Navigating Nepal

The latest edition of PIX challenges our perceptions on and documents a nation in past turmoil and forward march

Everyday, more and more, our world is turning opaquely visual. Words have been long replaced by images that one is constantly badgered with, from social media platforms to billboards, from televisions to phone screens, there is simply no escaping the visual. In this overwhelming whirlpool of imagery, it is easy to often draw a blank, to lose focus and just stop actively reacting to this bombardment. One can end up in ambivalent territory, where information from anonymous filters has been finally passed through to the unthinking, unquestioning consumer, to be accepted at face value.

PIX, the photography quarterly started in 2010 by a collective of enthusiasts and professionals that include photographers, curators, writers and designers counters precisely this passive absorption of visual data. One, that more often than not, emerges from ambiguous sources. It is an attempt to primarily create a dialogue between the image-maker and her audience, through both visuals and text that is well-researched and credible. Adhering to this as a framework, PIX through each of its volumes, looks at photography and writing from India and South Asia exploring the domain of the documentary as an arts practice. Rahaab Allana, editor of the quarterly, explains the mandate in his note, “It’s about asking ourselves which images still matter and why…Themes help, ideas proliferate, forces convene and outputs alter. We have used thematics because it is a guiding force, and a quick summary of what ‘drives’ us.”

As an expansion on PIX’s theme-based issues, there have also been special country specific publications and shows. The sole objective of these is, exploring work emerging from and on the chosen region of interest. Commencing with Sri Lanka, the theme ‘Metamorphoses’ allowed peregrinations into the transitioning socio-political and cultural landscape. Later special issues on Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, with the latest one on Nepal, each of which offer distinctly different and unique insights.

What lies behind

Tanvi Mishra, part of the photo editorial team for PIX, explains how it is imperative for part of the team, most of whom are Delhi-based, to travel to the chosen country for a research trip. An intense recce trip, this allows the team to personally understand the socio-economic, political and cultural concerns specific to the region in real time and apply a multifaceted approach towards creating a veritable document. The PIX team’s first points of contact are usually fellow artists, curators or gallerists residing in or from the chosen nation who point the team in the right direction and stay on as “advisories” providing a point of view from within the community.

The current issue and show, Scope: Nepal has as its advisory NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati. An active presence in the Nepalese contemporary photography circuit, Kakshapati is the co-founder of Photo Circle – a platform that propels the practice of photography via different mediums. In 2010, Photo Circle also started a digital photo archive called Nepal Picture Library (NPL), that has helped salvage close to 40,000 images from personal archives in the region, that would have otherwise been lost to time and memory.

The exhibition, culled from the content within this volume, opened in Delhi last May and is currently showing at Gallery MMB. Scope: Nepal assesses the status quo in the country through photographers, writers and also artists that don’t necessarily identify themselves as photographers but use the medium as a means of expression. The PIX newsletter, a Berliner format, published alongside the volume’s print copy, specifically accommodates the non-photographers – painters, installation artists and all those working with multimedia art.

Grappling with complexities

The exhibition, combining works from both entities – the issue as well as the newsletter – makes fitting use of the gallery space, leaving almost no corner bare but never overpowering the viewer with clutter. The content presents a gamut of stories, from those overtly in the public eye to those struggling to be heard or ones that have taken the liberty of a more personal or creative course. Text or language that supports the work, affirms the team, was a conscious decision that helps see the oeuvre in a certain context. Over a phone conversation, Allana introspects on the form of text, whether it is prose or poem, bilingual or tri-lingual and if text is seen as an “extenuation or an inspiration” to the work. The written word along with the photographer’s notes helps readers/visitors glide through the work and interact with it in a more conscious manner.

Nepal’s tumultuous political climate coupled with the twin earthquakes of 2015 are significant precedents that define the tone and inspire most of the work in the current volume. Artist/filmmaker Karan Shrestha in an email interview when asked about his works, ‘Waiting for Nepal’ and ‘Stay Where You Are’ introspects on Nepal’s turbulent recent past. He says, “Irrespective of the circumstance, the people of Nepal have had to wait. Waiting is a form of structural violence committed by an agency, an institution, or a bureaucracy on its subject. It forms a hierarchy of importance and reflects how the violence of entrenched social differences or unresolved civil strife ossifies and becomes sealed into cultural past times.”

