Jean-Luc Chambard by Livia and Marius Holden

Jean-Luc Chambard n’est plus. He probably would have agreed that the English equivalent of this expression does not convey the same depth of meaning. We came to know Jean-Luc Chambard in the early 1990s during the last years of his teaching at the INALCO in Paris. We had enrolled in his course on Hindu Society. His reputation was slightly declining but his classes were still packed. The reason for Chambard’s popularity was Piparsod, a village in Central India to which he had dedicated his life. As an old-school scholar he would never come with a teaching plan. He would instead talk about his informants and the facts of “his” village, as if all that should concern us directly. We were given to read in class the letters that Chambard would receive from the field and very quickly the most recurrent characters all became familiar: Nathuram, his informant and servant; Danya the widow who was making her living as a lacquerer; the poet-postman; the Brahman-politician. With his typical mix of passion and analytical detachment Chambard would tell us of the time when he was beaten by the Brahmans or, about the female informant who had declared her love to him. Class after class, the everyday life of Piparsod, and his perceptions of it, unfolded under our eyes, and many were engrossed by it.

Jean-Luc Chambard had spent his childhood in China where his father was posted as a diplomat. He liked to tell us that when he returned to France, he had to cope with a society that was judgmental of his unconventional upbringing. His grandmother took it upon herself to give the boy an education that would allow him to better respond to the expectations of their society. Yet, the “wild” boy of his childhood memory would take the lead every now and then, and especially when he felt that he had to deal with a priggish set of mind. He started to study Chinese at the INALCO but then continued with Hindi because—he used to tell us in a mocking tone—the former was just too difficult. Chambard would become the student of Louis Dumont and, as if to perfect his marriage with anthropology, he married Marcel Griaule’s daughter, whom he met quite young in Morocco. Chambard always remained a faithful disciple of Dumont, even when criticism was widespread in France as well. Perhaps his admiration for his mentor led him as far as to compromise the analysis of some of his findings. Notwithstanding, his work features a unique depth of ethnological knowledge that attracted the well-deserved praise of Roland Lardinois—one of Dumont’s main detractors.

Until the late 1950s Jean-Luc Chambard would go to India by ship and spend long periods, up to more than one year in Piparsod, where he dreamed of retiring one day. This never happened and the house he bought in the center of Piparsod was eventually inherited by Nathuram and his large family. When he was close to retirement, Chambard used to bitterly complain about the greed of certain colleagues who wanted to get their hands on his data and recordings. Marius and I were doing our Masters at that time. It was perhaps in one of his rebellious moments that he entrusted Marius with the very recordings of women’s songs that he had refused even to the Musée de l’Homme. Around the same time also, when we were evaluating fieldwork sites in Northern India, Chambard insisted that we start our research in Piparsod. Astonishingly, as soon as we reached “his” village, he managed to regale us with the most original invectives from Paris. But, faithful to his mercurial nature, he later denied this had ever happened.

Chambard kept going to “his” village almost every year until 2000 when he made a point to officially meet Marius and I there, in order to sanction—he said—our role as anthropologists in the field that he had considered to be his own for more than half a century. But Chambard never spared his disappointment that we did not follow exactly in his footsteps and then, as if to apologize he would declare: Mieux vaux être francs puisque on est condamnés à être ensemble! Better to be frank, since we are condemned to be together.

  J-L Chambard in his office at rue du Bac, Paris
Jean-Luc Chambard should be remembered for three main contributions to French anthropology: popular Hinduism as not necessarily a minor form of the so-called great Tradition; gender and sexuality through women’s folksongs; and the systematic study of the social geography and religious festivals of Piparsod. He was among the first, of the few in France, to make extensive use of new technologies and media in anthropology. He produced several documentary films that he shot as super 8 movies and recorded a massive number of interviews and women’s songs that he meticulously transcribed using a method whose originality, at the time, was to not make use of diacritical marks. Amongst his most original publications Atlas d’un village Indien (1980 Mouton) records, with an extraordinary richness of detail and precision, the households, material culture, religious festivals, topography and kinship of Piparsod. Jean-Luc Chambard never ceased to spark debates with his sometimes extravagant interpretations of Hinduism—perhaps also in the hope of eliciting a full acknowledgement of his work that, however, never materialized. Chambard also deserves credit as an educator, for his ability to engage students and transmit research skills that could never be learnt in books. Marius and I pay our respects to him especially for the ever-lasting impact of the formative years we spent in his classes at the INALCO and for his infectious enthusiasm for Piparsod and field research. Yet, most of all, we like to remember Jean-Luc Chambard as the “naughty boy” who was elated whenever he could generate a little scandal among the circles that he defined as the hypocritical snobs of academia.

Livia and Marius Holden
Gilgit, 20 September 2015

Jean-Luc Chambard in his office in the rue du Bac, Paris (unpublished interview by Marius Holden)

Livia Holden (PhD) is Dean of the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty and Professor of Behavioural Sciences (Anthropology) at the Karakoram International University in Gilgit Baltistan and Resident Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Nantes. Selected publications: Hindu Divorce (Ashgate 2008), Cultural Expertise and Litigation (Routledge 2011 and paperback 2013), and Legal Pluralism and Governance in South Asia and Diasporas (special issue for the Journal of Legal Pluralism 2013 and Taylor & Francis 2015).

Marius Holden (MPhil) is an independent filmmaker and ethnomusicologist. Among his documentary films: Runaway Wives (Insights 2000), Doing Nothing Successfully (Insights 2006) and Lady Judges of Pakistan (Insights 2013). Two more documentary films are in preparation: The Lady Judge of Gilgit Baltistan and Queens of Pakistan.

Remembering Jean-Luc Chambard

Catherine Clémentin-Ojha

Marc Gaborieau

Jean-Claude Galey

Catherine Servan-Schreiber

From the Jean-Luc Chambard Archive