The Himalayan kingdom has been a site of several conflicts since the beginning of this century, from a massacre at the palace to the present-day anger over a new Constitution. An exhibition of photographs at Max Mueller Bhavan, Delhi, brings out this chequered history through images of the people. It is a tough view.
“It is a coincidence that the show, planned long before, has opened during the first anniversary of the earthquake in Nepal,” says Rahaab Allana, founder-editor of the photography quarterly, Pix. The exhibition marks the launch of “The Nepal Issue” of Pix, which is supported by the Goethe Institute, Delhi.
The earthquake has been covered at several levels. On a wall of the corridor leading to the exhibition hall are hundreds of little Instagram pictures that are arranged as lines on the Richter scale. This is part of “The Nepal Photo Project” by Tara Bedi and Sumit Dayal that used social media to give the world an insider’s view of the tragedy.
Zishaan Akbar Latif, by contrast, displays the photojournalist’s balance of form and content. His main image of Barpak — the town at the epicentre of the quake — shows a river of debris that converges at the rolling hills in the background. The classic composition guides the eye through the picture and makes a layered statement about nature and mankind. There is a similar flow in another shot of bricks on which “floats” a car with shattered windows as crumbling buildings loom in the horizon.
Sharbendu De’s staged shots, on the other hand, show the power of storytelling. “I am interested in the state of mind of people. I asked the people I met, ‘Tell me about your dreams. They told me about “somebody” who came into their camp or stood by their heads at night. I realised that figures from fables had begun to emerge from the victims’ sub-conscious to explain their tragedy,” he says.
De got an actor to dress up as the demon Lakhey and pose for him. The Lakhey dances on a mountain of rubble or creeps out of the shadows while people sleep. Chillingly, the actor who was playing Lakhey for the photoshoot was “under medication to sleep”. One image with double exposure shows him in bed while the Lakhey stares at his sleeping form.
The gallery space is broken into sections, creating layers in the layout. The outdoors display large images by Finnish photographer Tuomo Manninen of groups of ordinary people whose natural habitat is under the sky, such as fire-fighters, news television teams, street sweepers and school children. Two rooms have been curtained off in the main hall, one of which displays De’s series of sleeping figures and the Lakhey.
The other room has naked light bulbs hanging to the waist. This is where legendary photographer Philip Blenkinsop’s images of Maoist guerrillas are displayed, with the map, with his hand-written notes. “It was a search for the elusive Maoist guerrila that first brought me to Nepal in 2001, a period after the Commmunist Party of Nepal launched the ‘People’s War’ in 1996,” writes Blenkinsop. On the walls of the tent-like room are images of “comrades” with guns and grenades. Then, there are guerrilla men and women singing revolutionary songs and dancing around a gas lantern in a photograph reminiscent to harvest celebrations. Anti-monarchy protests, riot police, Prime Minister GP Koirala, Koirala’s effigy and the slain King Birendra’s funeral procession are Blenkinsop’s other subjects that complete the arc of the narrative.
On the wall outside Blenkinsop’s rough and dark space are Sagar Chhetri’s images of an angry community of Nepal. Chhetri was in Birganj, a large city and a gateway for trading with India, when he was surrounded by Madhesi protestors. “I was witness to a very unique situation, wherein a sizeable portion of the marginalised Madhesi community, was staging a protest in the streets against the government…,” writes Chhetri. He has blocked or hidden the faces of the Madhesi people in his pictures — a comment on how minorities are perceived as faceless. One image is of stones, with feet walking away. This would have been more powerful if the feet had been placed at a side rather than the centre but the image is balanced by an adjacent photograph of white insects, like confetti, shot against the sky. The explosion of white sparkles balance the rough stones and create a metaphor of upheaval and hope.