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Public imagination of the Himalayas through the lens of indigenous communities

The dominant knowledge and imagination of the Himalayas have been largely constructed through a colonial-Eurocentric lens, which not only obscures the lived realities of people living therein but also their indigenous histories. Furthermore, traditional research approaches often involves a uni-directional flow of knowledge from 'experts' to the 'public' rather than embedding communities within a participatory process of mutual knowledge creation.

This public engagement project titled, 'Indigenising the Himalayas: reimagining its past, present and futures' is funded through the British Academy's inaugural SHAPE Involve and Engage 20203/24 grant. The aim of the project is to 'un-do' the public imagination of the Himalayas by centring the perspectives of its indigenous communities.

This is done in collaboration with the Royal Geographical Society - Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG), and through participatory engagement with UK-based Himalayan indigenous diaspora communities tracing ancestry to the Eastern Himalayas of Nepal and Northeast India. Thus, through a participatory approach to public engagement, this project aims to uncover 'hidden histories' of the Himalayas, thereby honouring the cultural knowledge of marginalised communities.

The key cultural partner for this project is the Royal Geographical Society- Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG), particularly by engaging with the RGS' extensive archival materials on the Himalayas. The project also actively incorporates the UK-based Himalayan indigenous diaspora communities as key participants/audiences, and all activities are co-developed with members of the three indigenous communities– the Limbu/Yakthung; Kirat Rai, and Newah, who trace their heritage to present-day Nepal and Northeast India.

This project involves two key public engagement activities:

  • Reimagining the Himalayas through indigenous storywork: A day event at the RGS: This day-long workshop-style event will take place on 31 May 2024 at the RGS and will include 'storytelling through dancing' workshop involving traditional indigenous dance forms such as 'Silli', 'Chyabrung' and 'Lakhey' from the Himalayan region. This day will also include a walking tour within the RGS' Foyle Reading Room, where the public can directly engage with the displayed archival materials (photos, maps, artefacts, etc.).
  • Digital exhibition within the RGS website: The stories gathered and archival materials will be curated within a digital exhibition titled, ‘Reimagining the Himalayas’ that will be launched in July 2024.

The project is led by Dr Rohini Rai, Lecturer in Sociology of Race at Brunel. The workshop and exhibition will be co-designed by Dr Rai, the RGS consultant, and community leaders from the diaspora organisations. The project is supported by the Critical Himalayan Collective as the key promotions and engagement partner.

This public engagement project will not only convey Dr Rai's research on racialisation and orientalism in the context of Himalayas directly to the public and communities, but will also act as a catalyst to develop her ongoing work on 'indigenous migrants' in the UK and indigenous communities in the Himalayan context.

Outside of academia, this project opens up cultural spaces for largely underserved ethnic minority  and indigenous Himalayan communities, particularly the Nepali-speaking diaspora from Nepal and Northeast India (Sikkim and Darjeeling), who are often marginalised even within the already marginalised South Asian diaspora in the UK. 

Hence, the insights and outputs from this project can be applied to the concerned communities but also wider minority ethnic communities in the UK and South Asia.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr Rohini Rai
Dr Rohini Rai - I am a sociologist of race & ethnicity, and am a Lecturer in the Sociology of Race at the Department of Social and Political Sciences in Brunel. My areas of research and teaching interest include 'race', ethnicity and racialization; global racisms; postcolonial and decolonial theories; Global South urbanisms; and the Himalaya and North East India. I completed my PhD from the University of Manchester in 2019. My PhD thesis titled, 'Northeastern Delhi: 'Race', space and identity in a postcolonial, globalising city' explores and examines racialization and racism in contemporary India, in relation to ethnic and indigenous minorities who are migrants from India's Northeastern and Himalayan borderlands in the city of Delhi. Prior to joining Brunel in December 2021, I was a Research Associate at the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), University of Manchester, of which I am still an associate member. At CoDE, I was a part of an ESRC-funded research project exploring ethnic inequalties in UK Higher Education, where my research particularly focussed on the current 'Decolonial turn' in the disciplines of British history and geography. I welcome supervising/tutoring students who are interested in similar topics.

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Project last modified 28/04/2024