Kikee D Bhutia – a researcher-activist and breaker of stereotypes | University of Tartu Asian Center

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Kikee D Bhutia – a researcher-activist and breaker of stereotypes

Kikee D Bhutia is a PhD student at the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore (UT). She is also the leading actress in a “Dhokbu- The Keeper”, a Sikkimese feature movie. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Kikee has been in Estonia for almost a year now, arriving first in August of 2016. Although she had never heard of Estonia before, she now feels at home here. Winter cold does not bother her as she is from the Indian state Sikkim, where the weather is similarly chilly and snowy. Surprisingly, Kikee considers the Estonian people to be warm. “People are very warm and helpful when you interact with them. In the cold weather the only warm thing are the Estonian people”, she says with a chuckle.

Kikee can relate with the Estonian people and their history. “Sikkim, where I come from, was a Buddhist Himalaya kingdom until 1975 and my parents were born there. Now merged with Indian Union, the tiny Himalayan state is located between Nepal, Bhutan, and China. 75% of the population is of Nepalese origin, but the indigenous Sikkimese have their own vernacular religion and shamanism. Therefore, different communities with diverse backgrounds have created a kind of a nationalistic identity crisis in the region.” For her, this is like the relationship that Estonians have with their Soviet past and new identity construction and rise of spiritualism since re-independence in 1991.

Researching god-entities of the Bhutia community

Receiving a PhD degree is Kikee’s main objective in Tartu. Her research focuses on belief narratives of God-entities in her home community, the Bhutia, in Sikkim. These are mystical, some even pre-Buddhist, figures. Kikee explains, “imagine a ‘sacred’ tree and that a spirit lives in there.” There are many sacred landscapes in Sikkim that are considered forbidden or dangerous. Kikee is interested in how the belief narratives of God-entities shape day-to-day activities in Sikkim. “For example, if I were to get sick, I would not be taken to hospital directly. Instead a shaman would be called home to conduct healing rituals. A visit to a hospital is used as a last resort.”

Kikee visited Sikkim in February-March this year to conduct field work. “For my research, I travelled around Sikkim, looking for various god-entities and asking the questions where, why and what kind of entities are present in the local belief narratives.” She now has more than 40 hours of interview material. Kikee plans to return to Sikkim in winter as there is not much to do in Estonia at the time. It is also more convenient for her to conduct further research as everyone is home for the winter and it is easier to talk and collect information about local beliefs. She is also considering broadening the scope of her research to compare different communities. “There are similar motifs in the belief systems of various communities. For instance, it is often believed that if a god-entity attacks, you will have a headache or your knee will hurt.” Keep track of Kikee’s academic profile HERE.

 “I consider myself a researcher-activist.”

Before starting her PhD studies, Kikee worked over two years as a Research Assistant in Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Gangtok (India). The institute was founded in 1950 by the last king of Sikkim for the preservation of the local culture. At the institute, Kikee was involved in various projects including the transcription, translation, and transmission of oral histories and proverbs. “My main work consisted of translating and analysing the origin and usage of these proverbs and idioms. The project, Sikkim's Proverbs and Sayings, has been my main contribution, we have collected over 290 proverbs.” Kikee has also assisted in the production of ethnographic documentaries.

Kikee aims to create awareness through her research. “While I was working at the Institute of Tibetology, my ambition was to make proverbs available for younger generations who are losing the language. Amongst our community, we joke that if we do not talk in our language nor preserve the culture now, then we will soon be showed in museums. The younger generations are inclined to speak English or wear T-shirts and jeans.  For me, I would rather wear my traditional attire every day. I want to create awareness that my culture is rich and unique. I feel that we are culturally-spiritually rich and even so rich that we do not understand how do use this resource. “

Starring in a feature film

Kikee used to support her college studies with a bit of modelling and production of video-albums. Through this, she gained popularity in Sikkim. This lead director Dawa Lepcha to approach her with the offer of starring in the new feature film “Dohkbu – the Keeper” . “The topic of the movie intrigued me as it is a story of a god-entity which directly links to my own research. I also have a lot of respect for Dawa Lepcha as he is very hardworking, humble and kind-hearted person and a big inspiration to me.”

The movie plot revolves around an ethnographic researcher who gets lost in the wild and is protected by a nature spirit called “Dhokbu” (“Keeper”). The movie was initially meant for local audiences but has now been submitted to many international festivals. The movie was recently praised at International Cult Film Festival with “outstanding performance” in best cinematography, best director, and sound design. The movie will be screened at the Estonian National Museum this Friday, 16.06.17. Kikee and Dawa will be sharing their comments and there is no entrance fee.

What awaits in the future?

People are often puzzled about Kikee’s background. “I am asked; how can a glamorous film actress be involved in boring and mysterious PhD research.” Therefore, Kikee breaks two sets of stereotypes. First, that PhD researchers are serious and dull people wearing glasses and second, that all actresses are shallow and dumb. 

Keeping in mind these two different interests and potential career paths, what has Kikee in mind for the future?

“Uncertainty is the best thing in life. The whole world opened to me through Estonia, you know. I wake up in the morning and I cannot believe that I am here. We do not know where life can take us if we have the courage to follow it. That is the beauty of life. We tend to concern ourselves too much with the future and forget to enjoy the present. If you work hard then the roads will open for you.”  

Written by Mart Veliste, 13.06.17