read 15 min

In his book Society Against the State, anthropologist Pierre Clastres writes: “It is said that the history of peoples who have a history is the history of class struggle. It might be said, with at least as much truthfulness, that the history of peoples without history is the history of their struggle against the State.”

It is this struggle that is at the heart of “Masinya Dastoor,” Lavkant Chaudhary’s debut solo exhibition at the Siddhartha Art Gallery. He invites us to witness the long and complicated relationship between the Nepali state and the Tharu peoples of the Tarai. Chaudhary’s art is about Tharu history, and his use of text, in many of his works, is deliberate. The word masinya loosely translates to enslaveable, but as the gallery’s director Sangeeta Thapa commented, it also means expendable. The term reflects the value, or lack thereof, afforded to the Tharus within the Muluki Ain of 1854. Under this legal code many indigenous communities throughout Nepal were classified as a masinya matwali jat, enslaveable alcohol-drinking castes. Dastoor is also a legal term that broadly means order or rule; in this exhibition it refers specifically to the tools of those in power—be it taxes, laws, or guns. The art presented is thus a glimpse into nearly three centuries of violence inflicted upon the Tharus by the various apparatus of the Nepali state. Yet the narrative explored is not only about suffering, it is more importantly about resilience and resistance.

Miniscule figures reminiscent of Tharu murals are depicted in “DDT” (2019) Click picture for enlargement.

Of mosquitoes and men

The exhibition begins with a triptych entitled “DDT.” The first tableau stands out: on an earthy, ochre background are seven concentric rings, around the inner circumference of each circle are trees, the foliage green with life. And above the canopy, between each ring, are people, who are undoubtedly Tharus. The white figures are painted using a style based on Tharu murals, which traditionally serves both decorative and ritual purposes. Women are fishing, a man ploughs his fields, children walk alongside their parents: quintessential scenes of a village and a reminder that the life of the Tharu community is inseparable from the forests, rivers, and landscape of the Tarai. The painting provides a hypnotic rhythm for the whole exhibition, centring on the circularity of life and the repetition of violence in history.

The pattern of rings resembles a stationary circular target used in archery. Here, instead of an archer, we have a grayscale man wielding a chemical sprayer, disguised by his gas mask. He is presumably employed by the Government of Nepal’s erstwhile Malaria Eradication Program. But the victims are not mosquitos and it is not just malaria which is being eradicated; rather, under threat are the bodies, livelihoods, and cultures of Tharus. When viewed from afar, the human figures in the painting are minuscule, and thus interchangeable with mosquitos, a reflection of how the Nepali state perceived those not at the centre of power. And in this way the work winds itself back into playing with text. For here the abbreviation DDT does not stand for the chemical dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, rather it is the “Danger Dose to Tharus.” An explicit political remark on how state-led interventions have devastated both the ecosystems and the people who inhabit the Tarai.

Historically, the fear of malaria disincentivized hill-dwelling Nepalis from settling in the plains. The Tarai also had a labour shortage for cultivation as well as its general administration. Tharus, who resided in the plains even prior to malaria control and were more resistant to the disease, were important for the Nepali state’s efforts to manage the forests of the Tarai. They played a crucial role in the trade of timber, the capture and sale of elephants, and some elites even served as revenue collectors and minor judicial officials for the state. Starting in the 1950s funding from the United States poured in to control malaria and transform the Tarai landscape, which contributed to largescale social and demographic changes. Social scientists studying Nepal agree that reducing the risk of malaria played a significant role in enabling hill-based Nepalis to migrate to the Tarai, contributing to illicit land acquisition and environmental degradation. This process has been blamed for engendering the economic and political marginalization of Tharus in Nepal and it is within this narrative that Chaudhary frames his quest to understand Tharu identity.

A history of struggle 

Lavkant Chaudhary was born in Bayalbas, Sarlahi in 1988 to a family of Tharu farmers. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in art from Kathmandu’s Lalit Kala Campus. Yet it was not until four years ago that he started questioning what it means to be a Tharu. The journey for this exhibition began after his interactions in Bhaktapur in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake. Speaking about the inception of the exhibition, Chaudhary said, “I participated in a community art project coordinated by my collective ArTree Nepal. I had to learn traditional Newa mask-making techniques, and through this process it dawned on me that the Newas of Bhaktapur were far more aware of their identity and history than the Tharus. I realized I had to spend more time studying the history of my community.”

