An interview with
Position & Affiliation: Anthropologist, Paris University
› Part 1
June 6, 2017 in London, United Kingdom
› Part 2 (Coming soon)
April 27, 2018 in Oxford, United Kingdom
May 4, 2018 in Oxford, United Kingdom
Interviewed by: Anna Sehnalova & Rachael Griffiths; Sunghee Kim, VOX (Voices of Oxford)
Cite this archive
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Oral History of Tibetan Studies project.
Interviewee: Marie-Laure Aris
Interviewer: Anna Sehnalova and Rachael Griffiths
Date of Interview: 06/06/2017
Location of Interview: London
List of Acronyms: MLA=Marie-Laure Aris, IN= Interviewer
Background and education
IN: Could you tell us about yourself?
MLA: I was born in Paris, lived in Paris, and I studied in Paris. Well my family is very French. A sort of very traditional aristocratic family, very conventional with land and things like that. Members have been involved in French politics, in government, all through the centuries. So quite a committed family. My mother’s family in Eastern France are more industrialist, from the Christian industry from the nineteenth century. They had a factory there. So, we used to spend our summers in the Jura (region of Eastern France) where we had a foundry.
I realised that, actually, a lot of things that I studied were part of my childhood. For example, when I studied bronze casting, I had seen that all my childhood at home, at the foundry. Quite a few things were linked to what I had seen as a child.
I had a comfortable and protected childhood with everything you can imagine. Summers in the country, all the time in Paris, every weekend also in the country, and then trips. We were sent to learn languages. We were sent to England for one month a year, sent to Spain one month a year, like you do.
I had a Catholic upbringing. I went to an all-girls Catholic school in Paris, very traditional, very strict. Then I went to university, so that was a big change. I went Nanterre [University] and I was studying Sociology. I ended up being next to [Daniel] Cohn-Bendit, who was in my class. He was, as you know, very involved. May 1968 took place during my first year of university. So, we were all a big part of the barricade and we boycotted exams. It was all guided by Cohn-Bendit, of course. So, I started being involved in something different.
So, after my first year, which was a bit hectic, I was not so sure about Sociology. Nanterre was a crazy place. It was in the middle of a slum in those days. Surrounded by police every day for most of my degree, more or less. I thought Sociology was a bit, not exactly what I wanted. One day, I think in second year of my BA, I saw a film by Corneille Jest on the consecration of a stupa in Dolpo. That triggered me. I thought it was fantastic, I thought the culture was incredible. I wanted to go. I was travelling all the time. I had a big family, there were six children, so I kept on travelling here and there. My parents were letting me do what I wanted to, they were too busy with all the others.
So, I saw that film. You couldn’t do a degree in Anthropology in France, but you could do Sociology with Anthropology. You could do Anthropology in England because Anthony [Aris] did it in Durham, but I couldn’t do it. So, I did that as a major and I really, really liked it. I was working in Nepal with a French anthropologist whose name I don’t remember; he was working on Muslims in Eastern Nepal.
Travelling in South Asia
At the end of my second year, in 1969, I decided to go to India because everyone was going East. My father said, “Ok you can go but you have to stay with my friend in Bombay.” I was in Greece and I flew to Bombay on a very cheap flight. I arrived and I was staying with this very grand family in Bombay, an Indian family, a very top Muslim family. The Nawab of Palanpur. Funny enough, they had a daughter the same age as me, but they were very openminded and they treated me like their daughter. They were not scared that I was a bad influence on the daughter. Straight away I had a complete Indian life. I was taken here, taken there, taken to weddings, taken to Lakshmi Puja (Hindu festival), and so forth. Then I said I wanted to travel around India, so I got a first-class train ticket, ladies’ compartment, all around India for 400 rupees.
