With banners in their hands, determined to fight for justice, hundreds of women gathered on the streets of Kathmandu, in 1981, to protest the rape and murder of two school-going girls, Namita and Sunita Bhandari. The suspects were members of the royal family. The case was inconclusively closed in 2003. The echoes of the protest, however, can be heard till date. While the photographs of the fearless women were trending in the wake of the #MeToo movement, recently they were being discussed at the India Art Fair. In a rather busy corner, photographer NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, co-founder of the Nepal Picture Library, was sharing their concerns with curious visitors. She introduced them to several other resolute women from Nepal who feature in the project, “The Public Life of Women: A Feminist Memory Project”.
The parallels between the movements led by women in Nepal and India are unmistakable, especially at a time when the women protesters of Shaheen Bagh have been much talked about. “So many friends are actively involved in what is happening here,” says Kathmandu-based Kakshapati. She made repeated trips to Shaheen Bagh during her Delhi visit, also meeting young photographers and filmmakers in the area. “Women are not just participating but also taking leadership roles on so many fronts… (those exhibited) are stories of ordinary women who participated and led in so many different ways. Many of their struggles were invisible for so long, and therefore we felt the need to excavate this history and document it,” says Kakshapati.
The belief led her to launch the Nepal Picture Library project and photo.circle in 2010. The initiatives were directed at creating a visual archive of Nepal’s social and cultural history through old photographs of Nepali families. “I realised that photography was not only a tool to tell stories and document but also to get people to act,” says Kakshapati. Over the years, the platform has collected thousands of photographs and research material that studies marginalised histories, centering on women, Dalit, Madhesi, indigenous and queer people. “We have tried to conceive alternative structures that allow for more participation in the archival process,” she adds. Gradually, the material began to be organised and presented as different chapters. In 2016, the project Dalit history of Nepal recorded the struggles of the community. But what is perhaps one of the most celebrated projects of the collective is “The Feminist Memory Project”, initiated in 2018. “It redefined and reclaimed mainstream narratives that have historically been dominated by men,” says Kakshapati.
The collection, till now, has been categorised into six thematic sections, including “Reading under the Candlelight” that documents women in education; “Words of Women” featuring those who wrote feminist literature, and “Out in the World” contains photographs of women who travelled the globe. One of the most recognised of the categories — ‘The Public Life of Women” — was presented at the fair. The walls had stories of women who had dared to challenge the norms. Among them was a photograph of Dang, one of the Tharu women from Karjahi, who led a peasants’ revolt against the abuses of local landlords in 1980. Another photograph had social worker Punyaprabha Devi Dhungana, who founded the All Nepal Women’s Association in 1951 and campaigned against women’s oppression. There was also Nepali politician Hisila Yami, who went underground in 1996, after the inception of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) led People’s War. In a letter written to her daughter, she offers ample advice, including how to deal with period cramps.
Kakshapati’s own engagement with photography began with her father’s camera when she was a child. As a teenager, she volunteered at the Family Planning Association of Nepal. After graduating from Mt Holyoke College, Massachusetts, with a degree in International Relations and Studio Art, she studied documentary photography at SALT Institute of Documentary Studies, and interned with Equal Access, a non-profit organisation that operated community radio in developing countries, including Nepal. “I heard several episodes and that made me think what was I doing in San Fransisco, there was so much happening in Nepal,” recalls Kakshapati. In 2006, she headed home, where she began working as a freelance photographer and documented the second people’s movement that brought an end to the monarchy. Kakshapati vividly recalls how she was invited by a journalist friend to attend a Maoist press conference. This is when the final ceasefire between the Nepal government and the Maoists was announced. Consequently, the changes in the political environment and close observation of the various ethnic groups, led her to embark on a portrait series called “Being Nepali”, that was shown in Toronto in 2016.
“There was a focus on systems of inclusion because for so long people were excluded from decision making — whether it was the government or civil society,” says Kakshapati, who comes from a mixed ethnic background.
While the archive is constantly expanding, back in Nepal, Kakshapati and her team are preparing for the third edition of Photo Kathmandu — an international photography festival co-founded by Kakshapati in 2015 — that will take place in October. This time, the focus will be on gender, patriarchy, power, identity and sexuality.
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