What is a photograph?
It is a moment becoming forever divorced from its original time and place. Chemically sealed and frozen, it can be transported anywhere for any use at any future time. And yet, it is also the opposite of this. Because a photograph is never able to divorce itself completely from what it captures, it is bound to the politics of its subject matter.
The photographer as artist, and the photograph within the world of art, has tried every possible contortion to rid itself of these politically-charged origins – to negate the subject in the photograph, to turn the image into mere ‘material’. While aesthetic and ‘digital’ debates around the medium have soared, the matter of where the photographer was, why he was there, what he was trying to capture, the circumstances of that moment, the place and its politics are seen as secondary to his ‘visual style’.
At Photo Kathmandu, Nepal’s first international photography festival, which ran from 3 to 9 November in Patan, Kathmandu Valley, we witnessed a reversal of this trend – the politics and provenance of the photographs exhibited were key elements in the process of curation. And so each exhibition became a medium for a communion of time, place and people.
Nepal was the focus of all 18 exhibitions at the festival. Designed to be exhibited within a half hour’s walk from each other, the exhibitions became a reminder that when the photograph is brought as close as possible to those among whom it was taken, it has an inherent power to engage. Words like ‘public’, ‘participatory’, ‘local’, accurately describe what took place, but have been (ab)used too often already. So let us say instead that it was a return to a photography of intimacy, light, shadow and dust.
Through these four exhibitions, it is possible to re-create our journey on the streets of Patan, and the stillness given to us by the photographic portals that allowed us to fall deep into their essence for each of those seven days.
The archival turn
In his famous 1994 lecture, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” presented in London, Jacques Derrida had given his spectators a though provoking image of the archive – the arkhe as the place where everything begins, where power itself originates: “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.”
The founders of Photo Kathmandu, NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati and Bhushan Shilpakar, are also the founders of Nepal Picture Library (NPL), a digital archive of over 50,000 photographs sourced from families, photo studios and photojournalists from across Nepal. Several exhibitions were curated from the NPL collections, and collectively they provided a new place from which to imagine the Nepali identity and culture.
At the Patan Museum, we were introduced to the work of court photographers running private studios. The photos depicted their early clients, i.e. the burgeoning Nepali middle-class looking to mirror the stance, the posture and the gaze of the royal family.
By the 1960s, a rebellion was brewing against this classic style of portraiture. There was something new in the photographs: disco swag, men posing barechested, multiple exposures creating faces within faces, self-reflexive photographs questioning the photographer’s complicity with the camera, and of course the famous filmi photo (men and women posing like their favorite Bollywood idols) heralding the arrival of cinema halls in Kathmandu.
What do these kinds of images do for the imagination? For the outsider, it displaces the romantic Himalayan landscapes, tales of sherpas and basecamps. It gives a new visual vocabulary, an experimental, playful and human engagement with which to begin a careful reconsideration of our pre-conceptions of Nepal. For the insider, it reveals a multiplicity of Nepals (and Nepalis) that are either forgotten or overwritten by a centralising narrative. Most importantly perhaps, it shows the roots of a local modernity and of a serious photographic legacy.
The home as museum
Opening up your home to strangers is always an act of grace. But to allow it to be turned into a historical site, to invite the world into your most personal family history, is an act of love.
And Juju Bhai Dhakwa was immensely loved. Perhaps the most prolific amateur photographer from the mid-1950s to the early-1970s, his candid rendering of his own youth, his friendships, the celebrations within his community of Nagbahal, of beautiful women, of the streets, and the growing drama of Bollywood, was displayed across the Dhakwa house as part of the exhibition titled ‘Juju Bhai Dhakwa: Keeper of Memories’.
The Dhakwa house is a landmark in Patan because it is one of the best preserved homes showcasing traditional Newari architecture. His son, Prakash Dhakwa, and grandchildren continue to live and run a bed and breakfast there. It was this that turned the exhibition into a truly irreplicable physical experience. Walking through the corridors where Juju Bhai lived, we saw his collection of cameras that had been carefully placed among the images; we stood in his study, feeling as if he had just left the room; we chatted with his son Prakash in the foyer, all the while reveling in his photography.
Soren Pagter, head of the photojournalism department at Denmark’s leading school for documentary photography, remarked with delight as we curved our way through the house, taking it all in once more, “I would have come all the way just to see this.”
Change of course
When we arrived at the step well where the public water faucets are located, women were already lined up. They stood in the center of the sunken brick square, chatting, waiting their turn to fill up. Before we could descend into the well to see the exhibition, a smiling volunteer presented us with a letter. The stamp of Nepal printed on it showed fields, a river flowing along them and what looked like the cracking of the riverbank downstream. It was addressed Change of Course — Prasiit Sthapit and below this it said: “The residents of the Susta village present the people and the government this petition in the form of a poem on the occasion of the Photo Kathmandu Festival 2015”. The poem was titled, “Our Susta” by Purna Bahadur Tamang and one verse read:
The situation here at Susta is a show and tell
No houses to lodge or live
No food to hand out or give
No field for farmers to earn from
As Narayani turns the land into a ghost town
The Narayani, our kind volunteer explained, was the river that marked the border between India and Nepal. With the intensity of flooding and the occurrence of monsoons becoming unpredictable, the river had been changing its course. This meant not only the steady disappearance of the village of Susta that stood at the edge of the Narayani, but also that on any given morning, the residents could find themselves suddenly a part of India. The river had shifted nearly two kilometres in the memory of Susta’s oldest residents.