“Masinya Dastoor” is a deep reflection on what it means to be Tharu today and is based on Chaudhary’s research in the Tarai. It is not enough to look at the art here, it is equally important to understand where the art comes from and the process through which it is created. This is made clear by the “Tamasuk” and “Dastoor” series, both of which deal with archives. “Dastoor” is based on the Panjiar Collection of royal documents, put together by Tej Narayan Panjiar and Ramanand Prasad Singh, and meticulously presented in the book The Kings of Nepal and the Tharu of the Tarai. In it, a rich history comes to light: for centuries the rulers of Nepal were dependent on the resources of the Tarai, its trees, its elephants and, most poignantly, its people.

For “Dastoor,” on digital prints of manuscripts, Chaudhary drew figures, which take shape not in lines but dots. This onerous stippling technique coincidentally has an aesthetic sensibility derived from the Tarai, that of the godana. Tharu women have traditionally used tattoos of the stick and poke style to adorn their bodies. Patterns from quotidian life, farms, and forests are made with dots, as well as lines, to form incredible tapestries. Yet the aim in “Dastoor” is not just to romanticize a bucolic lifestyle, it is also to juxtapose that beauty with the irony that the Tarai has never truly belonged to itself. It has been defined by who owns it, who gets to use its resources, and who gets to exploit its inhabitants. In the 19th century, the Ranas parcelled out chunks of whole districts to families and loyalists through birta land grants. The beauty of the images in this series is ultimately a conduit for the malignance that lays underneath—the texts, the taxes, in effect the state.

“Dastoor Series” (2019), superimposes images reflecting Tharu history and life on reproductions of royal edicts dating from the 18th to the 20th century. Click picture for enlargement.

“Tamasuk” on the other hand is based on a speculative archive. The texts on display represent exploitative loan agreements, all imaginary. There are no archives to draw from in this instance. Chaudhary handwrote hypothetical contracts on Nepali paper, recalling the materiality of what these documents could have looked like, and again, images of Tharu life have been superimposed onto text. This series represents the rise of the kamaiya bonded labour system, used particularly by high caste landlords in the Tarai in the mid-twentieth century.

Following the control of malaria and the rise of exploitative conditions, many Tharus left the valley of Dang for pastures further west. After the mass migration of hill Nepalis into the Tarai, Tharus were often subject to systematic dispossession of their lands. Illicit means were used to acquire property, including bribery of government officials, intimidation of farmers, and deceitful labour and loan agreements. These agreements, both verbal and written, stipulated compounding interest rates that Tharus would service through unpaid labour. Some families relied on the labour of their children to pay off their debts. The kamaiya system reproduced itself through this intergenerational debt, that is its most sinister aspect. It is a poverty trap: once a kamaiya, always a kamaiya. In Chaudhary’s work there is an infant, arms barely outstretched, just waking up from a nap, unsuspecting of what fate has in store for him. The cruelty of the kamaiya system in stark contrast to innocence. It was only in 2000 that the Government of Nepal outlawed the practice after concentrated efforts from the Kamaiya Liberation Movement. But without much support from the state, many former kamaiyas still live in absolute poverty.

“Tamasuk Series” (2019), illuminates the challenges of documenting the history of kamaiya bonded laborers. Click picture for enlargement.

The rise of resistance

The crescendo of “Masinya Dastoor” is a sculptural installation made in collaboration with the writer and activist Indu Tharu called “The Diary: Barefaced Truth of the Suppressed.” Wood is carved to resemble the pages of a notebook. There are 14 pieces, each page either inscribed with poetry or with photographs from Tharu’s collection transferred onto its surface. This work is an ode to the life and literature of Jokhan Ratgaiya, a healthcare worker, Maoist revolutionary, and poet, who was also Indu Tharu’s father. He was murdered by the Royal Nepal Army during a raid in Lalbhoji, Kailali on June 11, 2001.

