They are stark and beautiful, almost unreal. The fine details like a hole in the skirt or patchwork clothes and heart-warming smiles make Devendra SJB Rana's exhibition of black and white photographs 'Thalara Framed' at Siddhartha Art Gallery, remarkable.
Devendra was brought up and educated in England. He wanted to know his country better, to understand life beyond the Valley. On a visit to a village, he saw the people drink water, wash clothes and defecate in the same river. Shocked by the poverty, he decided to so something in a small way. With his background in agriculture development, Devendra started a project for rural development. He chose Thalara in farwestern Nepal.
Far removed from the bubble reality of Kathmandu, Thalara is in that part of Nepal which is most neglected, most deprived and most marginalised. The disparity between the upper and lower caste dominates social interactions, and the status of women in the community and even within the family is medieval. The women do all the household work- fetching water, fodder, firewood and they are still treated like dirt. Poverty was intense and all-pervasive.
Devendra lived in Thalara for five years 1991-96 and fought daily to change the ke garne mindset of the local menfolk. Thalara was also Devendra's mother's home but even his own relatives failed to understand his desire to eat and live with people from the lower castes. He saw poverty face-to-face and understood what drove some into the Maoist fold later on. "People were so poor that they didn't care anymore," he says quietly, "they had nothing to lose but their lives, which they could barely sustain anyway."
Fatalism was rife in Thalara and Devendra discovered that here more than anywhere else, many felt fate is written on their foreheads. People were content to sit back and let things take their course. "It is often easier to overcome poverty than change that attitude," says Devendra.
Devendra documented his stay in Thalara with black and white photography, a wonder he discovered at the age of eight. Now he is ready to exhibit some of this photographs. "I want to raise awareness among the people of Kathmandu, to gauge their reaction to these stark pictures of life in the villages and the desolation even before the Maoists," he says.
Devendra hasn't returned to Thalara since 1996, the year that the Maoist 'people's war' began in nearby Rolpa. Today, the area is a conflict zone, even the few development projects have stopped, and Thalara has become more remote than ever before. But we see into the souls of its inhabitants from these pictures taken 10 years ago. In black and white, shorn of photogenic glamour, the struggle and grinding poverty is more poignant.
The exhibition is supported by the Bank of Kathmandu and Devendra plans to take it to the Netherlands also.