our identity.
Sanjib Chaudhary, author of Global Voices, spoke with Lavkant about the history of the Tharus and how it has influenced their work.
Sanjib Chaudhary (SC): What inspired you to create art around social problems?
Lavkant Chaudhary (LC): I came to know about the marginalization of Tharus and other indigenous peoples only after completing my Bachelors of Fine Arts. Searching the history of Tharus, I came across the preconceived notions about the Tharus – like people living in the jungle and eating water snails, alcohol drinkers and honest tribe among others. However, the question kept hovering in my mind: Why was the history of Tharus always kept in dark in Nepal? So, I thought of asking this through my artworks.
Lavkant Chaudhary (LC): I learned of the marginalization of the Tharus and other indigenous peoples when I completed my humanities studies. Searching the history of the Tharus, I came across preconceived notions about the Tharus as people who live in the jungle and eat snails, drink alcohol, and are an honest tribe, among other things. However, the question continued to haunt my mind: why has the history of the Tharus always been kept hidden in Nepal? So I thought about asking this with my artwork.
SC: What does it mean ‘Masinya Dastoor’? What is your work about?
LC: My artwork revolve around displacement and resistance of Tharus, and the discrimination the community has faced at the hands of the state. Various ethnic groups including the Tharus were categorized as masinya matwali, which literally means enslavable alcohol drinkers, by the state through the Muluki Ain (National Code of 1854). The installation ‘Masinya’Comprises 13 ghaila (clay pots) with texts from different periods carved on their surfaces. The text ranges from statements from King Prithvi Narayan Shah who is credited for unifying Nepal to the Constitution of Nepal, 2015 – all of them have helped marginalize the indigenous peoples.
The ‘Tamasuk’Series tells the stories of systematic marginalization of Tharus. During the regime of autocratic rulers, the land belonging to Tharus were distributed and rewarded to different royal administrators and bureaucrats, leaving the Tharus landless in their own place. The kamaiya and kamalari system were introduced by which Tharu men, women, and their children could be traded as commodities.
In the ‘Dastoor’Series I have used official documents from different time periods in Nepali history as a backdrop for portraits of day-to-day Tharu activities. The documents, issued by the Sen, Shah and Rana rulers of Nepal, record the way different rulers issued dastoor (legal orders) to control native people in their own land by enforcing taxes. Heavy taxes, imposed on nearly everything, from land to water, forest to agriculture, and crops to animals, impoverished the Tharus and others.
LC: My work revolves around the displacement and resistance of the Tharus, and discrimination and the community have faced the hands of the State. Various ethnic groups, including the Tharus, were listed as masinya matwali, which literally means enslavable alcohol drinkers, by the State with Muluki Ain (National Code of 1854). The sample 'Masinya’Comprises 13 ghaila (clay pots) with texts from different periods carved on the surface. The text ranges from statements by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, who is credited with unifying Nepal, to the 2015 Constitution of Nepal, all of which have helped marginalize indigenous peoples.
The ‘Tamasuk’ series tells the stories of the systematic marginalization of the Tharus. During the autocratic rulers' regime, land belonging to the Tharus was distributed as prizes to different administrators and loyal bureaucrats, leaving the Tharus landless on their own land. The kamaiya and kamalari systems were implemented so that the Tharu and their children could be marketed as merchandise.
In the 'Dastoor' series, I used official documents from different periods in Nepali history as a backdrop for portraits of everyday Tharu activities. The documents, issued by Nepal's Sen, Shah and Rana rulers, record how different rulers issued dastoor (legal orders) to control the natives in their own land and with taxes. Heavy taxes, applicable to almost everything, from land to water, forests to agriculture, and crops and animals, which impoverished the Tharus and others.
SC: Your work ‘Ostracism’Contains grains and bullets, what does it mean?
LC: The cereals and grains symbolize the traditional land of the Tharus. The bullets then are placed on top of the grains to connote the systematic violence through which these lands were taken away. Although the grains get older and decompose, they still have the power to procreate. Perhaps resistance functions in a similar manner, growing out of centuries of violence.
LC: Cereals and grains symbolize the traditional land of the tharus. The bullets were then placed on the grains to connote the systematic violence used to remove the soil from them. Although grains deteriorate and decompose, they still have the power to procreate. Perhaps resistance works in a similar way, stemming from centuries of violence.