So, I went all around India and then I went to Kathmandu. In Kathmandu it was full hippie time. I found a group of people and we went trekking in Helambu and Melamchi. I’d never done that before. I just got some shoes in the bazaar that I found; they were too small. At the end of the day I lost all my nails. But I told myself I’m coming back. So, I finished the trip, I went to Rajasthan, I went to Goa — there I also lived again with lots of hippies — and then back to my Indian family before flying home to finish my degree.
When I finished my degree, I had a boyfriend and we decided to travel overland. I worked at an estate agents in Paris showing flats for three or four months to make enough money to go. Then I left. My boyfriend had a car, and we travelled the roads through Turkey, Iran, and all of Eastern Europe as well. We travelled quite a bit around Afghanistan. I loved it. It was an incredible trip. There was a lot of people on the road in those days, a lot of people. Then I went to Kashmir and then again back to India, travelled all over India, back to my Indian family and friends. It was bliss, going from one place to another without limits. I can’t remember what we did for money but somehow, we managed. In a way we were a bit protected, we knew if something dramatic happened we could always, probably, find somebody. But there were quite a lot of casualties on the way, for other people.
Then we went to Southeast Asia. We left the car in Kolkata and went to Southeast Asia, all over. We spent some time in Bali and then went back to Bangladesh. It was the war, so it was not yet Bangladesh. We were caught in that in Assam on the train, I remember. When it was called Bengal. I remember that, it was incredible. We spent, I don’t know how many days, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere.
Research in Kathmandu, memories of Hal Kuløy
Then we finally arrived in Kathmandu. A lot of people did that because it was the only place you could sell your car. So, we arrived in Kathmandu. I told my parents that I would do my Masters, I would find a subject for my Masters in Kathmandu. My teacher was Sandy Macdonald, who was there. Sandy was not very encouraging for his students. He was saying, “Why do you want to go? Where do you want to go? Marry. Get a Husband. Why do you want to do this thing?” So, I didn’t have very much encouragement.
So, I arrived in Nepal and I found, what was he called, one of the German anthropologists.
IN: [Christoph von Fürer-] Haimendorf?
MLA: No, no. Haimendorf was a great friend of ours. I remember going to see Haimendorf when I was finishing in London. He was the head of SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) at that time. He was very, very nice, very welcoming. I was doing something on the ritual of conflict, and he was really quite helpful, which was not the case of Sandy Macdonald. He was great, but he had not been that encouraging.
Anyway, first of all I lived in Boudha, we had a house. Then I split from my boyfriend. He went to Japan and I stayed. From then on, the spring of 1971, I stayed. I had travelled all of 1970. In the spring of 1971, after this trip, I settled in Kathmandu until 1974. Until I met Anthony.
In Kathmandu I learned the language. I had a teacher who was our informant, Vishnu Shastar, in Patan. I had a house in Jawalakhel. I moved with this friend of mine, this Iranian girl, to different places. We ended up in Jawalakhel. Next to the zoo, literally. We had a very nice house there with a little pavilion. Very nice. We had this informant who was working with us, teaching us the language, and I was working with the Uu Bahal, the people doing the Sakya there. I wanted to work with the Sakya, with the material culture of the valley. So, I decided bronze casting was most important. Then I discovered, it was very interesting, the link between the Sakya in Boudha and Patan and Tibet. And I started doing a whole monograph of Boudha.
Then I got completely anti-scholars, anti-everything, and I only published my article. I stopped. It was a bit stupid because I did quite a lot of work towards it. I regret that I didn’t finish it. In those days, it was not so required. I thought well at least I published my article on the bronze casting, which has been mentioned several times by several people. And I met Anthony at Hal Kuløy’s house, where everybody was living. Anthony used to work with Hal Kuløy for his publishing [company] Bibliotheca Himalayica.
IN: Who is Hal Kuløy?
MLA: Hal Kuløy was a great Norwegian. He was very important in all that. He is not a scholar but he’s the one who started Kailash (a journal for Himalayan studies). He did a lot of publishing in Bangkok called Orchid Press, which does all the Tibetan things. At the same time, he was working for UNICEF, he was the head of UNICEF in Kathmandu. Then he went to Burma and became the head of UNICEF in Burma and was quite close to [Aung San] Suu [Kyi].
