Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, is a centrifuge that spins and separates people into sediments of varying density.
The fundamental nature of Kathmandu as a contemporary urban space is its claim of accommodating reinvention and prosperity. People’s imaginations are flattened into hopes of owning a motorbike or car, buying a plot of land, building a well-lit, airy home, or sending their children to boarding school. Mired in our search for a better life and upward mobility, we find ourselves in parallel, segregated communities that rarely intersect. There exists an erasure of stories that connect us to our past. We are too busy to question how this segregation happens. We avoid looking at how the ‘Us’/’Them’ binaries that define our communities have been created over long periods of time.
In this whirl of urban growth, an act of listening to a story plays out as an act of resistance. Questioning the phenomenon of anonymity and amnesia around us reduces the centrifugal force long enough to get a glimpse of how the sediments settle and reflect where we stand today.
Six artists based in Kathmandu place at the centre their personal histories to reveal layers about a city that we call home and yet is alien to us.
Artists: Lavkant Chaudhary, Sheelasha Rajbhandari, Mekh Limbu, Subas Tamang, Sanjeev Maharjan, Sunita Maharjan
Curator: Sharareh Bajracharya
In this city, we cannot expand the land to meet our needs, so we either add floors and rise vertically or divide the land into smaller pieces.
As a young child, in the courtyards around my home in Kirtipur, I remember an old man saying: “A house is made only for eating and sleeping.” This is how it was. We had to come out of our homes for fresh air and sunshine. My mother and father spent the day in the courtyard, with other neighbors.
Gradually roads were built near our homes, cars began to appear, and the number of shops increased. The same courtyards were used to park motorcycles and cars, or as storage for shops. People’s goods filled the empty spaces.
Slowly, people built terraces. We also built one. Our daily activities shifted to the roofs. We could jump from one terrace to another and even exchanged goods across terraces. These spaces were enclosed yet open. They bustled with human activity and felt like a separate community beneath the sky.
As I grew older, the buildings continued to grow taller to fulfil people’s needs. As more people looked to rent rooms, landlords moved up to the top floors and rented the lower floors to people who migrated into the city. Each floor is partitioned into small rooms. Each person strives to get a room closer to the terraces.We look to claim a space closer to the sky; a quiet place to soak in the sun.
Tharus are native to the southern part of Nepal. In the 18th century, when autocratic rulers sought to consolidate their rule from Kathmandu over the rest of Nepal, Tharu lands were distributed as rewards to royal administrators and bureaucrats. Tharu groups themselves were categorized as Maasinya Matwali or “enslavable alcohol drinker” castes in the Muluki Ain or national code of 1854, which divided all of Nepali society into a caste-based hierarchy with separate rights for different groups. This left the majority of Tharus landless in their own homes. Systems of bonded labour, system called kamaiya and kamalari were introduced; in these systems, Tharu men and women were treated as commodities. They could be owned, bought, sold and exploited by “higher caste" landlords to work in the fields like oxen or other livestock. AFter great struggle, notably the Tharu andolans or movements of 2000, 2002, and 2006. Despite this, the Tharu community is still fighting for basic rights and services.
‘Tamasuk’ means deeds. People from my community placed their fingerprints on deeds in return for loans. They were never sure what they were signing on to. These deeds led to lifelong debts that were then passed down generations.
On 24 August, 2015, when protests against the constitution were sweeping parts of the country, in Tikapur, Kailali seven police officers, a young child were killed. In the reprisals that followed, more than fifty people from the area -- all Tharu -- were killed. The state terrorized the Tharu community through a campaign of illegal detention, extrajudicial killings and the burning of houses. I feel a need to contextualize my community’s anger and frustrations. I find strength in unearthing what has remained silent, especially in the media, the state, and civil society. On the ghailas [terracotta pots], I have carved words from a report on the incident produced by the Lawyer’s Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples and words from the new constitution.
Text extracted from the Lahurnip report:
The indigenous Tharu people were in peaceful protest demanding for a separate province on the basis of the equal rights of their indigenous, cultural, economical and geographical identity. During the peaceful protests, for demanding these rights the Government used force and later announced a curfew in the area targeting only a particular community, which is against the International Law. During the Investigation it was found that the unnecessary suppression was so high by the government that their community had to flee and migrate from their own place.
Text extracted from the new constitution:
According to constitution number 18 –Right to Equality
The State will not differentiate within its republic according to caste, economical status, religion which is not clear(detail) in another paragraph and is also not applied in practice.
