Urban compositions: contested place-making in Thamel, Kathmandu
An online interactive lecture by Benjamin Linder, Research Fellow at IIAS.
The lecture will take place from 11:00 - 12:00 a.m. Amsterdam Time (Central European Time, CET).
The dense neighbourhood of Thamel is notorious in Kathmandu, Nepal. Its narrow streets teem with people, commodities, and foods from all over the world. This ethnographic talk explores the historical and cultural dynamics of Thamel, a space whose diverse meanings reflect and reproduce broader socio-spatial contestations in contemporary Nepal.
In recent decades, the neighbourhood of Thamel has become a central hub for nightlife, live music, international cuisines, and chic fashions in Kathmandu, Nepal. It is a lightning rod for many non-traditional practices, a zone of ambivalent exception where cultural transgression is sanctioned, enacted, and contested.
Despite Thamel's prevailing reputation as merely a 'tourist place', Nepali consumers now far outnumber and outspend foreign tourists there. If Thamel cannot be defined by tourism and written off as a foreign imposition, then what exactly drives so many young Nepalis to partake in the neighbourhood's eclectic offerings and possibilities? What are these Thamel practices, and what do they communicate?
This presentation explores Nepalis' Thamel-based lifeworlds, as well as the historical dynamics that generated them. The past 30 years in Nepal have been marked by all manner of social, political, and cultural transformations. These have yielded young generations with distinct tastes, dispositions, and ambitions, many of which find their spatial outlet in Thamel. Depending on one's social location, Thamel can promise a Nepali cosmopolitanism, or else it can pose a threat to 'traditional' values. The neighbourhood increasingly offers new expressions of youth identity, new possibilities for social experimentation, and new modes of being Nepali in the 21st century. The meanings that attach to the neighbourhood are manifold, and Nepalis of diverse class, caste, and gender positions have varied experiences in the space. None of this is reducible to foreign tourism. Thamel is a node through which young Nepalis spatialize transnational mobilities, and it is a space through which they contest and blur the distinction between traditional and modern, authentic and inauthentic, Nepali and foreign. In short, the contestations over Thamel's meaning—its literal and figurative 'place' in contemporary Kathmandu—reflect nothing less than a struggle to re-define the acceptable parameters of Nepalipan ('Nepaliness') itself.
Benjamin Linder is a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) in Leiden, the Netherlands. He earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology (2019) from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he also earned M.A. degrees in Anthropology (2013) and Environmental & Urban Geography (2018). His primary work explores the ethnographic intersection of urban space, cultural transformation, and transnational mobilities, with a particular focus on Nepal and its diasporic networks. Theoretically, such work engages literatures on mobilities, cosmopolitanism, geocriticism, assemblage theory, and scale. Currently, he is adapting his dissertation into a book manuscript and co-editing a forthcoming volume on South Asian mobilities.
There will be time for questions after the lecture.
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