Remembering Bhutan: A Conversation with Dasho Karma Ura

Remembering Bhutan: A Conversation with Dasho Karma Ura

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Fyvie Hall

University of Westminster

309 Regent Street

London

W1B 2UW

United Kingdom

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Launch of a two-volume book "The Unremembered Nation - Bhutan" and a conversation with the author, Dasho Karma Ura.

About this event

The Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD), within the School of Social Sciences, University of Westminster, has research themes focusing on democracies, post-colonial politics, development and emerging powers. There is an explicit focus on engagement with communities and places that are relatively ignored in mainstream politics and international relations. Bhutan is one such place.

Despite being a pioneer in innovative forms of governance, climate policy, sustainability, and politics, including the widely known concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), little attention is given to Bhutan in academic and public sphere. Dr Nitasha Kaul's work within CSD has been crucial in its focus on small states and in challenging this neglect of Bhutan with her extensive range of research, presentations and publications on the history, politics and geopolitics of Bhutan as a small Himalayan state. This current event is the first in the series: Conversations on Small States (CoSS).

This public event brings together Dasho Karma Ura, one of Bhutan's foremost intellectuals, in conversation with Dr Kaul.

Dasho Karma Ura is the President of Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies, Bhutan. The event marks the impending release of his two-volume book, "Bhutan: The Unremembered Nation". Volume 1 is subtitled ‘Community and Livelihood’, and it unfolds with accounts of births and rebirths in a household, making of houses and matrimonies, rearing of children and livestock in a village, and husbandry of lands and forests. After sketching these fundamental aspects of existence, it details seasonable migration, back pack and caravan trade, and travel over different climatic and linguistic areas. Colours, sounds, and other sensory experiences of ordinary people are described before ending on rhythm of farming of major crops such as millet, maize, rice, and wheat. Volume II is subtitled ‘Art and Ideals’ and discusses monumental architecture of dzongs (castles), administration of the country, authority and power, cosmological concepts and rites, visual arts and meditation, folk festivals and faiths, that animate the daily life of the people.

Dasho Karma Ura will be in conversation with Dr Nitasha Kaul, Associate Professor (Reader) at CSD. A continuing strand of her research over time has been on small states and on different aspects of Bhutan's representation, political history, and international relations; she has further led research council awarded projects on Bhutan's democratisation, as well as on Bhutan as a biodemocracy that links politics and ecology.

This event will provide an excellent opportunity for students, scholars, policymakers, and other guests to learn about Bhutan and its relevance in the international system. The conversation will be followed by audience Q&A and a drinks reception.

Event Format:

5:30-6:00 pm - On-site Registration

6:00 - 7:30 pm - Conversation and Q&A

7:30-8:30 pm - Drinks Reception (with Finger Food)

About the Speakers:

Dasho Karma Ura (BA, MA Oxford Univ. MPhil Eco. Edinburgh Univ. PhD Nagoya Univ.) is the president of Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies, Bhutan. His interests include happiness and wellbeing, statistics and indicators, and Buddhist literature and fine arts. He has painted the frescoes of Dochula Druk Wangyel Lhakhang, as well as a piece in the British Museum. He was bestowed order of Druk Khorlo (Wheel of Dragon Kingdom) by His Majesty the King for his contributions to literature and fine arts. He received the Govt. of India’s Vaisakh Samman Prahasti Patra for 2020 in recognition of his scholarship and fine arts in Buddhism. He is an advisory member of World Happiness Report, Wellbeing Centre, Oxford University, and School of Wellbeing in Bangkok, and several other bodies. He has been a visiting fellow at the Institute of Developing Economies and Nagoya University in Japan, and Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, Oxford University

Dr Nitasha Kaul is a multidisciplinary academic, novelist, poet, artist, and economist. She holds a joint doctorate in Economics and Philosophy (2003) and an MSc in Economics with a specialisation in public policy (1998) from the University of Hull, and a BA (Honours) in Economics from SRCC, University of Delhi. She is an Associate Professor (Reader) in Politics and International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. She has previously been an Associate Professor in Creative Writing in Bhutan and an Assistant Professor in Economics at the Bristol Business School. Over the last two decades, she has published on themes relating to democracy, political economy, technology/AI, identity, rise of right-wing nationalism, feminist and postcolonial critiques, Bhutan, India and Kashmir. Her books include Imagining Economics Otherwise (Routledge, 2007), Future Tense (Harper Collins India, 2020), and Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak? (co-edited; Kali for Women Press, 2020), and Man-Asian Literary Prize short listed Residue (Rainlight, 2014), which was the first novel in English by a Kashmiri woman. She is on twitter @NitashaKaul and links to all her published, spoken, and media work are at https://nitashakaul.com

The event is open for all to attend, prior online registration via Eventbrite is mandatory.

