vendredi 5 avril 2013

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Docteur ès lettres
Directeur de recherche émérite au CNRS (DRCE)

Contact :

UPR 299 Centre d'Etudes Himalayennes, CNRS
7 rue Guy Môquet
94800 Villejuif CEDEX
Courriel  :

By way of an Introduction

I am a social anthropologist and ethnographer, Distinguished Emeritus Director of Research (‘classe exceptionnelle’) at the National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris (CNRS), working at the crossroads of anthropology, sociology, history, and political science. I chose to specialize in the field of Nepalese and Himalayan anthropology in 1970. Since then, I have visited this region of the world, and in particular Nepal, on a very regular basis, at least once a year, sometimes two or three times a year. I have also carried out research on the history and epistemology of anthropology, with special emphasis on the writing of ethnography and the anthropology of literature. Since 2005, I have been focusing on the field of performance studies and have developed research on Asian traditional theatres, without however abandoning my other fields of research (mainly anthropology of religion and politics).

I was born in Luxembourg (Grand Duchy of Luxembourg), in May 1947. My father, a diplomat by profession and of French nationality, was working at the French Embassy in this small landlocked, multilingual state bordering Northern France. Thanks to my father's occupation, I had the opportunity to live in Romania (1948-1951) and in Japan (1956-1959) during my childhood. At a later age, I made frequent visits to the capital cities where my parents were posted:  West Berlin, Bangkok, and Rome.

My father, originally from Picardy, married my mother in 1943 during the Second World War, in Athens where he was posted. My mother was also of French nationality but she lived at that time with her mother and sisters in Greece. Her father belonged to a cosmopolitan Levantine Catholic family that was established in Smyrna (Izmir) since the early eighteen century, but which was originally from further east, towards the confines of Persia and Caucasus. They moved to Athens in the 1920s, after the Great Fire of Smyrna. This past history of a nomadic childhood and an itinerant family played an important role in my predilection for a life spent across different cultural borders. This explained, at least in part, my choice to study ethnography and anthropology at university.

I was educated mainly in private catholic boarding schools. I spent five years at Collège de Juilly (which belonged to the Oratorian teaching-order), situated north to what is today Paris Charles-de-Gaulle Airport. I then joined Collège Stanislas in Paris, where I passed my School Leaving Certificate (baccalaureate), majoring in philosophy. At the Sorbonne University, then at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris), I rapidly opted for sociological and ethnological studies. I graduated during the 1968 Paris uprising. In the meantime I undertook fieldwork in the Cévennes and in the Provence, two regions in the south of France, to collect some data on wild edible plants and pastoral traditional practices.

On looking for a research site located abroad, I first selected pastoral nomads in eastern Iran and started learning pharsi (the Persian language) at the National Institute of Oriental Languages (‘Langues O’), in Paris. My Ph. D supervisor was Maxime Rodinson, an eminent Arab specialist. However, quite by chance I was offered a position in Nepal by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs during my period of military service. I arrived in Kathmandu in June 1970 in a still preserved pre-modern environment with lush green rice fields lying just beyond the old historic cities. I worked for a little over a year as Cultural Attaché at the French Embassy and as a French teacher at Darbar School (Kathmandu), an old educational institution in Nepal that comes under Tribhuvan University.

I decided to carry out a research on the Newars, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, the region where I was based during my diplomatic assignment. This ethnic group had hardly been studied at that time even though it has a exceptionally rich culture. I started to learn Newari, a Tibeto-Burman language, and chose to study a small village of rice cultivators, called Pyangaon, situated on the periphery of Lalitpur District. After completing eight months' fieldwork there, I returned to Paris and passed a first Ph. D (‘Doctorat de troisième cycle’) degree on this subject in March 1974 under the supervision of Lucien Bernot, an ethnographer and specialist of Burmese populations speaking Tibeto-Burman languages. Later, in 1982, I obtained a second PhD (known as ‘Doctorat d’Etat’ in French terminology), based, among many other things, on my material collected in the small  Newar historic town of Panauti, located in the Banepa Valley.

