Conversation with Lavkant Chaudhary on Indigenous resistance and art
kripa: Hi, I am a Master’s student at CU Boulder’s Geography Department. I am interested in learning about the rural perspectives of the Melamchi Drinking Water Supply Project in Kathmandu - a project that has been ongoing for over two decades. As an urban native of Kathmandu, I felt that we have always looked at Melamchi as a water source, we have been waiting for their water to flow to our pipes, but we have never really known Melamchi as anything other than a resource. I am interested in knowing about the people, the river, the fields and the environment there. Of course due to the pandemic I haven’t been able to actually visit Nepal or Melamchi so now I am shifting to do phone and Skype interviews. For our Deep Horizons seminar, we have been thinking through the role of art in environmental issues either through advocacy, activism or education and knowledge-making. We’ve had some fantastic speakers and I’ve been keen to learn more from Nepali artists as well. I had wanted to visit your exhibition - Masinya Dastoor - when I was home as well, and I’ve missed out on that. My sister and friends found it deeply invigorating, thought-provoking and educational. I am familiar with you and your work, but I would love it if you could introduce yourself and talk a bit about how you arrived at your work - specifically the Masinya Dastoor exhibition but also Tharu issues in general.
Lavkant: I am from Sarlahi in Terai and in fact I came to Kathmandu to study science. I knew what art was, but didn’t know it was something you could study. Since I was a Biology student I was used to sketching. A friend then recommended that I enroll in an Art class and that’s how I joined Lalit Kala Campus. After my Bachelors, I joined the TU campus in Kirtipur for my Masters. Most of our Art classes there were related to Western art, this to me was quite a political and cultural issue. Where is our art, culture and history? I hadn’t learnt any of that. I am from the Tharu indiegnous community and yet I didn’t learn about the Tharu culture or the Newar culture.
I am a member of an artists collective called Art Tree and after the 2015 earthquake we started a six month long community art project in Bhaktapur’s Thulo Besi in Kathmandu Valley. This was still during my Bachelors, and at that point in working with the community I started learning about our own art, skills, techniques. During this community art project I learnt about Bhaktapur’s very interesting mask making technique. This sadly is a dying art. Other than two mask makers, who are very old, there is no one in this next generation of mask-making. So, I was even more curious about why we weren’t learning about our own art skills and techniques.
Simultaneously, in 2015 we had also been having indigenous, marginalized community, dalit and women’s struggle and resistance with regards to our interim constitution. After the earthquake, the government passed the new constitution which largely failed to address many of the issues that these various resistances had been struggling for. Then a couple of months later, we had the Tikapur incident. In the aftermath of that incident, Tharu people were heavily dehumanized, demonized and discriminated against. Tharu people were portrayed as demons and beasts who would murder people. At that point I wondered - was I not self-aware? Are we really demons? That’s when I started researching the Tharu identity and the classics came up in mainstream history: Tharu are tribal people who live in the jungles, they eat snails, they are alcoholics. That was all. There is nothing more in our syllabuses or mainstream history. However, as I started researching more I found that for over 200 years, since the conquest of [the Nepali] nation, since the concept of state-making and nationhood has been in practice Tharus have been practicing farming and providing grains to sustain the state. During Jung Bahadur Rana’s rule (in 1854), the Muluki Ain was used to codify the caste system and that’s how the Tharu were classified as “Masinya Matwali” (Enslavable Alcohol Drinkers). That has led to the historical and current marginalization of Tharus, yet is not discussed in mainstream history.
Going back to the Tikapur case, there were a lot of innocent people in the incident. Anyone connected to the perpetrators, the whole village in fact were held in the jail and the next night, they selectively burned Tharu homes in the village. Due to that fear and trauma, the Tharu youth there either left for India or Kathmandu in search of safety. That incident changed the social structure of that area.
Going back to the People’s War, Tharus were one of the most involved and killed communities during the war. Tharu enslavement was only outlawed in 2000, and yet there seemed to be little compensation for this. The push to create a new constitution and nation in which Dalits and Marginalized communities all would have equal rights and land was the main driver for the participation of Tharus in the People’s War. Yet, after the people’s war there was more marginalization and dehumanization of Tharus as we saw with the Tikapur incident. These things are still not discussed in the mainstream media.
