Nepali Times
Illustrating a mother tongue



ETHNIC ARTIST: Mahendra Thami was in Kathmandu in September, working on the Thami language primer book. Drafts of Mahendra's illustrations for the book.(below)

With Prashant Tamang's victory in Indian Idol Darjeeling is undergoing an overdue renaissance. For centuries an important site of cultural production for Nepali language and literature, not to mention identity, for Nepalis of all castes and ethnicities, this overpopulated hill station is also home to a vibrant artistic community.

Mahendra Thami is one of Darjeeling's most prominent contemporary artists, perhaps best-known for his murals inside Glenary's Restaurant on the Mall. Born in Assam, the 37 year-old painter graduated from Mumbai's British Institute with a degree in Art in 2002. He went on to exhibit his paintings in Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Chennai, Guwahati and Gangtok before returning to Darjeeling to establish his own gallery.

Opened last year, M2's gallery (named after Mahendra and his wife Manu-the two 'M's) sits just behind Chowrasta on the road to Tungsung. Displaying pieces of Mahendra's collection that date from his teenage years to the present, as well as special exhibitions by other artists, the gallery is a family business staffed on a rotating basis by Mahendra and Manu themselves, along with their daughters and Mahendra's parents.

Recently Mahendra took a break from the gallery to travel to Kathmandu for a different kind of project. Fashelung Samajik Sewa (FSS), a locally registered NGO run by the Thami ethnic community of Dolakha-to which the Darjeeling painter traces his origins-is presently producing the first-ever primary school book in the Thami language. FSS, who work in partnership with Educate the Children (ETC) and the Nepal Thami Samaj (NTS) in Kathmandu, invited Mahendra to illustrate the 65-page primer intended for Class One Thami students (called 'Thangmi' by the community themselves) in government schools. Having begun his career with a set of educational comic books commissioned by Darjeeling's Hill Council government, Mahendra was no stranger to book illustration, and readily accepted the invitation.

"The project gave me an opportunity to visit my ancestral homeland and to help my community, as well as the Nepali community as a whole", said the painter.

Along with Bir Bahadur Thami, the lead developer of the language book and chairman of FSS, Mahendra spent several days touring Dolakha before returning to Kathmandu to prepare the illustrations. Mahendra had visited Nepal once before in 1997 on a family trip, but this was the first time he had come to contribute his skills to preserving Thami language and culture.

As a long-term member of Darjeeling's Bharatiya Thami Welfare Association, Mahendra was well aware of the issues facing minority groups, like the Thami, in both Nepal and India. "I did not grow up speaking my own language, but I would like my daughters to know something about it. This book will help younger generations keep in touch with their heritage," the artist said at an ETC program.

Mother tongue Thami speakers in Nepal still number over 20,000, and the Darjeeling community has a long history of supporting mother tongue education as well: in 1943, the then Bhai Larke Thami Samaj (which later became the Thami Welfare Association) opened the Jyoti Thami Primary School, which taught the Thami language in addition to other subjects.

Although the school closed after a decade due to lack of funding, the initiative remains remarkable as one of Darjeeling's first and perhaps only school established to teach an ethnic language in a largely Nepali-speaking environment. As a collaboration between members of the Nepali and Indian Thami communities, the present language book follows in this rich tradition of linguistic preservation and innovation.

Mahendra's ink and watercolour illustrations bring to life simple lessons about people, animals and the village community in a way that will engage young and old alike. The book developer, artist and community are working together to see the text through publication and introduction into local schools.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)