While most of the other works in the exhibition rely on published sources, the foundation of this installation is the only extant diary of Jokhan Ratgaiya, the contents of which have not been circulated widely. If stone inscriptions in the Kathmandu Valley retell the stories of Nepali kings, the inscriptions on wood displayed here tell the story of a Tharu common man. It might seem odd that Chaudhary has chosen to fastidiously reproduce the text rather than draw inspiration from it. However, this is because the text in its raw form elicits respect. Indu Tharu said, “Even though my father may not be here today, his ideas live on through his text. This diary has survived despite all the odds.”

The late Jokhan Ratgaiya in his pharmacy in Dhangadhi. Photograph from the collection of Indu Tharu, edited by Lavkant Chaudhary. Click picture for enlargement.

Political representation for minorities was an important agenda during Nepal’s conflict. Many Tharus, like Jokhan Ratgaiya, joined the Maoists to fight for better living conditions for their people. This made all Tharus particularly vulnerable to violence from the state. The Tharu majority district of Bardiya had the highest number of reported forced disappearances. Tharu civilians were forcefully disappeared at the hands of both the Royal Nepal Army and the Maoist People’s Liberation Army, but a majority of the disappearances were conducted by state forces. According to a report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, over 85 per cent of the victims of disappearances in Bardiya were Tharus, even though they constitute only 52 per cent of the district’s population. At a time when truth and reconciliation are in limbo, “The Diary” is a stark reminder that the relative stability Nepal enjoys today papers over the great losses that many suffered.

Installation view of “The Diary: Barefaced Truth of the Suppressed” (2019). Click picture for enlargement.

Ratgaiya was clandestinely publishing his politically charged poetry and essays in his magazine Muktik Dagar, Path of Freedom. In 2000, Indu Tharu’s grandfather, Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary, was arrested and tortured by the police for possessing his son’s magazine, he died shortly after being released from custody. In 2002 the military killed her uncle, Jagat, in Bardiya for his association with the Maoists. Out of fear, her mother, Sita Chaudhary, and grandmother, Sukhali Chaudhary, decided to burn or bury many of Ratgaiya’s works. It is remarkable that his diary has seen the light of day. Indu Tharu stressed, “Many Tharu homes had Muktik Dagar and Jokhan Ratgaiya’s ghazal anthology Chorayil Man. However, because they feared the police and the Royal Nepal Army, no one was able to preserve any of the publications. Hundreds of copies were published, but it is difficult to track down even a single one today. I don’t know why my mother, who is illiterate, decided that she wanted to save this diary. At least now people can see and experience my father’s writings for themselves.”

The diary’s unlikely survival underscores the difficulty of documenting even recent memory. For most in Nepal a collective amnesia has engulfed the trauma of the conflict years. There is not much reflection and talk of reconciliation is limited to just talk. In contrast, while recreating Ratgaiya’s works in wood, Chaudhary has paid close attention not just to material, but also to the text and its underlying narrative. “It was only when I started reading Jokhan Ratgaiya’s poems that I understood why people picked up guns to fight, why they had to resort to violence,” he said. In “The Diary” Ratgaiya’s words are left unfiltered, unfinished, and unadorned for us to witness. There are pages that meticulously document the martyrdom of his comrades such as Bhagwati Chaudhary, who was shot by the police in Kailali. His poem Krantike Kathin GhadimeDuring the Revolution’s Arduous Moment—heightens such sacrifices: “Dushman ke goli se, mor mutu huiver chhiya chhiya. / Shokhe shakti me badalho, aansh nachuhaiho tu.” The enemy’s bullet, has shattered my heart to pieces / But transform your sorrow to strength, do not shed a tear. Almost all viewers are seeing or reading Ratgaiya’s words for the first time, and the artistic intersection of poetry, history, and photography, makes “The Diary” a testament to how contemporary Nepali art is not only drawing from the past, but also actively engaging in the historiography of the present.

Detail of “The Diary: Barefaced Truth of the Suppressed” (2019), to the right is information gathered on Bhagwati Chaudhary’s life and death by Jokhan Ratgaiya, to the left is her image transferred onto wood. The photograph, not present in the original diary, is from Indu Tharu’s collection. Click picture for enlargement.
Page with details on Bhagwati Chaudhary, right, from Jokhan Ratgaiya’s original diary. Similar details on Chitra Bahadur Chaudhary to the left. Courtesy of Indu Tharu. Click picture for enlargement.