And so there I was a Masters student, learning about world history but unaware of my own. So my exhibition Masinya Dastoor is an effort to reclaim our history and our space to try and uncover the layers of our history and the layers of our marginalization from our contribution to centuries of state-making as well as the recent People’s War, from our dehumanization to our demonization.
kripa: Could you talk about the name of your exhibition a bit more, specifically about Dastoor and wider social structures?
Lavkant: Masinya of course is the term ‘enslavable’ as enacted by Jung Bahadur’s Muluki Ain. Dastoor is the codification of social customs into law (such as the Muluki Ain). My wider Dastoor series explores how various types of Dastoors enacted by different generations of rulers from the Sens to the Shahs and Ranas in Nepal have changed the various modes of taxation, village structures and land uses resulting in varied internal migration patterns and social structures in Tharu communities. During the earlier Sen dynasty’s rule there was a more autonomous approach to land use where people used land in their own ways, and later with the Rana and Shah periods the system of taxation was introduced in which people had to pay tax for their own native land. This had widespread effects on the internal migration of Tharus. For example, the ecosystem and socio-economic system of Tharus was destabilized during the Rana period. The Ranas, being closely aligned with the British Raj in India, used to conduct large hunting parties in Terai’s forests to appease the ruling class. This led to a wide scale destruction of elephants and other animals, and the sal tree forests were also logged and exported to India for the construction of the railroads. So the Tharu forests were destroyed to keep others in power. This has continued into the present day as well, in Chitwan we saw the death of RajKumar. We have become refugees on our own land. So, I am doing the Masinya Dastoor exhibition as a Tharu. However when we got visitors at the exhibition, it was clear that there were parallels to many other indigenous and community struggles. This helped us connect with each other.
kripa: I was in Nepal in the summer of 2015 as well, and I think it was the day after I returned from Nepal to the States that I saw the news about Tikapur. I remember at least the Kathmandu community being very divided because there was a lot of speculation about the nature of the protests and the political motivations behind the actions that led to the violence, and like you mentioned the whole of Terai was demonized. I do remember thinking that I had always accepted by identity as a Nepali and the state had validated that identity too. I feel that as a Newar we also have indigenous struggles, but it’s not like in Terai where your citizenship is constantly called into question. I am wondering, whether during the course of your research and exhibition you have noticed a shift in the relationship between the state and the Tharu community?
Lavkant: Like you mentioned, when issues are raised regarding Madhes or Tharuhat, people speculate if they are Indian agents. I do wonder - why would India support Madhes? India has a stronger relationship with the state in Kathmandu, so I don’t see how they would support Madhes, Tharu or Dalits. As for the shift in relationships, I think that with the exhibition I am trying to represent my journey as an individual and an artist. I speculate about why I didn’t know this history, why this history was not included in the mainstream syllabus. Those who have visited the exhibition have also wondered about where and how their identities, skills and techniques are represented. The state talks about equal representation but does not implement it, and this exhibition raises questions regarding that. Even the Tikapur incident wasn’t well known if you weren’t involved on social media. So I think that on a smaller scale it is about a shift in our personal identities and representation.
kripa: I’d also like to ask you a few questions about the environmental issues in the South as well. Like you mentioned, most of the environmental destruction in the South was at the hands of the government, yet when it came to protecting these forests and animals it was again the Indigenous people who were dispossessed of their land to create National Parks because they were framed as the destroyers of flora and fauna. Some of this is covered in Dr. Chandra Gurung’s Autobiography The Boy from Siklis, I wonder if you’ve read it.
Lavkant: I haven’t read the book yet, I don’t get to reading that much, I find the visual things more my speed [laughs]
kripa: Certainly, we all have our interests in how we create and consume knowledge. You’ve spoken a lot about the indigenous struggle for land and autonomy, I’m wondering if you can speak a bit more to how they might be connected to environmental struggles.