So, he had this big house and parties all the time. In New Delhi we had Gene Smith, where we all stayed. Everybody used to stay with Gene Smith and meet all the people who were working and travelling here and there. You met all the different scholars coming and going. Then in Kathmandu it was Hal. And Hal was a neighbour. Michael [Aris] and Suu were staying with him and that’s how I met them, I met them at Hal’s. Everybody was doing anything. Not so much the French, the French were a little bit different. All the Corneille Jest lot, they were a little bit different. But all the English, American etc. met at Hal Kuløy’s.
His widow, Cecilia Kuløy, is in Oslo. They are great friends with Per [Kværne]. Both of them, Per and Hal, were also very important for Burma.
Meeting Anthony and Michael Aris, and Aung San Suu Kyi
So, I met Anthony at Hal’s when I brought the last proof of my article. Anthony was just back from Bhutan and he was staying with Hal. And I thought, we both thought at the same time, this is my husband/this is my wife. Just like that. It was something completely natural. Then he left and I left. Then we met again here.
I met Michael and Suu before [this], during one of his research trips in Nepal. He travelled with Suu and their baby, Alexander, who was one year old. I remember them in Boudhanath, going to the stupa and meeting everybody.
IN: Who else was there?
MLA: Corneille Jest and his clique. French academia is different, everybody has a speciality, one subject. This is how I perceive it but maybe I’m wrong. They were living in Chhetrapati. There was a whole centre, Vishnu [Shastar] was part of that and Pasang Sherpa. Pasang Sherpa was working for David Snellgrove. David Snellgrove and Corneille Jest were very close. The father of a lot of things was really Snellgrove in those days. He was the one who was putting people on track for a lot of studies. He was a great scholar.
Michael [Aris] was a sort of special case because Michael was Bhutan, he was unique and on a completely different level. He was very close to Hugh Richardson. He was working with Lamas. The others were really doing fieldwork, observing, they were absolutely anthropologists. Michael was not an anthropologist, at all. He was a historian. Kathmandu was mainly for anthropologists, there was a huge amount of them.
Who else was there? There were some Germans. There was one house where the German scholars used to go to, I don’t remember the name. But I was not really academic. Other researchers there were attached to a university, I was not. Michael, also, was a bit independent in those days because he had not done his PhD. But he was really going to be doing that all his life. Anthony was not. Anthony became the publisher for everybody. Anthony probably did more than anybody for the field because he published. It is amazing what he has done.
One of the first [books published by Anthony] was Heather [Stoddard], Early Sino-Tibetan Art. He started by working with the family publishing company, Aris & Phillips. Then he did his own publishing, which is Serindia.
IN: How do you remember Anthony when you met in Kathmandu?
MLA: Oh, he was a very handsome, tall cowboy. He had big boots. His skin was all tanned and he had beautiful blue eyes. Nobody was going to Bhutan, but he was going to see Michael regularly. He knew everybody in Bhutan. Then he was coming to see some of the royal family that were in exile in Nepal. We travelled a lot together after that.
At the time, when we met, he was working for Kegan Paul at the British Museum. He was looking at all their Asian manuscripts and organising all the exhibitions, so he met a lot of people. He was also working with Hal Kuløy on the Bibliotheca Himalayica. Then he was travelling. Each time you went to Bhutan you had to have a special permit; it was very complicated. The Indians wouldn’t let you go. So, you had to wait in Kolkata with all the Bhutanese in Tivoli Court. He used to love it.
