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ISSUE 49 : The Asian Quadrant: South Asia
One Day Walk in Patan, Nepal
April 19th, 2021Type: Art Production
Author: Cheng, Fiona , aanoif, Y. S. Lim (copyeditor) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Note: During the lockdown of the epidemic, aanoif walked down the streets of Patan, Nepal, and saw a few art activities in the cities that were all shut down. This article is based on interviews and information provided by many friends. Big shout out to Amurtariti, Dalit Lives matter Bridhika Senchury, Kaalo.101, Binaya Humagain, Jenney Ghale, Surbhi Darnal for completing this writing!
Selfie on the Ring Road, Kathmandu ©Jenney Ghale

Same as Bangladesh, the lockdown in Nepal began before the outbreak. While the villagers in remote areas still remain unknown to the concepts of coronavirus, the authority had already imposed the first country-wide lockdown on 24 March 2020 as a preventive step. Cities and villages’ activities were forced to shut down in less than a day.

The measurement was strictly imposed. Policemen stood on the main interjections for checking. All tourism activities were stopped, exhibitions were cancelled, spaces were also closed, performances and gathering had all been called off. The street was very quiet like the circumstance that might happen after the New Year’s Eve (when the tourists went back home for family reunion).

Though once the restriction eased in July, another one-month lockdown was re-imposed in Kathmandu Valley due to the spiking up cases. The artists suffered a lot, almost half of the year living without any financial income. Young artist Binaya says, “My friends and I really had a hard time to survive, our space was closed down, my teaching job was ceased. But we tried to help each other by sharing food, even the money.” Through developing new clients and the commercial works, he and his friends anyhow overcame the hardship, with learning new skills of dealing with the wider general public.

At the same time, numerous online exhibitions/webinars are organised internationally. Artists somehow could still participate in the art world to make sure their own existences as artists. However, the harmful distance kills the mental health. For an artist, it’s an urge to walk into the street, to feel the real space through skin, perceiving the surrounding by seven senses. Grabbed a jacket and a mask, I tried to walk in the street to meet people.


Walking in Chaos

During the lockdown, without toxic air pollution and tourists, Kathmandu was a more adorable city. Heavy traffic and congested noise all had been suspended. It just took one hour walking to reach the city of Patan where you can see the view of 200km-away Mt. Everest —what a dream!

Patan (or Lalitpur) is a city located in the south of Kathmandu, which usually seems to have more artistic and tranquil ambience than Kathmandu.

A policeman is right on the corner… But that’s all right, the whole city is a maze, which made up of bahas, old neighbourhoods, and connected by narrow alleyways. Like having a small adventure, just go across the courtyard to reach another alley, then pass to another old street. It is easy as a game. We avoided trouble successfully.

Sometime I met activists protesting on the street, against the inefficient government that failed to manage the Covid-19 situation in the beginning. It’s the government’s fault, refusing citizens to enter their motherland. They could only await entrance at the Indo-Nepal border without basic amenities. Beside the protest against policy, I also encountered campaign against the surged rape and the culture of impunity, as well as the movement against the injustice happened on lower caste. This year, police fired tear gas and water cannons a few times on those protestors.


Meet the Murals

There are always fascinations with Kathmandu for many people. Abundant heritage treasures set in all the corners, the snow-covered Himalayan Mountains visible in the North, the traces of hippie culture, and the fusion lifestyle mixed with international trekkers, backpackers, NGO workers. As a woman, in Kathmandu you still can wear short jeans in the city, allow your shoulders kiss the breeze; you can ride skateboard on the street as a girl and will not be judged because of your gender. You may be treated as a local at the first sight due to your Mongoloid face and avoid some troubles that targeted tourists. The best thing is, you can draw as many figures as you want in the public, not being worried about vandalism by fundamentalists.