In October 1975, I joined the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) as a researcher. I specialized in Newar studies. As a matter of fact, this ethnic group is multi-facets and a subject of a long-term, in-depth investigations. For instance, it includes both traditional urban and rural populations, as well as a number of different craftsmen. Moreover, Newars follow both Hinduism and a Mahayana form of Buddhism based on Sanskrit texts. They possess simultaneously a rich oral literature and a literate tradition dating at least from the twelfth century, with letters derived from Indian alphabets, but written in their own Nepal Bhasa (Newari) language. In addition, very early on the Newars developed a specific Himalayan art of their own, of exceptionally high quality, much sought after by international collectors. The life of just one researcher is therefore not enough to cover all the aspects of this group, which is of the most fascinating in the Himalayas.

In addition to this research on the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, I have worked among different ethnic groups, castes and religious organizations, alone or as a member of multi-disciplinary teams from CNRS made up of agronomists, architects, biologists, botanists and geographers. These fieldworks include the Paharis on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley, the Tamangs of western Nepal (Ganesh Himal range and Nuwakot district), the Parbatiya culture of the districts of Gulmi and Argha Khanchi in mid-western Nepal, and the Pranami sect in India (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal) and Nepal.

In 1985, I created the CNRS team "Centre for Himalayan Studies". In this respect, I developed French research in Nepal and set up academic networks. I was head of this structure until 1995. During my term of office, I signed agreements with the Department of Archaeology, and later with the Centre of Nepalese and Asian Studies (Tribhuvan University). Over the years, I became a member of different academic committees within and outside CNRS. From 1981 till 1995, I sat on the editorial committee of the journal L’Homme (‘Man’), the main anthropological journal in France.

From 2002 to 2004, I was elected president of the CNRS committee for Social Anthropology and Sociology of Religions, and from 1993 to 2005 I was nominated chief editor of the series “Chemins de l’ethnologie”, (‘Pathways of Anthropology’) published by CNRS-Editions and Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris. I was the editor of twenty-four books in this series which covers every part of the world before handling over the task of editing to another team. I directed, edited and took part in various other anthropological research and publishing projects, and in particular a German-French Programme on Nepal that culminated in a symposium held in Arcs-et-Senans in 1993, Nepal, Past and Present.

My publications have focused on Nepal's cultural heritage, on material culture, kinship, politics, economics, religion, and various theoretical issues related to social anthropology. In 1978 I published the book Panauti une ville de Népal, which prompted the French Government (under the aegis of the Department of Archeology, HMG) to renovate the main religious monuments in the city of Panauti. In 1996, I published a personal literary book on my various experiences in the Kathmandu Valley, as a diplomat, teacher and social anthropologist. Unfortunately, this narrative book, Les Tambours de Kathmandu, Payot (The Drums of Kathmandu) has not yet been published in English. I am currently carrying out research on various forms of Nepalese theatre, and on changing aspects of Nepal, especially among the urban middle class. I have given a number of lectures at academic institutes in Nepal over the years: Social Science Baha, Nepa School, Martin Chautari, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, TU, Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods, Nepa Institute of Engineering, Bhaktapur, Nepal Bhasa Academy, etc.

I have published ten major books and about 180 articles on Nepal and the Himalayas. I also edited some key anthropological journals and volumes on some specific Himalayan themes. My major works include : Pyangaon, une communauté néwar de la vallée de Katmandou (Paris, 1977), Société et religion chez les Newars de la vallée de Katmandou (Paris, 1984), Le Palais et le Temple: la fonction royale dans l'ancienne vallée du Népal (Paris, 1993), La quête de l'Autre (Solar, 2005) La fête-spectacle. Théâtre et rite au Népal (on the Indra Jatra festival and theater in Nepal), Paris, 2010. My most recent publication in French is an edited volume on theatre in Asia, including a chapter on Nepal and another on Tibet: Théâtres d’Asie à l’oeuvre, Paris, École française d’Extrême-Orient, 2012. My last book in English is entitled From Monarchy to Republic. Essays on Changing Nepal (Kathmandu, Vajra Books, 2013). I am currently preparing a new book in English on the main religious performances in the holy city of Panauti.