I suppose then, when I met him, he had a job for the first time at Kegan Paul. Then, after that, I went back to France for a little bit. Very quickly we got married. We married in 1975. In England first, where we had a more Tibetan marriage with all our lama friends. I remember Sogyal was there, Chime was there, our Bhutanese friends, and a few friends from London. That was the official [ceremony]. Then a religious and more French marriage in France, in my father’s place outside Paris. Anthony quite liked it, he quite liked having something very traditional.
Then the Japanese, Kodansha [International], came and asked him to distribute a very, very important collection, very big, of Oriental ceramics, 12 volumes. They were huge books. Anthony decided to do it. He split [from Aris & Phillips] and we created Serindia. He used the word Serindia because he thought it would cover exactly the area I wanted to work on. He spent all the years publishing, literally until he stopped. We stopped really after Michael died in 1999.
There was an art world. It was a time where people had money, things were easier. Also, there was a whole clique of Tibetan art. It was very, very alive. Not only art but Tibetan studies. He only published what he wanted, he never mixed. He kept it small, but small is beautiful. So, we never made a fortune, at all, but we could manage. One book was paying for another book and so on. And he managed, because the books were selling so well, to continue the publication. People were buying, it was already sold before it was out.
I mean he did an edition for Kodansha, the Ngor mandalas. I remember he sold 800 copies of a book that was £1200 each. He sold them like that. It was unique, it was something so rare. As he had this distribution with the Japanese, that gave him quite a lot of money. We had enough money to cover the cost of a book. We managed to have, we were very lucky in those days, the copyright, which now doesn’t exist because of the internet. And he was working with Shambhala, who is a very old friend of ours. Every book that Anthony made was bought by Shambhala, so that already was paying for the book. The book was paid for before it was out. Now it’s not possible, because there’s no copyright it’s very difficult to publish now.
But, you see, all these books were done with cutting, gluing, without a computer. He did everything. It was incredible and very, very difficult. Anthony was very particular about publishing. When he started publishing his books it became really fantastic, much more beautiful. Nothing was good enough. He always used incredible paper. So, he got a very, very good reputation.
So, that was the rest of our married life. Well, until we published the last book, Hugh Richardson, in 1998. It was really the last time that Anthony and Michael were together, doing something together really. It was really quite moving. At that time, they looked so much alike it was incredible. They were dressed the same, doing the same. It was really interesting to see both of them. Anthony was not a scholar, he became more of a scholar when Michael died, but until Michael died Anthony was the artist, creative. Michael not at all, but he was a sort of historian scholar, more rigorous. Anthony was rigorous. They liked the same thing but in a different way. They had this incredible early interest from the early days.
Anthony and Michael’s background and early interests
I have been thinking of what could have motivated us all and I think part of it must have been Tintin. We were reading and reading and reading at an early age. My mother-in-law always used to tell me they got into that because of her buying them things from Portobello [Road Market], little prayer flags etc. This is not true. They said they were inspired by their French master at school — they were brought up in a boarding school in a Benedictine monastery, Worth school — who was learning Tibetan. He was a polyglot and became the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, Andrew Bertie.
IN: So their family was Catholic?
MLA: My mother-in-law was French Canadian, and French Canadians are very Catholic. So, they had to be. Their father was English and Church of England. He was an officer of the British Council, an important person there, he put most of the people in place for years. He was a great civil servant. And they wanted to be different. But they were brought up in Peru, in Cuba, in this and that.
They were born in Cuba. Then they moved to Peru. So, they were brought up as children in the Canadian Embassy in Peru, in Lima, with their grandfather and their mother. Their father was not always there, rarely there. So, they were brought up with the zoo, with all the animals, they had a sort of freedom. This incredible life. Then they moved to England.
They were so similar, it was incredible. They were also very different. Michael was more serious, and Anthony was the creative one. You know in Tibetan you say the moon and the sun? Well, they were like that. But doing the same, it is so interesting to see them doing the same thing. Physically they were the same and they had the same voice, but they were not always as similar, sometimes they didn’t look so much alike. And then they started working again with books and this and that. When Michael died it was really devastating for Anthony, he lost half of himself.