As we walked slowly around the photographs, a spray of mist enveloped each frame. No individual could be seen clearly, it was as if they were all melting into the fog. It was a quiet, rural world holding itself at bay; a village merging with the sea.
“I want to publish this story,” said Thomas Borberg. He is the photo editor in chief at Politiken, one of Denmark’s largest newspaper, widely considered to be the most visually provocative print paper in the world.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it shows so many things, not only the political struggle between India and Nepal but also that ultimately even if we, as humans, decide on certain borders, nature is an unpredictable and more powerful force.”
Sthapit had first traveled to Susta in 2012. When he was installing the exhibition, a man had come up to him and started asking him questions about the extent of erosion, about how it affected the people. He had thought that the photographs were from his own village, Mahottari, and on learning they were not, he said, “Though the same thing is happening in my village, what is happening in Susta is much worse.”
Over the course of the week, many people from Chyasal told him that they had never heard of this place or known its predicament. When I asked him how he felt now that the well was empty again, the prints having been dismantled, he wrote: “A man from the local committee asked me to let the poem hang there because they thought it was beautiful. I couldn’t deny it. The poem and the translation still hangs there.”
Meeting Chameli in Chyasal
She was standing in the sunlight combing her flyaway streaked silver hair. Slowly, she unwrapped a piece of thin red cloth with tassels from her wrist and began twisting it meticulously into the coarse strands, a tight methodical plait forming slowly. When she was finished, the red was perfectly in place, like the ribbons of a schoolgirl.
We could see the wall covered with photographs just behind her, small prints, maybe 50, pasted across the concrete. To get close to the images, we had to tiptoe over piles of dhaan (fresh unthreshed wheat) being sunned and sorted. To our surprise, what lay in front of us now also lay behind us: the photographs were of Chameli and other old women like her who were wandering around us as we stood there, going about their daily chores.
I walked back to her and introduced myself.
In Hindi: “How old are you?”
In Nepali and Hindi: “50!”
In Hindi: “Will you walk through the exhibition with me? I want to know more about the photos.”
In Nepali: “No, I can’t right now. I have to start working.”
With that, she went towards her own carpet of dhaan and began walking through it slowly. A fine film of dust rose from her feet and gently covered the print.
I took a closer look at the other women, all engaged in the same ritual threshing of wheat that lay in piles at the foot of the wall, and spotted many of them in the photographs. This exhibition was part of Patis in Patan, a special show to commemorate the importance of patis – they are community spaces used for gatherings, during moments of leisure enjoyed by the young and old, and also as shelter for the poor . Many of these patis had been destroyed in the earthquake. After a month of interviewing the women who used that pati in Chyasal and Bhajan, the artists – Dikshya Katwal, Sameer Tamrakar, Shreeti Prajapati – had been able to convince them and their families about the importance of sharing the photographs they had taken during the festival. The women had been reticent and hesitant about being ‘seen’ at first but after interacting with so many visitors at the exhibition they had become overwhelmingly positive about the experience.
Photo Kathmandu had raised USD 14,000 for the rebuilding of patis through a print sale, and through several collaborations (like the one in Chyasal), they were drawing attention to many that were not going to be rebuilt and the loss of public space that would result from this.
That night, the residents of Chyasal gathered with their children in the open square to experience their first photography slideshow. Chameli was in the crowd and she laughed and hooted along with the children. The soundtrack was provided by the musicians at the temple who had partnered with the organisers of Photo Kathmandu to do a special live devotional performance in tune with the stories being screened.
Every story was contextualised in Nepali. And every story brought its own vocal, crowded response. There is usually an enforced silence in the spaces where we engage with art but no one there had been told this. One particular photograph of a gay dancer in a bar, almost nude, in the middle of a provocative hip thrust, brought the loudest cry of astonishment from the children and giggles from everyone else.
There was no numbness. We felt we could be free.
Awaiting the second edition
Photo Kathmandu chose to embrace the history of not just photography but also of the photographer as someone striking a balance between art, history and politics. It is a space that the writer has always been privileged to enjoy and this festival reminded us that photographers deserve the same opportunity.
To display Kevin Burbiski’s work of 40 years framed on white walls in the Patan Durbar Square, to give Philip Blenkinsop and his historic images of the Maoist guerilla wars of the early 2000s free rein over an old courthouse, to present Kishor Sharma’s series on Nepal’s last nomadic tribes in the alleyways of Swotha, meant that they all added up slowly to say that: Images are what we do with them.
This conversation with the people of Patan has just begun. When art is grassroots, it does not mean simply that it is born of a particular place; it also means that it continues its dialogue in that place. And we await an opportunity to be a part of this conversation again.
~ Alisha Sett is a writer based in Bombay. She graduated from Tufts University in 2012 with a BA in Political Science and English.