With September's arrival, Kathmandu starts preparing for a month of festivals, get-togethers, parties and travel. Nobody wants to think about the short, dreary winter days of December and January. But as Tihar ends, it becomes painstakingly clear that winter is not too far away. Come November, Kathmandu starts bundling up in fleece, down coats, legwarmers and Khastos.
Nothing is more Nepali than a Damber Kumari Khasto, a delicate hand printed cotton wrap, sandwiched between two layers of the finest muslin cloth. Khasto's cotton makes it easy for both young and old to wear and the typical Nepali prints make them trendy for youngsters to drape themselves in during winter or to take abroad as souvenirs. The three layers of the Khasto have been keeping Nepalis toasty warm in dreadful winters from Boston to Moscow.
The Damber Kumari Khasto is named after the daughter of Jang Bahadur Rana, who brought the art of block printing to Nepal from India's city of Banaras. On a religious trip to the city with her father in the mid-1800s, Damber Kumari and her entourage learnt the technique and carried it home.
In Nepal, Damber Kumari created her own style by wrapping cotton in two thin layers of muslin cloth, fortifying the shawl for the Kathmandu winter. Since then the Khasto has become one of the most popular wrap-arounds, found in most Nepali households. And to this day, this method of block printing and the name of the Khasto itself are referred to as Damber Kumari.
Unfortunately, the graceful designs of earlier days were slowly replaced by less refined work that was easy to mass produce. Soon, the beautiful block printings of lotus, rhododendron, peacock and fire were replaced by tacky red and green block-printed hearts. But just when Khasto fans thought the art was dying, Gautam Rana (also known as G2) stepped in to revive the age-old tradition. Today in partnership with the Museum Shop at Baber Mahal Revisited he and Rosha Chitrakar, who looks after the management side of the business, are working to revive the nearly forgotten craft of Khasto making.
The shop's first round of Khastos, put on display in July, were sold out immediately. The designers have developed stunning patterns using a range of conventional motifs. Temple panels, dragon, vajra, lotus, flame, moon and flowers are some of the 25 designs the painters are working with. "The actual art of block printing is in hitting blocks with different colours at exactly the right places," Rana says.
The blocks are carved by one set of artists, then another group does the hand printing. Finally the Khastos themselves are sewn by a set of tailors. Thus, the shawls are completely handmade, except for the cotton and muslin. Rana plans to make at least 10-12 Khastos weekly and sell them through the Museum Shop.
The block painters are excited about reviving an art that has been in their family for ages. "As the patterns get more complicated, we will need more workers, more creative minds and the price will rise a little bit, but it will not be unaffordable," says painter Ujjwal Shrestha.
Production has been slow during the monsoon as the paintings need to be slowly dried in the sun but the group is looking forward to a sunny and productive winter. G2 Rana believes the initiative will revive the kind of block paintings Damber Kumari herself may have envisaged. "Art is handed down from one generation to the next but the challenge lies in getting the next generation interested," he says.