Opara: Following frequencies of distress along inequalities in the Indian Himalaya

Key information

3:15 pm to 5:00 pm
Main Building, Russell Square

About this event

Part of the Anthropology Departmental Seminar Series 2022

3:15pm - 5:00pm 

Dr Nikita Simpson, Lecturer, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS

Opara: Following frequencies of distress along inequalities in the Indian Himalaya 


The turn toward ‘wellbeing’ as a dimension of economic productivity began prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, and has only intensified in its wake. Economists and epidemiologists alike are becoming more interested in the ways in which mental health interventions that promote resilience or address trauma might be rolled out alongside entrepreneurship or poverty reduction schemes. And yet, the tools we have for thinking about wellbeing and economic inequality in the same frame are few. This paper argues that anthropology has a contribution to make to this conversation, particularly in the understanding of how inequality comes to be embodied. To make this argument, it looks at the way in which distress is distributed across one community, the Gaddi community of Kangra, in Himachal Pradesh, India. Specifically, it looks at a form of bodily and mental distress that was linked to black magic, called opara. It traces the way that rumours and experiences of opara run along the complex nexus of class, caste and tribal relations that cut across this community, as its people undergo a rapid shift in land and livelihood arrangements. It finds that such inequalities are experienced at the level of the body, in ‘ugly feelings’ and forms of affliction, distress or illness. It proposes the notion of ‘frequencies’ as a tool for understanding how wellbeing, or distress, and inequality might be thought about together.  


Nikita Simpson is an anthropologist who has worked on distress, inequality and gender in India, Southern Africa and the UK. She completed her PhD at the London School of Economics in 2021, where she studied on women’s mental distress in the Indian Himalayas. In 2020, and alongside Professor Laura Bear and colleagues from LSE Anthropology, she was part of the Covid and Care Research Group that fed ethnographic insights into UK national and local government Covid-19 policy making process. She expanded the reach of these insights through participation in the EU Horizon Periscope project during her postdoctoral studies, also at LSE. She has recently joined SOAS, University of London as a Lecturer in Anthropology, and she is preparing a book manuscript titled Tension: The frequencies of distress