Unfinished pages

At the end of the conflict, there was hope that the new constitution and federal structure of Nepal would empower historically marginalized groups. However, many grievances and demands, particularly of Madhesi and Tharu communities, were left unaddressed even as the Legislature Parliament of Nepal was preparing to promulgate the new statute in September 2015. Then, many who wanted a province that would respect the historic western homeland of Tharus protested under the banner of the Tharuhat-Tharuwan movement.

On August 24 2015, when the police tried to defuse a protest, chaos ensued, and eight police officers alongside a two-year-old child were murdered. The killings were horrific, and so was its aftermath. People lost their homes and businesses to arson, arrests were made hastily, and hundreds were displaced. For those who think that the Tharu story of struggle belongs to the past, there is the second floor of the exhibition, dedicated to interpreting the Tikapur massacre of 2015.

The first painting from the “Citizen From the Land of Inequality Series” draws attention to the voice of women in the Tharu movement. A dark mossy background, protruding brown lines, flooded fields and rivers form a cartographic representation of Tikapur. In the foreground is Parvati Chaudhary. She appears to be at ease with her toddler strapped across her back and her right hand wielding a black flag in protest against the Government of Nepal. She is on the street demanding that her husband Bishram Chaudhary, accused of murder and arrested despite having a disability, be released. Suffering and resistance are intertwined again with quotidian realities.

“Citizen From the Land of Inequality Series I” (2019), left, is based on a photograph taken by Madhav Tharu of Parvati Chaudhary protesting in Tikapur after the arrest of her husband in August 2015. Click picture for enlargement.

Bishram Chaudhary was arrested without sufficient evidence and remained in prison for three years. Suffering was not limited to those who were accused of crimes. The local administration refused to register cases of arson. In Chaudhary’s video installation, “Once There Was a Village,” we are forced to watch a replica village burn as the testimonies of victims echo in the background. The video plays on a 14-inch television. “I wanted people to watch it on a screen similar to the one they have at home. I wanted them to see the truth that the media in Nepal refused to show them,” Chaudhary said. “The media had a role in not only victimizing those arrested without proper cause, but also for demonizing the whole Tharu community—we were all blamed for the killings.”

A still from the video “Once There Was a Village” (2018), shows a replica village in Tikapur burning. Click picture for enlargement.

The politics surrounding Tikapur is still unravelling. The government had set up a commission under Justice Girish Chandra Lal to investigate the violence which unfolded in the Tarai in 2015, including the Tikapur incident. Justice Lal submitted his report, but it has not been made public. Or take for instance Resham Chaudhary, an MP from Tikapur, who has contentiously been sentenced to life imprisonment by the Kailali District Court for his connection to the massacre of 2015. Demands for his release are still an important agenda for Tarai-based political parties. The Tharuhat-Tharuwan movement is also regrouping, albeit cautiously, and the future remains uncertain.

The subaltern voice

It is impossible to make amends for the wrongdoings of the past if the past itself is obfuscated. While Lavkant Chaudhary’s artworks portray the history and politics of pain and resistance, there is very little reconciliation. “But I do want my art to also address healing,” Chaudhary laments, “I feel we need to do more to undo the sorrows of our past.” In the installation “Masinya” he has acquired 10 ghailas, earthen pots, to recapitulate the entirety of the Nepali state’s treatment of the Tharus. The pots were made by Ram Chandra Pandit whose village neighbours Chaudhary’s village of Bayalbas. Each pot is dedicated to a moment in Nepal’s history. Some have texts, others are dotted with images, each made by piercing or by carefully breaking pieces of the pot. The pots are suspended from the ceiling, and illuminated from the inside out. A raised finger on one pot represents Nepal’s first monarch King Prithvi Narayan Shah, and his dream for a unified Nepal. Behind it is Ram Baran Yadav, Nepal’s first president after the fall of the monarchy, raising the newly promulgated constitution to his head as a mark of respect. Still another pot has the following words from the constitution: “No discrimination shall be made in the application of general laws on grounds of origin, religion, race, caste, tribe, sex, physical condition, condition of health, marital status, pregnancy, economic condition, language or region, ideology or on other similar grounds” [Clause 18.2 on the right to equality]. While looking at the breadth of Tharu history, the words ring hollow.

