Short Portrait: Richard Burghart

Richard Burghart
Richard Burghart

Richard Burghart is an important anthropologist working in Germany, as he chaired the Department of Ethnology, University of Heidelberg at the Südasieninstitut in the early 90s. Whilst in Heidelberg, he tried to establish an anthropology that reconciled postmodernism (i.e. Bakhtin) with intensive fieldwork. Unfortunately, his sudden death stopped this attempt.

"Burghart died of a brain tumour in Heidelberg on 1 January 1994 aged 49: his burial took place on the 5th. He is survived by his wife, psychologist Nadia Rheissland, and his two young children. Veena Das wrote a moving address for the memorial in his honour on 7 February which vividly conveyed the esteem in which he was held in particular by prominent scholars in India, both in terms of his scholarship and as a person.' The impression of many who worked with Richard in England and Germany was of a retiring personality, who would rarely speak out without careful deliberation. Whenever Richard did speak, however, he always had something profound to say, and this, together with his tolerant outlook on life, ensured he always had a large number of students. We all looked for this rare combination of intellect and humanity, and we all invariably sought out his company with great pleasure.

Born in the United States in 1944, his first ten years of life took place in the context of an institution for mentally disabled which his father ran: it is characteristic of Richard, whose categories often defied convention, that during this period he never questioned whether he was any different from those who were institutionalized and with whom he shared his early life. He completed his BA with highest honours in political science In 1966 at Williams College, Massachusetts.

In the course of these studies he spent nine months at University College in Ibadan, Nigeria. In 1966 he began his studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, where he completed his MPhil in social anthropology in 1969 on the anthropology of religion. He first developed his interest in South Asia as a journalist for Le Soir and did 26 months' fieldwork in Janakpur, a Vaishnavite pilgrimage centre in southern Nepal between 1973- 76. He submitted his PhD at SOAS for which he was examined in 1978 and entered university employment in that same year at the London School of Economics. This was followed by a post dedicated to Asian Anthropology at SOAS in the following year. He remained at SOAS until 1988, when he was appointed Professor of Anthropology and Head of the Department of Ethnology, University of Heidelberg, his last post before his death.

Richard had an excellent reputation for his research in the anthropology of South Asia (his obituary in South Asia Research notes that his death 'considerably diminished the community of South Asian scholars').2 His research ranged between questions of caste and asceticism, Vaishnavite tradition, early devotional literature, Maithili language, Hinduism in both Nepal and Britain, royal ritual and the nation-state, and Nepalese history. His PhD research was the first ethnographic study of the social organization of the Hindu Ramanandi sect of renouncers, which also dealt with devotional pilgrimage institutions and the history of Janakpur as a sacred centre: in this he handled not only ethnographic field material, but also historical documents and numerous vernacular literary and religious texts.

Between 1975 and 1991, at the last count, he leaves, apart from his major PhD research, thirty-eight published articles. The first article he himself lists was 'The role of kinship in the formation of groups of pilgrims at Janakpurdham' (Contributions to Nepalese Studies, 2, Feb, 1975). Two of his articles have been highly influential, namely: 'For a sociology of India: an intra-cultural approach to the study of "Hindu society"' (Contributions to Indian Sociology 17, 1983) and 'Renunciation in the religious tradition of South Asia' (Man 18, 1982).

However, much significant work had not as yet been published prior to his death, including a project on spoken Maithili in its social context, and on the relationship between state and society in Nepal.

Health became a subject of academic interest to Richard in at least two ways. First, this interest was prompted by his fieldwork. Ascetic traditions throughout South and Southeast Asia have a strong interest in medicine, and the renouncers Richard studied were no exception: many involved themselves in healing. A contributory factor to his interest in medical anthropology was, however, his contraction of what appears to have been a near-fatal miliary tuberculosis subsequent to the 1973-76 fieldwork (other accounts have it as the contraction of a parasite), which he carried out in cramped conditions. His interest led to a year's fieldwork specifically dedicated to medical anthropology in the same area between 1984-85.

In 1978 he helped launch the British Medical Anthropology Society (BMAS) as a founding member. He gave lectures to the Society, one of which I remember particularly vividly, when he showed how Ayurvedic heale~sp rescribed water as medication from differently coloured glass bottles, each having a different efficacy dependent only on their colour, and how they blended together elements from different medical traditions without sense of conflict. His earliest publication on the subject, however, did not appear until 1982 ('Health education in Nepal: an "experiment" with itinerant medicine men' South Asia Research 2, Nov. 1982, pp 15-24). As many as one-third (12) of his listed articles were on issues to do with health, much of it pertaining to Nepal, of which the majority were published during his post-SOAS period. He gave at SOAS what was one of the earliest (perhaps the earliest) medical anthropology courses in the UK and was involved in negotiating together with Murray Last, what would have been the first MSc degree course in Medical Anthropology to be shared between the Wellcome Institute, London School of Tropical Medicine, and SOAS. However, this sadly failed to materialize.