There is an amount of street art on the wall all over the Kathmandu Valley. In fact, street art could be a strategic platform or a home for artists before they are recognised by the art galleries. It even developed an eclectic expression form and strong community,(註1)  became sort of the open-air public gallery. Though religious murals in Nepal can be dated back to the 11th century, in around 90s Maoist parties also widely invested in propaganda murals,(註2) the street art in the cities nowadays still formed with the Western concept. French artist Space Invader’s graffiti in 2008 might be the first street art in Kathmandu.(註3)  Later also some well-known street art artists came to Nepal and collaborated with local artists to make pieces on the wall. A few of the first street art projects were brought up to the scene. One was initiated by Artudio in 2011: “We make the nation”;  and the first Kolor Kathmandu organised by several groups in 2012 staged street artists from local and abroad, to paint 75 murals in the street (half of them still exist); and the Prasad Project carried out by Artlab since 2012, is an identity project to recognise Nepalese themselves through highlighting the local heroes, also gained the influence of street art into local people. Of course, it benefits from the fact that graffiti hasn’t been de-legality yet.


Stand up! “Dalit Lives Matter Nepal

Lalitpur, Nepal; photo courtesy of Kaalo.101

Walking near the Lalitpur Engineering College in the summer heat, some artists were gathering in the street, working on a few murals. The longest one composed by eight figures, all of them wearing the black shirts written “Not Forgotten” both in English and Nepali; under the three raised fists in the middle, a Dalit woman protests for her right but her cloth was half taken off by the policemen. Two corner of the mural, are the image of Nepal Dalit leader Mithai Devi Bishwakarma, and a girl holding a board written “ राष्ट्रका सम्पूर्ण दलित एक हौ” (Unite! All Dalit in the country). Hundred hands in the bottom came from the Dalit movement archive. Those eight figures stand quietly are the victims of caste hatred murders,(註4)  requesting people not to forget their deaths. Their justice is still awaiting.

During the lockdown in May 2020, a 12-year girl Angira Pasi found being hanged after being forced to marry the man who raped her; another young man Nabaraj BK and his five friends were brutally beaten to death and dumped into a river for his inter-caste marriage. These incidents happened almost at the same time when George Floyd was killed in the United States. Series of alarming incidents triggered wide range of people began the Dalit Lives Matter (DLM) movement in Nepal for victims’ justice. Later the voice also rose up in other South Asia, even Southeast Asia countries. The Dalit Lives Matter Nepal sought collaboration with the art community Kaalo.101 for the campaign “Paint the Revolution”, making new murals in the lockdown to invoke wider attention over social media, and put pressure on government to take further action.

The champaign lead of Dalit Lives Matter Nepal, Bridhika Senchury says, “What we think is… because we were in the lockdown, we wanted to have a uniform voice, and had a digital present, so we re-started in social media campaign. We thought we needed to start a conversation as well. At the same time there are so many movements taking place through social media, we wanted to kind of educate, awake people of Dalits’ rights. Art is such a strong medium; we can also revolutionise how we were protesting and advocating for the rights and educate people by it.

But how difficult is it to eradicate the ancient caste system which lasted a few thousand years? Caste is a big issue in South Asia, it has strongly influenced the societies. The discrimination and the hatred violence happen on all the dimensions in daily life, includes education, employment, housing, marriage, body autonomy, civil rights, right to health care, freedom of movement… To this, Bridhika also mentions, “Our motion has always paid attention to not only saw Dalits are suppressed, but also saw their contribution to the society as a member.

The Founder of Kaalo.101(註5) gathered the artists participated in the campaign. Helena Asha Knox who is a scholar and activist at the same time wrote on social media post,

Tired of sad stories of Dalits that only portray them as victims of caste hierarchy. We fight with these murals against caste-based discrimination, untouchability, violence, and systemic oppression. Inspired by the collaboration with Dalit Lives Matter Nepal, we tried to capture a counter-narrative which is inspired by Dalit empowerment, strength, resistance and resilience – the next revolution of the Dalit movement.