Shrestha’s images show locals from areas like Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur in the valley, in their everyday, where the sense of limbo is unmissable. His work resonates with another fellow artist, Nirman Shrestha’s. ‘Maybe a New Body of Work’ emerges from this same sense of incompleteness or disillusionment, while looking at who has a right to question the situation. Does geography decide who is an outsider to the community and hence who is ‘eligible’ to be a voice?

Voices from the margins

Although Nepal ceased to be a Hindu monarchy in 2006, minorities like the Madhesis or the Madhes from the southern plains that share borders with India feel marginalised. Sagar Chhetri’s intimate essay is a “visual documentation” as he puts it, on Birgunj, one of the biggest trading gateways between India and Nepal that became the centre of the Madhesi movement and protests.

Surendra Lawoti’s ‘This country is yours’ further extends this slant to comment on the other minorities and powerless sections of Nepalese society like the LGBTQ community, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the indigenous people and women. Lawoti’s powerful portraits are interspersed with spaces and objects of relevance to the issue.

While Frederic Lecloux’s images recall longing in his constant need to return to Nepal, they also cherish the fleetingness peculiar to Nepal’s landscape. Through his work, ‘Everyday Epiphananies’, Lecloux questions the reality of time and space accentuating a sense of calm that reflects the resilience of Nepalis in the face of adversity.

Politics and calamities

Australian photographer Philip Blenkinsop in response to “a deep-rooted sense of responsibility to the Nepali people” that he felt, photographs the unrest and uprising following the royal family’s massacre and the Maoist declaration of the ‘People’s War’ in 2001. Straight on monochrome portraits of young Maoists, confident and calm, armed with rifles and grenades that could very easily have been books or a bag of grocery stare out at you against the dark backdrop. A map of guerrilla country, with handwritten notes by Blenkinsop draws the viewer closer to the photographer’s journey.

Work which is especially worth the experience of being viewed in a gallery is that of Sharbendu De’s ‘Between Grief and Nothing’, where he creatively addresses the post-tragedy fear and trauma through traditional storytelling and myth. De re-creates the tale of Lakhey, the demon God and places him in the current scenario of destruction caused by the earthquake, “attempting to depict a dystopian state of mind”. The exhibit at the gallery is placed within a special darkroom, where the surreal images float in a dream-like atmosphere complete with dim lighting and reverberant music – a mix of the Australian aboriginal didijeridoo and Indian classical tracks, that brings alive the myth.

A more conventional form of reportage on the aftermath of the twin quakes can be seen in Zishaan Akbar Latif’s black and white images of the epicentre at Barpak village and surrounding areas. On the other hand, Nepal Photo Project’s innovative installation allows viewers to get a sense of the deluge of images that poured in each day, paralleled by a graph that traces the magnitude of the tremors felt in that time span.

Beyond the superficial

The spectrum only gets wider in its excursions, from Hitman Gurung’s installation that brings to light astonishing facts and figures on the plight of migrant workers, to social concerns like child marriage or urban waste in relation to ever expanding consumerism. Shikhar Bhattarai’s lyrical work, ‘The Other Side of Annapurna’, is about life beyond the trekking season while Finnish photographer Tuomo Manninen’s stunning group portraits brings together the local workforce of Nepal from different streams in society.

Photo collective BIND’s images made during Photo Kathmandu’s first edition in 2015 juxtapose the Nepalese people with their own history, merging time, space and memory in one frame.

While it is definitely not a linear historical record of the nation, the importance of Scope: Nepal lies in opening up a means of communication beyond geo-political borders through art and media. Borrowing from Kakshapati’s lucid closing lines in her editorial, “…in the end, each of these stories comprise fragments of an idea of a country. They represent transient encounters and long standing bonds to a place that continues to evolve.” As does the dialogue that emerges from it.

Scope: Nepal is ongoing at the Gallery MMB/Goethe Insitut, Kala Ghoda till June 18

by Tejal Pandey, June 02, 2017, The Hindu

Image: (Detail) Shikhar Bhattarai, The Other Side of Annapurna, 2013