Published in The Huffington Post on 28 February 2015

Original Post

Nepali Artists Engage With Quake-Hit Communities

We followed the didgeridoo. Or rather, we followed artist Salil Subedi as he produced long, gentle thrums from the wind instrument, leading a crowd down an alley. We were in Bungamati. We had been summoned to the old Newari town that afternoon by artists from Kathmandu University’s Center for Art and Design (KU).

Students from KU, their faces painted with abstract streaks and patterns, closely followed Subedi. One of them carried a broken wooden beam salvaged from the post-earthquake rubble. Another one carried a wrecked aankhijhyaal, part of a traditional Newari window. Subedi stopped in front of a damaged building supported by struts. Kneeling on the floor, he pointed the didgeridoo to the ground and continued blowing. A colleague standing sentinel circled Subedi and the struts, sprinkling red powder on the ground. I took a deep breath and snuck myself closer to the act.

Soon after the spring disaster, students and faculty members from KU, under artist educator Sujan Chitrakar’s leadership, came together to concentrate their efforts on one specific site, naming their project “Rebuilding Bungamati”. That August afternoon, we followed them as they circled the town and came to a halt in front of the destroyed Rato Matsyendranath temple.

A long-haired man, face painted with red, was getting wrapped around by a ribbony fabric, also red. I kept watching. I took some photos. We did not really know what was happening. There had been no explicit explanations. But we all knew what had happened here not too long ago. Meanwhile, new sounds - clangs and rings - had joined the didgeridoo. They all seemed to be calling out to some unknown entity.

The artist, now covered entirely in red except for a slit around the eyes, was lifted - his front body facing and parallel to the ground - and masqueraded down the temple’s stone steps. Abruptly, he was shoved inside an opening of a destroyed building in such a way that only his face was visible to the crowd. His team proceeded to cover the opening with bricks that lay scattered on the ground. The didgeridoo kept up with the ceremony.

Precisely a month after the Bungamati event, on September 19, 2015, I drove to Thulo Byasi, another old Newari neighborhood inside the Kathmandu Valley. An artist collective, ArTree Nepal, had been working with this community since the quakes, helping women and children, engaging local men in conversations around rebuilding. That weekend, they were unveiling their community arts project, titled 12 Baisakh Camp.Hub, to the public.

Artist Rakesh Yakami’s self portrait, about two storeys tall, stood next to Thulo Byasi’s entrance. The house he grew up in used to be at this spot. The artwork spread through the empty lot and snuck up to an opening - a remnant of Yakami’s room. He was watching TV that day when the quake struck. The artwork is a testament to Yakami’s silent reflection.

Close to twenty artists collaborated on Camp.Hub. Murals, installations and drawings transformed Thulo Byasi. Dust and debris were replaced by red balloons and carefully crafted constructions. To prepare for his installation, Sanjeev Maharjan interviewed local residents during the weeks after the quakes and recorded their personal stories. The narratives, typed in Newari, English and Nepali languages appear alongside photos of the residents. These mementos are framed inside individual pieces of brick sourced from a collapsed building.

Sheelasha Rajbhandari worked with local women, most of whom were traumatized and depressed after the quakes. After discovering their knitting skills, Rajbhandari encouraged them to express themselves creatively and contribute to Camp.Hub. These women were used to producing knitwear merely as a source of income, copying designs demanded by the market. Rajbhandari mentored and guided them, exchanging ideas. Each produced a self-portrait and presented her work inside an ornate frame for Camp.Hub.

Words can’t quite capture what I felt and experienced at Bungamati and Thulo Byasi. Every individual perhaps derived her own meaning from the encounter. I remember feeling exhausted after returning from both sites. Massive currents of thoughts and emotions coursed through my system as I lay in bed, as if they were conspiring to take me to a different place. So many questions had come up. But there were no clear answers.

How to measure an artwork’s success? What is its role in society? These questions have been floated around for centuries. One way to reflect on both projects is to think of how each combined the tangible with the intangible.

For example, the artist in red could be a symbol for Rato Matsyendranath, the red rain god. But what happened to him that day? Was he hiding after the quakes? Was it a reminder that despite his ruined home, he was still amongst us?

Another commendable aspect of both projects is the way they involved the communities.

The artists had travelled to the towns, picked their way through fallen pieces of furniture and talked to the people. They had returned, again and again. They channeled the grief and provided creative outlets. The bricks captured and honored personal stories. The women worked together and traveled to a state they had not been to before. Unknown pathways opened up. The artists showed locals one more way to be. Together, they worked; they imagined.

They stayed right there, where it hurt the most. They were determined. Beauty could be an antidote. So they decided to create. Something beautiful.