As far as English is concerned, I have so far edited the volume Man and his House in the Himalayas, Delhi, Sterling Publishers, 1991, and Nepal: Past and Present. Proceedings of the Franco-German Conference, Arc-et-Senans, June 1990 (Delhi, 1993). In 2007, I published Newar Society. City, Village and Periphery (Kathmandu, Himal Books/Social Science Baha). The last chapter of this book is a study of Gender and Social Change in the Kathmandu Valley, which includes an account of the recent legal changes concerning women’s rights. In 2011, I published The Politics of Belonging in the Himalayas. Local Attachments and Boundary Dynamics. Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and Gérard Toffin (eds.), Delhi, Sage Publications. A second volume is under press (2014) and will be published by the same publishing house (Sage): Facing Globalization in the Himalayas. Belonging and the Politics of the Self (2014), on the theme of globalization in Nepal and the Himalayas.

In my work I have stressed the role of mental representations, modes of thoughts and religious practices in the social and material life. I have showed how the Newar caste system is mainly of a ritualistic Indian type exemplifying A.M. Hocart’s theories on the caste system. I have also explored the religious connotations of Newar urban design and layout. One of my main findings was that the old city of Kathmandu was organised on a religious pattern which gives prime importance to the musical performance of its different neighbourouds. In this city, music is an inseparable from the social structure and urbanism. 

Throughout my fieldwork, I have addressed inner conflicts and political issues. I have particularly highlighted the role of conflict in the traditional village structure and the contentious hierarchical positions within the Newar caste system. Working over a long period, I have emphasized the resilience of the religious and social structure dating back to the Malla period in the Newar social organization which was still in force in the 1970 and 1980s. This ‘long memory’ that encompasses several centuries and has been reformulated at different periods is at present one of my main topic. In the same vein, my last book (2013) emphasises the persistence of the caste system in Nepal's social structure despite the political shift from monarchy to republic.

In my more theoretical work on anthropology, I have tried to enhance the various ways of writing ethnographical texts in accordance with the dominant paradigms of each national school and historical period. Moreover, my long personal experience of fieldwork over the decades has prompted me to stress the importance of history to achieve an accurate description of ethnographical facts and to draw up explanations. Disorder and conflict appear to be endemic in all societies, even in the traditional rural world. In my view, a strictly cognitivist approach totally fails to explain social facts and people's behaviours. In order to grasp a proper  anthropological understanding of the present, one always has to take into account the past.

From 2003 to 2014, I was a member of the Scientific Committee for French Research Centres in Asia that  comes under the French Government's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Today, I have a seat on Bulac's (University Library of Institute of Oriental Studies, Paris) scientific committee. In Nepal, I am a member of the International Advisory Board of the Nepal School, the Institute for Social Sciences and Humanities, in Kathmandu, and an international expert for the Social Inclusion Fund, Netherlands (Kathmandu).

In the past (1975-2012), I taught Nepali Culture and Society at INALCO (National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations, Paris). I lectured at Ecole des hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris),  Louvain-la-Neuve and Columbia University (New York). Over the last years I delivered the "Radhakrishnan Memorial Lecture", May-June 2000, at the University of Oxford (All Souls College), and the "Third Mahesh Chandra Regmi Lecture" in Kathmandu (Social Science Baha and Tribhuvan University), in September 2005. In May 2013, I received the Nai Derukh International Award in Kathmandu for my contribution to the study of Nepali culture and society. In addition to this, I was a monthly columnist from 2012 till 2016 for the Nepalese English daily newspaper The Kathmandu Post. In these articles, I ponder on the respective role of continuity and rupture and I strive to draw a comprehensive picture of the presence of the past in contemporary Nepal.

In 2017, I still belong to the scientific committee of two academic journals : L'ethnographie (France), new series, and Antroplogia (Italy).


Gérard Toffin,
CNRS, Centre Haudricourt, Himalaya
7, rue Guy Môquet
94801 Villejuif
France (fax : 37.38)

in Nepal, mobile number: 9808.235208

Gérard Toffin, 
CNRS, Centre Haudricourt, Himalaya
7, rue Guy Môquet
94801 Villejuif (fax : 37.38)