The words of the Constitution of Nepal have been carved onto the surface of an earthen pot for the installation “Masinya” (2019). Click picture for enlargement.

“Masinya Dastoor” tackles a behemoth of a task, contextualizing the long history of the Tharus within the Nepali state. The use of superimposed figures on text may seem repetitive but there is a reason for this: many in Nepal are unfamiliar with the narratives presented to begin with, and many still find it hard to swallow that nationhood has not been a blessing for all Nepalis. After all, art as a medium is more flexible and versatile than the academic practice of writing history; it is more open to abstractions, fragmentations, and the surreal, and exists on a different plane than published narratives.

The act of challenging, incorporating, and transmuting the textuality of history has been a core philosophy of the collective Chaudhary belongs to, ArTree Nepal, which was formed in 2013. ArTree pays close attention to research, methodology, and materiality while using visual aesthetics to challenge pre-existing historical and anthropological texts. Through their art, the collective’s members aim to raise important questions: Why should all histories be written? What are alternate ways to conceptualize the past? And can art effectively voice stories that other modes and mediums   have failed to voice? In October 2019, ArTree organized the exhibition “Oppostie Dreams–The Politics of The Local,” which looked at the erased histories and nature of oppression for many indigenous communities in Nepal. The installation “Masinya” was first exhibited there, alongside works that spoke of the hegemony of the Nepali language and cultural colonization. While looking at “Masinya Dastoor” there is a strong sense of how Chaudhary draws inspiration for his art and practice from his collective.

Following the political upheaval in Tikapur in 2015, Chaudhary supported the research of his colleague Hit Man Gurung for the artwork “This is My Home, My Land and My Country…I.” The large, grayscale digital prints have people masked with gauze, all of whom are Tharus, holding up their Nepali nagariktas, citizenship documents; a commentary on how identity often gets reduced to legal jargon. Chaudhary emphasized, “All five members of ArTree are from indigenous communities. While working in the collective we support each other. I have learnt many things from my colleagues and we want to build a sense of community not only in art, but also in our methodology.”

Hit Man Gurung’s “This is My Home, My Land and My Country…I” (2015), drawings made on digital prints on archival paper. Click picture for enlargement.

What is chiefly lacking in “Masinya Dastoor” is a nuanced representation of the diversity of the Tharu peoples. The singular Tharu identity itself is a result of state-led incursions into the Tarai in the 20th century and the efforts of Tharu elites, who vis-à-vis organizations such as the Tharu Kalyankarini Sabha constructed the narrative of a single Tharu identity, as examined in Arjun Guneratne’s Many Tongues, One People. After all, the Rana Tharus of Kanchanpur are different from the Kochila Tharus of Sarlahi, and this subtlety is lacking in Chaudhary’s work. Even so, his art does draw on stories from Saptari, Sarlahi, Chitwan, Dang, Bardiya, and Kailali. So perhaps rather than faulting the artist for avoiding certain complexities of Tharu history and identity, this exhibition should be taken as Chaudhary’s foray into reading and visualizing the Tharu past and present instead of a conclusive overview of it.

In the book The Kings of Nepal and the Tharu of the Tarai, French anthropologist Gisèle Krauskopff writes with reference to the Panjiar collection, “The ‘subaltern’ voice is silent. Only the claims of those who collaborated with the central power have come down to us.” Chaudhary’s exhibition is a response to the people in power. In art, the subaltern does speak, those at the margins can write their own histories. Chaudhary is to be commended for contextualizing the realities of his community. He is still young and his methods and style are yet to be sharpened, and for this there are numerous stories that still need narrating, countless mediums that are yet to be explored, and many more exhibitions to create.


“Masinya Dastoor” was exhibited at the Siddhartha Art Gallery, Baber Mahal Revisited, Kathmandu, from December 13, 2019 to January 9, 2020.

Priyankar Bahadur Chand is a researcher, public health activist, and archivist based in Kathmandu and Dhangadhi. He is the co-founder of Sickle Cell Nepal, a non-profit organization which works to improve the access to health services for patients of hemoglobinopathies in Nepal.