Check out the reviews of both the volumes below:

Vol 1:

In this momentous work on Bhutan the author has conducted extensive research, collecting and collating material from an amazing variety of sources. He has then used his sharp analytical skills to tell a story which is breathtaking in its range and complexity. As a raconteur of his country’s history, Dasho Karma Ura is beyond compare.

Shyam Saran (Padma Bushan), Diplomat, Senior Fellow at CPR, Delhi, and Author of How India Sees the World.

With the two volumes, Dasho Karma Ura has delivered a rich and masterful panorama of Bhutan, its people, their ways of life, and their traditions. While most studies of Himalayan countries focus on their official history and their famous figures, the special charm of this study lies in the fact that it puts human life at the centre. The two volumes begin with the nucleus of society: the house and family, and gradually zoom out to look at the village and the landscape around it, travel and trade (vol. I), and finally the macro level of government and politics, as well as art, religion, and monastic culture (vol. II). The books close with a chapter dedicated to the legacy of Guru Padmasambhava. Produced by a scholar with a profound understanding of Bhutan’s development, these two volumes will be a treasure-trove of knowledge for academic scholars, for Bhutan lovers, and most importantly, for the Bhutanese people.

Ulrike Roesler, Professor of Himalayan Studies, University of Oxford

Livelihood is the first volume in a monumental new study of rural culture and social history of Bhutan written by the acknowledged expert in this field, Dasho Karma Ura, Director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies. In this volume Dasho Karma offers detailed insight into a vast landscape of traditional Bhutanese patterns of life, from earliest times up through the pre-modern era. Agriculture, village dynamics, courtship and marriage customs, the indigenous logic that underlay the layout of villages, the construction of homes, the incorporation of religion and folk drama into daily life, economic change, and much more, are all covered with attention to detail and often with humour. This book and its companion volume “Art and Ideals” will become must-read works for students of Bhutan.

John A. Ardussi PhD – Sr. Research Fellow, University of Virginia Tibet Center

Anyone familiar with the career of Dasho Karma Ura will expect something special from a major new work by this Renaissance man of Bhutan, who has combined an important career as economist, politician, theoretician of Gross National Happiness, and Centre of Bhutan and GNH Studies with an equally remarkable artistic career in literature, choreography and the visual arts. They will not be disappointed. This first of two volumes focusses on the pre-modern village community and its economy, including detailed accounts of many important, often little-known, aspects of Bhutanese culture and society.

Geoffrey Samuel, Professor of Anthropology, New Castle University, Australia, and Author of Mind, Body and Culture (1990) and Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (1993),

In this erudite, encyclopaedic, at times critical, collection of thematic essays, Dasho Karma Ura has brought together resplendent shards of memory and a disciplined citation of lives and behaviour of our forebears of another time, on the cusp of all-embracing and unreversible changes styled "modernisation". These shards may draw both respect and sadness: respect at the well-roundedness of ordinary people's lives in harsh circumstances, and sadness at the discomforts and demands that most had to endure.

Dr Brian Shaw, Honorary Research Fellow, Centre of Asian Studies, The University of Hong Kong

As the author states, the main objective of this work is to remember the past of Bhutan as it is seen to be hurtling towards a modern future, which is mired in uncertainty. What is fascinating is that this ‘remembering’ of the past is done from the perspective of the lives led by ordinary people. Thus, the leading protagonists of both volumes are the common people. This is highly interesting and truly the greatest contribution from this work as much of the writings on Bhutan, including of the larger Himalayan region are not written from the lens of the ordinary. The presence of the ‘songs of the common’ are truly a strength of the scholarship. Whether it is the songs sung by the participants while constructing houses or by the farmers who serenaded their animals during ploughing, these songs provide a wonderful description of the daily lives of the people.