Richard has contributed to anthropology in many ways in addition to his role in the BMAS. He was Honorary Reviews Editor of Man between December 1986 and March 1988. Also, while head of the department in Heidelberg he sought to implement his vision of academic study (which was by his own confession 'not easy')." Dieter Haller was the first doctoral student who graduated under Burgharts supervision.
"To Richard anthropology was not primarily an institutional matter, a matter of defending or furthering the goals of anthropology within an institutional framework. Indeed, his attitude may be summed up, if anything, as a renunciation from domain. This is consistent with his ascetic lifestyle he personally implemented. In his fieldwork he lived in a 'broom-cupboard'. Also, his house in Muswell Hill was sparsely furnished, with only four chairs, an armchair, a table, and a bed. Two chairs were for visitors, and two for Richard and Nadia, and the armchair was for the stray cat. If he can be said to have been after a domain at all it was, in this sense, more a spiritual than a real domajn. The centre of gravity of Richard's anthropology was three things. His anthropology was an instrument of self-transformation through fieldwork: he always dedicated himself to ethnographic points in detail, continuously broadening their context until the ethnographic context seemed to affect the mundane world in which he himself moved. Part of his anthropology was also the informal get-togethers with various selected intellects who dedicated themselves to Indian religions. In particular he valued the company of Sasha Piatigorsky, a Buddhist phenomenologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and Audrey Cantlie, his P hD supervisor. Also, he took much enjoyment in informal interaction with the disproportionate number of students who sought him out for supervision of their research. Anthropology to Richard was an event which seemed to have something new and unexpected to offer with every encounter and posed no threats to his person.

At her memorial address Veena Das noted that Richard's anthropology 'was not content at description - nor was it a mirror to which the anthropologist could address his or her anxiety as to whether he or she were the prettiest of all', but it had to be 'a complete immersion in which the field became marked on the body and soul...'. If Richard had this enormous depth in his reflections, in which his person and his profession seemed to fuse into one, it never appeared to dull his critical faculty.

Richard never openly raised his voice in criticism. However, those who knew him interpreted his departure from Britain as a vote of no-confidence, a gesture almost of disdain for what was going on in British anthropology in the 1980s, which he felt was incapable of new thought. He was also known to have been unhappy about the direction of Man, which he felt was 'insufficiently radical' in its approach. In this 'non-institutional quest', if I may call it thus, the choice for Heidelberg may be interpreted as apt, occurring as it does in the tradition of Emanuel Sarkisyanz's (Professor of South Asian studies, Heidelberg) critique of British colonial history of the 1960s, Peacocks, Pagodas, and Professor Hall. However, though Germany was appealing to Richard (as a country which, unlike Britain, had realized its failure to rule an extended domain), this did not ease his life once he became head of an academic department.

There are many things he mentioned in the course of his life at SOAS which have left their imprint but which none of his colleagues or students know much about because these were part of his personal life outside institutional anthropology. For example, he liked walking across mountain ranges in Eastern Europe for weeks on his own; he was a skilled carpenter; he was an excellent photographer with a preference for black and white photography; while a student, he made his living in Belgium as a qualified chocolatier (which he continued to call his rne'tier).He was a man who, more than quantity, valued 'good things in small quantities'. Perhaps a glimpse of this maxim could be seen in the window seal of his office which was filled with miniature souvenirs all of which he treasured for the many different stories they seemed to tell.

At times, during our long conversations, this window seal seemed a miniature universe through which, against the backdrop of the tall Senate House tower, the heart of the University of London, he seemed to contemplate a world well beyond the confines of the university. Exceptional people often give rise to contrasting evaluations of who exactly they were. Some of his students have found most appealing his social concern for others. Most inspiring to me has been the way in which he attempted to comprehend the homeless ascetics engaged in their quest for meaning beyond society, and beyond the dichotomy between life and death."


(text  published as Houtman, Gustaaf: Obituary, in: Anthropology Today, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Aug., 1994), pp. 26-27;; photography by courtesy of Nadia Reissland )