25 September 2020
by Stefanie Lotter
Prof Michael J. Hutt, or Mike as we all fondly know him, has held the unique position of the only Professor of Nepali and Himalayan Studies in the UK, a position that allowed him to carve a deep impact in the field. His 33 years at SOAS saw him in many posts from a Postdoctoral Fellow to Lecturer, Professor, Head of the Department of Languages and Cultures of South Asia (1995-9), Dean of the Faculty of Languages and Cultures (2004-10) and Director of the South Asia Institute (2013-7). Mike has been an enlightening inspiration to so many of us.
With his retirement from SOAS, Nepal studies will lose its London anchor. It has been around him that discussions in the Himalayan Forum Seminars gravitated. Countless meetings, conferences and seminars were organised, and many editions of the European Bulletin of Himalayan Research were planned. SOAS may lose its long-earned reputation for regional expertise in the Himalayas, that resonates with names such as Ralph Lilley Turner, Christoph von Fürer Haimendorf, David Snellgrove, Lionel Caplan, Richard Burkhart and, of course, Michael Hutt.
Rather unceremoniously, the 20th annual lecture of the Britain Nepal Academic Council which Mike co-founded and led (2009-14) will move online in November due to Covid 19 marking perhaps the beginning of a new era for Nepal studies where conceptual engagement rather than location matters.
As Professor Abhi Subedi who held what could be described as the mirror position to Mike’s as Professor of English Literature at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu commented:
Michael Hutt is the only person who has been promoting the study of Nepali language and literature in an English-speaking country. I have not found any other person of his stature and calibre to do that so far. If there were some, we would have already known in so many years. Mike has written on almost all the major themes of Nepali literature.
One has to agree with Professor Subedi but perhaps even more notably, Mike Hutt’s pioneering work in the field of Nepali literature, made everyone welcome to discover the marvels of Himalayan literature. Whether those learning to read Nepali through its literature or those accessing Nepali literature through Mike’s English translations and discussions of Bhupi Sherchan, Lil Bahadur Chettri and the selected work of Laxmi Prasad Devkota, BP Koirala, Mohan Koirala and Parijat as presented in his ‘Eloquent Hills’ (2012).
The well-known author Manjushree Thapa remembers how, despite her heritage, she first learned about Nepali literature through reading Mike’s ‘Himalayan Voices’ (1991) in English which helped to orient herself withing the canon of mainstream literature in Nepal. Advanced readers of Nepali were able to work their way through ‘Modern Literary Nepali: an Introductory Reader’ (1997) which as Rachel Moles one of Mike’s former students explained, held its special rewards: ‘whenever there was humour in the text, I laughed all the more for having had to work so hard to uncover it’.
Mike taught and laughed in the classroom with generations of students who went to SOAS specifically to learn Nepali from him - perhaps before and often after ploughing on their own through ‘Teach Yourself Nepali’ (1999) and ‘Complete Nepali’ (2010). These were the joyful language courses Mike co-authored with Abhi Subedi and Krishna Pradhan who, until recently, taught Nepali language courses at SOAS. Under Mike’s guidance students could study Nepali at degree level either as an undergraduate student embarking on a full three or four year programme or as a postgraduate student preparing more swiftly for fieldwork. Many of these students went on to use their language skills in jobs at Reuters, IRC, DFID, GIZ and in many university departments from Vancouver to Hong Kong. More recently Mike’s favourite course to teach has probably been ‘Politics of Culture in Contemporary South Asia’, a course that emphasised his interpretation of cultural studies as a deeply embedded political and critical field, that can only be explored by listening carefully to local voices. It has been his enthusiasm and profound expertise combined with a curiosity for new topics that made him such an exceptional teacher. I nearly burst out laughing when I recently walked the corridors of SOAS behind a group of his students who exclaimed that he was simply adorable. Students and staff share unanimously positive experiences of working and studying with him, comment on his generosity and his ability to remain unfailingly friendly and supportive. He encouraged us all, allowed us to grow personally and professionally and brought out the best in us.
Of his exceptional work in the field of cultural studies many publications stand out, but are united by the meticulous analysis of voice and text and the fearless tackling of sensitive socio-political topics. Whether amplifying the subdued voices of Lhotshampa refugees (Unbecoming Citizens 2003) that made him a persona non grata in Bhutan, or his readings of Maoist memoirs (2012), Mike has never shied away from complex topics that marked injustice. Perhaps his work on self-censorship in the Nepali media (2006) brings this most acutely to light.
Today regarded most highly both in western academia as well as in Nepal where he has gained some kind of celebrity status and is not only frequently complemented in the media for his soft spoken, educated Nepali but requested as lecturer and guest speaker as soon as he touches ground. This has not always been the case. His first edited book ‘Nepal in the Nineties’ (1993) united solely white male academic contributors in talking about the subject of Nepal without providing a floor for Nepali colleagues. The volume was rightly criticised for its narrow editorial choices. But while many academic institutions still discuss decolonisation and attainment gaps, Mike has long made it his mission to read, discuss, quote and promote work on the Himalayas in Nepali and Hindi as well as in English. It still took me by surprise to see that even in his two contributions to ‘Nepal in the Nineties’ he exclusively referenced Nepali sources, well, with one exception. As David Gellner put it more aptly: Mike is not only linguistically bilingual but conceptually bilingual.
In the past three years Mike began to work on the human interpretation of disasters with an AHRC/GCRF funded project on the aftermath of the 2015 Earthquakes in Nepal. His recent work discusses post-earthquake power dynamics leading to Nepal’s new constitution (Before the Dust Settled 2020), the creation of a national icon (Revealing What is Dear 2019) as well as discussing poetry and songs written in response to the disaster.
As the pandemic now changes the public sphere in Nepal beyond recognition while shaking its democratic institutions, Mike hopes to further explore the human side and the societal impact of disasters. He applied for external funding that if granted will bring him back to Nepal and to SOAS. We all cross our fingers that this project will succeed and meanwhile wish Mike a nice holiday rather than accepting his intellectual retirement from academia. Whatever his next project, his next translation and his next article will be, we look forward to reading it. Or as Seira Tamang put it so brilliantly, we will all ignore this nonsense talk of ‘retirement’.