Jwagal, Chakupat; photo courtesy of Kaalo.101

Other murals focus on the identity of Dalits’ occupations. Because in South Asia countries, caste status determines and is confined to certain occupations, the discrimination also happens with the typical occupations which associated with lower-caste. The artists draw the sewing hands and folk musicians on the wall to address Dalit’s identity of their own related jobs, as the empowerment and acknowledgment. With a large-scale sentence on the wall “जातको मिटर के?” (Jaat ko mitar ke, what is the measurement of caste?), it is querying the bystanders on what basis can caste trap people into fixed social orders?


The Rooftop Underground

I left the murals, kept walking to the Central Zoo. All cafes, bookstores along the street remained closed, and the hospital was also empty. In this quarantine era, even marriage ceremonies were limited to very few guests – all activities were scaled down, the societies and communities were isolated like lonely islands. It seems like human beings have returned to ancient tribal life, living in the micro circle. Less acquaintances, less issues, the bond between members may be enhanced, but at the same time the perspectives may also lose diversity. Antagonists might not meet again to have conflicts and conversations.

A stairwell to the rooftop shows up between the gardens and high walls. You can see the planes fly across in the sky, a piece of grove laying far, and hear the yawning of monkeys or lions from the zoo, if you are lucky. A program curated by Amurtariti (Anil Subba), inter-collaborated with his old friend Ram Maharjan, and Cinzia, a Belgian stuck in Kathmandu after all flights were cancelled. The venue is at the artist’s personal lodging, open for public from the evening until the last person leaves. In a small room and a terrace, a mural, some painting and collages are made with found objects installed around the surroundings: wasted tires, electrical wires, ropes, scrap wood, abandoned toys. Sometimes jam sessions happened by friends and random audiences.

photo courtesy of Amurtariti

Since art galleries and theatres were not allowed to open, the event is almost without any publicity. Just a post with 2-3 stories on social media, the rest were all done by word of mouth. “I have been too lazy to work on these formats. I decided to make it underground.” says Amurtariti, “I named the room Flux Box. It’s not going to be big or well organised, just a micro event in micro space, creating some ripples.

Surprisingly, this near-one-week event had many audiences. “Some young people came on the first day, and the next day their friends came. They were curious about how it is different from other art, and how sound makes art”. Sometimes the sound just flowed into the air when an audience picked up a strange instrument on the ground, then a jam session started.

The alternative scene continues in Kathmandu Valley, and audiences also seek for possibilities of involving with those elements. In Patan, the community Kaalo.101 creates connections with alternative visions, and Amurtariti’s practice also stays in the same neighbourhood. “In Nepal there are many elements resonate, it’s interesting if we can make our own sound art culture. I’m happy to see that happen”, says Amurtariti.

The pandemic has played out for a long time. Now things are coming back slowly to the physical spaces, galleries, art organisations, campus in Kirtipur… Finally, the art energy started to generate back to the Valley.

Video courtesy of Amurtariti (Anil Subba); Jam happened in December, 2020 in Patan, Nepal.
[1] Beside the individual artists’ effort contributing to the street art scene, communities such as Artlab, Artudio, Sattya Media Arts Collective, Kaalo.101…etc. also support the development of street art.
[2] It’s surprising to know that political parties in Nepal involved painters to make political propaganda is something learnt from Bangladesh. While artists were allowed to work in the street for commission works, “It sort of gave fertile ground for street art to come out and provided the space to go out onto the streets to paint something without getting into trouble.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Their misfortunes may be hard to believe for the people outside South Asia, read their story on:
[5] Kaalo.101 is a new community/space founded in 2017, run by Helena Asha Knox and artist Aditya Aryal (aka Sadhu-X). While many galleries in Kathmandu Valley have characters from academic schools, Kaalo.101 stands with the diversity and transcultural that embrace public, bringing the new blood to the local art scene. Check out their FB/IG: kaalo.101