SC: You chose an unusual and less attractive subject, a pesticide, as inspiration for your work called ‘DDT’. Why did you choose it?
LC: DDT, also popularly known as ‘Dangerous Dose to Tharus’, is based on one of the silenced histories of the Tharu community.
During the 50s and 60s, with support from the United States of America and the World Health Organization (WHO), the Nepali Government led a campaign to eradicate malaria in the Terai region. This led to a mass migration of hill people to Terai and large scale of deforestation in the region. The spraying of DDT not only eradicated malaria and the Anopheles mosquitoes but also reduced the Tharus to a minority in their own land. In this painting, I have used a Tharu wall relief technique to paint various objects including images of humans. Each image is approximately the same size as a mosquito.
LC: DDT, also known as ‘Dangerous Dose for the Tharus’, is based on one of the silenced stories of the Tharu community.
During the 1950s and 1960s, with support from the United States of America and the World Health Organization (WHO), the Nepalese government spearheaded a campaign to eradicate malaria in the Terai region. This led to a massive migration of people from the hill to Terai and great deforestation in the region. Spraying DDT wasn't just about malaria and mosquitoes Anopheles but he also reduced the tharus to a minority in his own land. In this painting, I used a tharu wall relief technique to paint various objects, including images of humans. Each image is approximately the same size as a mosquito.
SC: You are very frank about the Tikapur incident and maintain that the mainstream media has not unearthed true stories. What does the series say ‘Citizen of the land of inequality’?
LC: During the Tikapur incident of August 24, 2015, and its aftermath seven police officers, a young child, and more than fifty people from the area were killed. The state played a big part in terrorizing the Tharu community by performing targeted arrests, killings and burning their houses. The Tharu community was portrayed as being ‘violent’ by the Nepali media, while the violence the community faced at the hands of state forces was ignored.
My artwork ‘Once There was a Village’Comprises a video of a miniature traditional village recreated using clay, bamboo, cardboard, ceramic pots, printed maps, glass, plywood, LED tubes. This work questions indigenous identity, rights, equality, and social discrimination. In the aftermath of the Tikapur incident, more than 88 houses were burnt, specifically targeting the houses of Tharus. The video begins with a Tharu folk song while eye witness accounts of the harsh suffering faced by Tikapur locals is heard as the houses burn.
LC: During the Tikapur incident of August 24, 2015 and its aftermath, seven police officers were killed, one child more than 50 people from the area. The State played a major role in terrorizing the Tharu community with targeted arrests, deaths, and house fires. The Nepalese media called the Tharu community 'violent', while ignoring the violence that the community faced at the hands of state forces.
My work 'Once upon a time there was a village’Includes the video of a traditional miniature village recreated with clay, bamboo, cardboard, ceramic vessels, printed maps, glass, plywood, LED tubes. This work questions identity, indigenous equality rights, and social discrimination. After the Tikapur incident, there were more than 88 houses burned down, specifically the house of Tharus. The video begins with a traditional tharu song while harsh witness stories are heard of the sufferings of the Tikapur when their houses were burned.
SC: You have dealt with the problem of marginalization of the tharu community in your work. Have you also tried to tell the stories of tharus people?
LC: My artwork ‘The Diary: Barefaced Truth of the Suppressed’Tells the story of Jokhan Ratgainya, a Tharu journalist, writer and revolutionary. I have recreated his diary by etching the texts and images on wood. Jokhan was murdered on June 11, 2001, by the then Royal Nepal Army at the time of the Civil War. This series depicts the situation of that period. It is rooted in the instability and killings faced by the Tharus of Far-Western Nepal at the hands of the Government of Nepal. People were arrested, murdered, and forcefully disappeared by the government in what came to be known as the ‘Operation Kilo Sera II’.
LC: My work, ‘The newspaper: Naked truth of the repressed’ tells the story of Jokhan Ratgainya, journalist, writer and Tharu revolutionary. I recreated his journal with woodcuts of texts and images. Jokhan was killed on June 11, 2001 by the then Royal Nepalese Army in the civil war. The series illustrates the situation of that period. It is rooted in the instability and deaths faced by the Tharus of western Nepal at the hands of the Government of Nepal. The government arrested, murdered and disappeared in what became known as 'Operation Kilo Sera II'.
You can see part of Lavant's work on his Instagram page.