Michael and Anthony’s role in establishing Tibetan and Himalayan studies at the University of Oxford
What Michael and Anthony achieved together is incredible. When Michael died, Anthony took on the legacy and started the [Tibetan and Himalayan Studies] department at Oxford. I was looking at the papers with Charles [Ramble] yesterday, it has been a long process for Michael. He had been thinking for a long time about it. I think when he came back from Harvard he thought, if it’s in Harvard why not in Oxford? And he said let’s do it in Oxford. Per [Kværne] helped a bit. He was a sort of cool person who was always brought up to help with deciding things.
The International Association for Tibetan Studies (IATS)
IN: Did you go to the International Association for Tibetan Studies (IATS)?
MLA: I went to the IATS in Bloomington in 1998 to sell books for Serindia because it was the year we published High Peaks, Pure Earth. Actually, at that time, Michael was there, and Suu was blocked on the bridge. Suu was in Burma; she came out and they stopped her on the bridge. I remember opening the newspaper one morning, the USA Today, and on the first page was Suu on the bridge. I immediately went to see Michael in his room. I asked him what was happening, and he said he, “I haven’t told you, but I haven’t slept for many nights. This terrible place has no cigarettes or anything to drink. I’m off to the White House now. Tell my friends that I’ve had to go.” So, he went to Washington. He was so secretive; he would not share anything. For quite a few years his life was mixed with Burma. Everything changed. But Anthony continued publishing.
Anthony’s work and legacy
IN: How much were you involved in Anthony’s work?
MLA: I was backstage. Anthony was always working from home; all his life was for home. We used to have a big house in Putney. We had huge libraries in every room. The house was a sort of place for a lot of people and a lot of activities, it was lovely. But it was complicated. There are all sorts of stories. I could write the stories of all the different books we had.
There were two books which were some of the most incredible publications, Secret Visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama and Tibetan Medical Paintings. Secret Visions was an incredible adventure. I think it is, probably, the most important book that Anthony published. Tibetan Medical Paintings was a James Bond. Gyurme Dorje, Rob Mayer, and Cathy Cantwell were helping, they worked and worked and worked. Then Fernand [Meyer] had to revise it. I remember Fernand was living with my mother-in-law in South Kensington. Anthony could go on and on, he had incredible concentration. And they did it, it was incredible. It was an enormous effort for everybody. I tell you, it was a miracle.
He was still printing in Japan in those days because the Japanese were doing it the best. The best paper. So, he was sleeping there day and night, sleeping on the machine, to check it all. And it was perfect. He was extremely meticulous about everything. Very, very meticulous. It didn’t matter how much it cost, it had to be perfect. He was a perfectionist. He was fantastic at building a team. Each book had a special team, and it worked. But my role was to smooth corners everywhere. I was not hands on. He had a secretary, he had people.
Robert Beer was always with Anthony because you needed an artist to add the little touches. And he was incredible. For Tibetan Medical Paintings he did amazing work. He worked, worked, worked. It really was incredible teamwork. When Robert published his book The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols, we had an editor who transformed his text. Anthony was extremely particular about English. He had very, very good English. Everybody had to be accepting that a lot needed to be rewritten because there was absolutely no compromise. So, Robert had his own style that needed to be edited. Then when he did his foreword, it was really Robert. I kept on saying to Anthony to keep the foreword, I was interfering for everything. I remember Robert coming out to our garden one morning in Putney saying, “He killed me, he killed me. Look at what he did.” So, I was doing this kind of thing. It was ridiculous but it’s important because it was at home. The books were my babies in some ways.
So that’s more or less what we did. Anthony was mixing academia and art. He was not interested in publishing a book that was only beautiful or only academic, it had to be both. People don’t do books like that anymore. So that was Anthony’s contribution, and I can say I’m a little bit proud of it. That was a lovely thing, and that we had the same interest also. We met there and then we travelled so much in Bhutan. We did a lot of trips to Bhutan.