Anonymous Reviewer

The Unremembered Nation draws reader into an effortless narrative that treks from mothers’ homes to field, theory of colour to spiritual arts, romance and family to war and crime, architecture to folksong. Readers pass through mountain passes and squint at cattle herds before encountering to Bhutan’s legal and administration systems, its plural and profound traditions, and its monarchy. They come to rest in the unfailing support of Guru Padmasambhava. The curiosity piqued by each profound and provocative vista means the reader almost forgets these subjects are rarely housed between the covers of one book. Truly, is a work of genius to be savoured.

Sabina Alkire, Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative, University of Oxford.

Vol II

In this erudite, encyclopaedic, at times critical, collection of thematic essays, Dasho Karma Ura has brought together resplendent shards of memory and a disciplined citation of lives and behaviour of our forebears of another time, on the cusp of all-embracing and unreversible changes styled "modernisation". These shards may draw both respect and sadness: respect at the well-roundedness of ordinary people's lives in harsh circumstances, and sadness at the discomforts and demands that most had to endure. These essays may also stand as a mirror to contemporary disruptions and confusions, and a reminder that until very recently the character and loyalties of the "unremembered nation" was daily forged by intelligent and wise adaptation to the circumstances over which they had imperfect control or understanding. Looking back to these earlier times, the author provides a cogent and detailed analysis of the major strengths of that community. This book should be read by all who wish a deeper background to, and understanding of, rural Bhutan's present crises of change.

Dr Brian Shaw, Honorary Research Fellow, Centre of Asian Studies, The University of Hong Kong

Dedicated to HRH the Crown Prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, the two richly illustrated volumes preserve an in-depth knowledge of Bhutan as it was only a few decades ago. In times of rapid change, such memories of the past become even more precious, as we can only move into the future in a meaningful way if we understand where we come from. It is heartening to see such thorough scholarship, combined with such deep dedication to the subject. Produced by a scholar with a profound understanding of Bhutan’s development, these two volumes will be a treasure-trove of knowledge for academic scholars, for Bhutan lovers, and most importantly, for the Bhutanese people.

Ulrike Roesler, Professor of Himalayan Studies, University of Oxford

This is the second of two volumes of a major new work by Dasho Karma Ura. Together they constitute a very significant achievement by this leading Bhutanese scholar, artist and political figure, and essential reading for anyone who wishes an in-depth understanding of this Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas. This volume includes important essays on architecture, art, and politics, along with reflections on Bhutanese history and on the timeless presence of Bhutan’s great saint, Guru Rinpoche.

Geoffrey Samuel, Professor of Anthropology, New Castle University, Australia, and Author of Mind, Body and Culture (1990) and Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (1993)

This, the second volume of Dasho Karma Ura’s massive new study The Unremembered Nation – Bhutan, is equally as comprehensive as the first, Community and Livelihood. Among its numerous topics, many covered here for the first time, the book is particularly strong in the area of religious culture and art, especially at the rural level. Systems of national, regional and local governance are treated with insight and personal experience, as well as being based on extensive field interviews among elderly citizens. As the author points out, Bhutan’s culture is rapidly changing under the impact of modernization. These two volumes will preserve for future generations a vast database of knowledge and shared wisdom about pre-modern Bhutan.

John A. Ardussi PhD – Sr. Research Fellow, University of Virginia Tibet Center

The Unremembered Nation (Volume 1 and 2) is a groundbreaking contribution to the growing scholarship on Himalayan history and more specifically the history of Bhutan. Written in a lucid style, filled with anecdotes derived from the lives of the common people of Bhutan, the author’s scholarship is excellent. There is extensive usage of local songs, ritual texts, written in the Wylie transliteration, followed by the translations, which are accurate. Thus these two volumes will offer every reader a better understanding of life in the Dragon Kingdom.

Anonymous Reviewer

Seldom is such a span of human motifs treated with both affectionate familiarity and scholarly precision. Dasho Karma Ura’s refreshing, creative and appreciative style pays equally studious attentiveness to a herder’s serenade as to a great saint’s legacy. It truly will re-member Bhutan in the minds of a generation that never knew it that way, or may be beginning to forget. To those who have travelled to Bhutan already it strikes in vivacious detail a vaguely familiar portrait. And it provides an evocative introduction to the Dragon Kingdom for those looking in for the first time. May this patiently sketched history be harnessed, such that steps into the future reverberate with this rich memory.

Sabina Alkire, Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative, University of Oxford.

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