Pratyoush Onta


Doing Business in South Asia: A Conversation by the Penn South Asia Center on behalf of Current Penn Undergraduates

Today we are talking with Dr. Pratyoush Onta, Research Director for the Kathmandu-based research and policy NGO Martin Chautari. After earning an MA in the Department of South Asia Studies he went on to  obtain his PhD from the Department of History in the School of Arts & Sciences. He is a member of the class of 1996.


Thanks for making the time to chat. Can you tell us about your current work? 

I currently work as an educator and academic in a non-university institutional setting in Kathmandu, Nepal. Officially my title is Research Director for Martin Chautari (MC), which is a research and policy institute that aims to produce high quality academic work on issues of democracy, media, and education as well as gender and social inclusion in Nepal.


How does your role at the institute intersect with your education at Penn?

Well, I came to Penn originally in 1988 as a PhD candidate in the Economics Department…[W]hile going on for the PhD in economics…seemed like a natural choice, I was—soon after coming to Penn—confronted with the reality that, for better or worse, the discipline was not going to make it easy for me to pursue the vital questions about the real world that really underpinned my intellectual concerns…Fortunately for me…I was able to transition into a masters program in the South Asia Studies Department. During my Master’s degree study, a couple of the faculty at Penn proved really critical in helping pave the way for the continued transition I found my new course work helping me to make, which was in the direction of the History Department…In the end, therefore, my connection to Penn found me moving from the Economics Department to my MA in South Asia Studies in 1991 to a PhD in History, which I completed in 1996.  


So MC, as a research institute, entered into your career at Penn during its last phase when you were working on the PhD in history?

Yes. I had first come back to Nepal in1992 just after entering the PhD program in History and in order to begin my research. It was at that time that I connected with those who had started the informal discussion group that would become MC. I eventually had made my way back to Philadelphia to concentrate on writing my dissertation, which focused on the history of Nepali Nationalism. As I was closer to completion, I went back to Nepal in 1995 to finish the writing, finding that by then many of the original members of the MC discussion circle had departed. Therefore, at the time I then became its de facto coordinator. And having made the decision that I wanted to come back to Nepal and devote my life’s work to questions of democracy and development here, it was a role that I knew was important.


How does your work at MC make you look back on your years at Penn? What now appears most memorable to you about that time?

[A]s I moved from Economics to South Asia Studies I also entered a phase of discovery. It allowed me to take classes in anthropology and history that I still very much remember today. Most of all, however, that first transition exposed me to a new universe of students in the South Asia Studies Department who became my peers. My experience at Penn was, in these ways, absolutely crucial to helping me frame the type of research I wanted to do and that I continue to do in my individual capacity at MC…Outside of my own specific experience, however, I would also say that I do think it is to be regretted that an institution of Penn’s caliber still had as much room as it then did, and I suspect still does, to diversify its courses and faculty so as to allow students to more fully engage with the diversity of the societies and national cultures comprising South Asia.


Do you have any parting advice you can offer to current Penn students who might be interested in living or working in Nepal?

Obviously I’m biased by the type of work I do here. But, I would still say that I think it is important to get a broad background in contemporary politics, sociology and history—not only as relating to Nepal but also as relating to the region to which it belongs more generally…Second, [m]uch of the challenge we face at MC is in building up an institution that is functional in a landscape full of institutions that cannot be described as particularly effective. Don’t get me wrong: the number of university researchers in Nepal has grown tremendously in the past twenty years. However, the quality of the output in scientific, social scientific, and liberal arts research—as well as policy analysis—continues to vary greatly...That second point, then, is meant to speak to how we are a country that both needs and welcomes those who have an interest in what is happening here.


For a transcript of the full conversation, please click on the following link: Pratyoush Onta-Full Profile-Final.pdf