Lavkant: If you look at how the state’s development is taking place now - it is based on dozers excavating roads. It is based on the belief of more construction and protection, and that has created some struggles. We all have our own practices, since generations we have a practice of worshipping the land. We worship the land before we cultivate the land, before planting the rice by doing bhumi pooja (ground worship). Only then do we plough the fields and sow the seeds. After the harvest, we worship the grains as well and gather together as a community to feast. We create dhutti (hanging grains) by creating little installations of the rice and leave them outside. Since we have taken all the grains from the fields, we try to leave some for the birds by leaving these dhuttis on our roofs. We worship nature, we sing songs about it and we have a strong relation to land. We worship bandevi (goddess of the forest) before we enter the forest if we need to collect grass to make barni (brooms). These happen during certain seasons, with certain rituals. This creates a sense of reverence and stewardship of the land because we know that we will rely on this land to sustain our future generations as well. Now, with the Chitwan National Park and Bardia National Park we have created homestays to recreate these practices. Yet these are just methods of state control. The monarchs hunted and destroyed our forests for generations. And now in the name of development and conservation, ministers and army personnel rule these forests. Now we are criminalized and killed for collecting snails or fishing, something that has been part of our livelihood for generations.
So the environmental struggles are also linked with our indigenous struggles. Even development directed for us has created our marginalization. In the 1950s, they started the DDT spraying in the name of Malaria eradication with the help of Rapti Valley Conservation Trust and technical and financial assistance from the US. This caused a huge internal migration of hill communities to the Terai which created massive deforestation and conversion of land as part of the settlement process. Along with the massive destruction of the forest, the Tharu ecosystem in which livelihoods were directly engaged with the forest were also destroyed. So, these environmental struggles cannot be separated from the indigenous struggles because the destruction of the environment is closely tied with the destruction of indigenous livelihoods. That’s another thing that my exhibition Masinya Dastoor has tried to portray.
kripa: I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Terai except once to organize a cycle race and once for some fieldwork. As you said, a lot of the history of the Terai, and in fact of the country is not well known to us. We often hear of the people only as resistors to development or conservation projects. So the dispossession that you are talking about is hidden in public discourse about Tharu indigenous struggles. I wonder if you could speak a bit more about the advocacy, especially regarding land reparations.
Lavkant: In a way there are ongoing campaigns with regards to land rights. The Kamaiya system of enslavement for example has been legally abolished, but the shift in practice has been slow. Kamaiyas were provided some land and funds to be able to set up free households, but the land that they were given were in flood prone areas of the rivers. So even with the formal abolishment of the Kamaiya enslavement system, there is an ongoing struggle for land rights, for recognition, and to create awareness by indigenous as well as political activists in person as well as in social media as well.
kripa: Thank you Lavkant ji, I appreciate your time today and I certainly believe that indigenous art and activism is crucial to supporting these fights for indigenous recognition and rights.
This interview was conducted over Skype in Nepali and has been translated and edited for clarity and brevity. Details regarding historical dates and practices have been added to better contextualize the conversation. Photos courtesy of the artist.
 Tharus are indigenous to Nepal’s Souther Belt - the Terai and Newars are indigenous to Kathmandu Valley which is currently the capital of Nepal.
 Many occupations and skills in Nepal were passed down through generations and the shift to wage-labor has resulted in the loss of many of these specific skills
The Tikapur incident was a heavily politicized case in which violence during a protest against the federal structure promulgated by Nepal’s 2015 constitution led to the death of eight security personnel and a minor. Read more about it here: https://www.recordnepal.com/wire/after-years-of-media-trial-a-stunning-v...
Nepal People’s War, or Maoist Civil War, lasted for a decade from 1996 to 2006. For more, see: https://www.versobooks.com/books/1722-the-bullet-and-the-ballot-box
 The Kamaiyaa and Kamlari system enabled farming landlords to enslave primarily Tharus as bonded labourers for generations under a debt system. It was outlawed in 2000. Read more here: https://www.hurights.or.jp/archives/focus/section2/2000/09/a-fight-again...
 There have been many contentions between indigenous people and the state, largely in disputes of territory and the use of resources. https://kathmandupost.com/province-no-3/2020/07/24/kin-of-chepang-youth-...