The Newar Town and the Festival
Ajaya N Mali
This paper will analyse modern life in Kathmandu through French Marxist Henri Lefebvre’s interpretation of alienation and the festival.
Lefebvre, in his critique of modern urban life, speaks about the alienation present in the lives of ordinary people. Lefebvre contends that modernism, which capitalism has ushered in, is inherently alienating because of the lack of control that individuals have on their lives and their inability to escape the drudgery of the daily routine, which is itself controlled by the capitalist economy based on mass consumerism. With the rise of uniformity in urban space and the daily routine as well as the patterns of capitalist consumption, aspects of pre-modern life, like festival and style, decline. The festival refers to the gaiety and independence individuals experience in their daily lives, which is not controlled and directed unlike the daily routine of the modern city. Style refers to the Marxian idea of the individual’s ability to harness their inner potential and individuality in the creation of products that fulfill their needs. Using the language characteristic of Cultural Marxism, Lefebvre sees the modern city as an extended factory that thrives through the regulated production and consumption of capitalist products.
Lefebvre’s Marxist project features primarily an examination of ways in which modern capitalist life has confined, rather than liberated, individuals. People are seen as atomized ‘human sand’, individualistic and ‘mystified’. They are deprived of an opportunity to participate in the major events in the public sphere through their confinement to the private in the form of passive witnesses, thereby perpetuating the separation of work, leisure, and private life as well as that of the social from the political. Finally, the consumerist economy is responsible for the individual’s survival for social existence since ‘to exist’ is identical to ‘to have’. One of the key ways Lefebvre believes praxis can be achieved is through a return to the festival.
This paper will contrast the rise of the modern city of Kathmandu with the pre-modern town of Yen. Through Lefebvre’s critique of the modern city, the pre-modern Newar town will be studied as a possible exemplar of the social condition that from the Marxian perspective stands as the antithesis of the regimented modern life. A study on the ‘festivity’ in the Newar town will also lead to an examination of the presence, or non-presence, of style, as opposed to regimentation; and participation in the public sphere as opposed to atomistic modern living.
Such a Marxian examination will also lead to a scrutiny of the ‘repressive’ elements in Newar society such as patriarchy and the caste system. On this basis, the work therefore examines the validity of using cultural Marxist critiques of modernism for studying the Newar town and, by extension, the relevance of the Hindu town in its ecologically ‘climactic’ state to the study of alienation in modern society.