The Limbu community’s script is called Kirat - Sirijonga after Te-ongsa Sirijonga who revived the script in the eighteenth century. As I have been exploring my own family’s history, I have realised that throughout repressive regimes, the Limbu people have continued to speak our language, and we have struggled to keep our language and identity.
I see my art as a medium which connects previous and future generations. I use text, drawings and photographs from historical archives, educational materials and a Limbu-Nepali-English Dictionary to deconstruct the strategy of stakeholders who attempt to abolish the diverse indigenous identities in Nepal. I highlight strategies that aim to conquer people by erasing their language which have been used since Prithvi Narayan Shah’s time in the 18th century through to present day policies. The potency one language policy of the Panchayat era can be seen in the contradictory statements on mother tongues in the new constitution.
Amidst these attempts to conquer, I find strength in a timeline of rebellions by the Limbu people which date back to the time the Limbu script was revived.
This work is a documentation of my ancestor’s seeds which carry our memories and history. For me, it is like finding a treasure. I found these seeds in my 92 year-old grandfather’s homes stored in plastic bags.
For the past five years, I have been exploring notions of identity, histories, memory and nostalgia. I am interested in my family’s relationship with the land. I was born and raised in a family of Newar farmers or Jyapus in Kathmandu. Jyapus are believed to be among the first settlers and indigenous inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley.
Even though my family is no longer actively farming, my family still preserves the seeds, grain and agricultural tools that they used for generations. These objects hold a strong sense of personal and collective heritage. My grandfather is known as a seed bank within the farmer community.
Within my lifetime, Kathmandu has changed rapidly. Sadly, our farmlands have turned into a concrete jungle. The dying out of agriculture will possibly also mark the end of many rituals and cultural traditions of my community.
I started my project by documenting the tangible and intangible heritage of my ancestors as they slowly vanish from our thoughts and practices. I have begun to record my grandfather’s oral history. As an artist, I feel this is the best way I can pay homage to my ancestors.
‘I still see that same old house of ours in my dreams’ is based on the narratives of my maternal grandmother, Chiniya Devi Bijukchhe. The artwork revolves around a house bought by my great-great-grandmother Purna Kumari Bhaidya at Bhotahity, a neighborhood located next to the city's central marketplace, Asan. Asan lies along the historical India-Tibet trade routes that passes through Kathmandu. Just like her grandmother, Chiniya Devi was also raised in the Bhotahity house.
She remembers the storage room in the house, the bhandaar or storage space. Inside the bhandaar, there were many wooden sanduks, boxes of different sizes. Inside the sanduks were objects that belonged to my grandmother and her ancestors. But when that house was demolished, some of those sandooks were misplaced. The objects that carried her history were lost.
“What do you miss the most?” I once asked my grandmother, referring to those lost objects. “My vadakuti,” she replied, referring to a set of miniature pots and pans gifted to her by her grandmother.
I constructed Chiniya’s narrative using materials remembered and imagined. I recreated the ancient objects as accurately as I could, using the same kind of wood, as well as copper and bronze. Along with those, I also used old, tattered photographs (most of which came from my family’s archive) and wrote related stories on them.
Chiniya described the drastic social transformations of her lifetime: how close-knit communal spaces became to commercial centers; how businessmen from India gradually introduced Indian industrial textiles; how Tibetan refugees adjusted to the city; how plastic products invaded the market; how peaceful historical places became noisier, overcrowded and more polluted; and how traditional houses in the neighbourhood which were made of clay and wood and had beautifully carved windows, started to be replaced by drab, tall concrete buildings. In more recent years, this Bhotahity house was demolished to build a shopping complex.
I belong to the indigenous Tamsaling community, much of whose history is based on oral narrative traditions which are not well documented. The Tamsaling community makes up 5 per cent of Nepal’s population, but most of the community is underprivileged, discriminated against and politically excluded.
To understand my own present condition and that of my community, I seek to understand the history and development of culture and the social fabric of my community. My works are based on photographs taken by Volkmar Wentzel in 1949. The photographs capture a moment in history when a Mercedes car was hand carried by a group of men on the rocky, hilly trail from Bhimphedi to Kathmandu. Surrounded by the hills of the Kathmandu Valley, the capital of Nepal, was the only city with modern roads.
I want to look at this photograph through Tamang people’s perspectives as most of the people carrying the car belong to the Tamang community. I think this photograph is evidence of the dark side of that time. How the ruling class and the elite people who imported the cars were not interested in the development of the country, but focused only on fulfilling their own desires for luxury.
And from generation to generation, communities like the Tamsaling have had to pay the price for this luxury. The impact of this history can be seen to this date. This artwork, “The Study of History” is an attempt to understand, rediscover, and reinterpret my community’s history.