Travelling in Bhutan
IN: What memories do you have of your time in Bhutan?
MLA: It depends on which trip. We could do whatever we wanted, we just asked because we’re quite friendly with the current pönlop (dpon slob, spiritual master). So, he was inviting us to everything and so we went on, usually, quite difficult trips like going to Singye Dzong, and we went to visit children, we took our children there. I loved our trips in Bhutan. We had many friends and the trips themselves were very interesting. We were usually travelling with members of the Royal Family, so we were living with people bringing their petitions. We had camps every night where people would come, they had to have their life with the people. It was very interesting.
Sometimes we travelled alone, but very rarely. We travelled in Eastern Bhutan above Radi and above Trashigang. We travelled there just after our wedding, actually. Quite an incredible trip. And one year we did a trip where we collected textiles.
The IATS (part II)
IN: Do you remember the first IATS in Oxford?
MLA: We were actually in Scotland and just came for the dinner. We were not really part of the whole conference, Michael and Suu had organised it. I came to know a lot of the attendees over the years as friends, I can’t remember how.
We started being involved from Bloomington onwards. Before that, we never went. Michael was going. Then, of course, Anthony organised it in Oxford with Charles [Ramble] in 2003. After that, we went to most of them.
The IATS in Oxford was enormous, and very emotional for Anthony. It was really quite incredible. It was beautiful weather, it was warm. Every day there were picnics. Imagine Oxford in September, hot and warm. It was fantastic, we had a great time. But it was enormous, I don’t know how they did it.
I don’t know how they do it every year. There are so many things happening all the time. For me, it’s fantastic. In Oxford you have a community, you’re lucky to have this small place. For me, that’s incredible because it’s partly the work of Anthony and Michael that made it happen.
The establishment of Tibetan and Himalayan studies at Oxford
IN: How do you remember the beginnings of Tibetan studies at Oxford?
MLA: Michael was a fellow, first at St John’s College, then St Antony’s College, and then Wolfson College. He had to find jindaks (sbyin bdag, patrons), people to pay for his studies. There were people from Harvard who did it and the von Schulthess family also helped him a lot. The von Schulthess are a wealthy Swiss family, the grandmother went to school with the Queen Mother of Bhutan so they’ve been really, really helpful for Bhutan. They thought what Michael was doing was very important, and they always helped him financially. So, they were very important for Michael.
Harvard had a lot of wealthy scholars. He met Lisbet Rausing at Harvard where Joseph Connors was also teaching. So, there was a whole group of very wealthy scholars and people that followed Michael, he became the flavour of the month because of all the stories with Suu. So, it became very know, and he was an interesting person to help. He was a great scholar but not only that, he had a little glamour around him because of what was happening in Burma. It’s difficult to split the two stories.
He couldn’t stay in Harvard, although he liked it, because he was too involved with Burma. And in Harvard you have to be full on, you can’t be a part-time teacher. So, he came back and decided he wanted to establish Tibetan studies at Oxford. He contacted all these people in America and then finally, at the time he was dying, I think it was a few days before he died, he knew that he was getting the funding for the chair.
Then the chair was established, the centre was established, and the Aris Trust was established by Anthony because Michael was too ill. I was looking at the donations and people were giving quite a lot of money. A lot of it came from America, from these people around Harvard. The donations were quite important. Andrea Soros, founder of the Trace Foundation, did a lot. All the funding for the library was the Trace Foundation, so they acquired quite a lot of books.
So, it started like that. Michael had been thinking about it for a long time, but he passed it on to Anthony when he thought he couldn’t do it anymore. Per [Kværne] was helping quite a bit, he was advising and so on. They were the main people. Then Richard Gombrich and Paul Williams were trustees.
Anthony, for all the last part of his life, wanted everyone to know about Michael. He left me all that. When he died, I said I’m going to finish it, I’m going to continue.