Nepali Times
Life Times
Seeing beyond the obvious


MAKING MEMORIES: Mukunda Bahadur Shrestha in an undated photo.
Mukunda Bahadur Shrestha, a photographer barely known to the public today, spent the 1970s and 80s travelling across Nepal, photographing its mountains, cultures, and people images that introduced the country to the world. An exhibition at Siddhartha Gallery from 10-20 August allows exciting insights into the sources of visual heritage contained in his archive.

Shrestha's travels took him to the Himalayan mountains, festivals and places of cultural and historical importance. The images were part of his professional career, but the real treasures in his photographic archive can be found elsewhere: Shrestha also photographed for himself and his family, developing further his unique and very personal style of portraying people and capturing situations of everyday life and ritual.

In these works his true mastery of the medium becomes obvious, reaching beyond the habitual skills of a craftsman, Shrestha extensively experimented with the aesthetic quality of images, trying out different perspectives and composition techniques as well as formats. He was always in search for a photograph that captured the personality of a person or the emotional and aesthetic quality of a certain scene in the best possible way.

When the Nepal Picture Library team visited Shrestha's home for the first time, out of his closets and from under his bed came countless boxes and bags full of negatives and slides he had collected over the years, none of which had ever been seen in public. In the year following the discovery, more than 11,000 slides and negatives from his collection were digitised in archival quality using the latest Hasselblad scanning equipment.

Looking through Shrestha's photographs and collection, the importance of archiving projects becomes obvious- especially in the context of the rapidly changing cultures of Nepal. The vast transformative process the country has been going through in the last decades also had its aesthetic implications. The visual appearance of everyday life has changed dramatically and irrevocably. The aesthetic outlook of profane and religious life of the Nepali people has changed parallel to the upheavals of the political system. Even though Nepali culture has constantly evolved and changed in the past, the aesthetic transformations have speeded up to an extent that was unknown in the past.

In the aftermath of the 1959 Tibetan uprisings in Lhasa, large numbers of Tibetan refugees crossed the border into Nepal. But not everyone fled the Chinese invasion. Numbering over 6000, the Khampas, often known as the last Tibetan warriors, were strongly built, long-haired men who travelled around on horsebacks and interacted little with the locals.

Today, a long time after his photographs were taken, Shrestha's oeuvre has grown in importance, reaching far beyond its mere aesthetic qualities. Many of the photographs he took over the years are of great value for historians and people interested in the anthropology of Nepal. A journey through the historic imagery allows the viewer a glimpse into the past and the photographs bear the power to revoke the cultural transformations brought about in the past decades for a few moments. In future, scholars wishing to work on the cultural systems of vanished cultures will have to rely heavily on archives and historical collections.

Taken about 40 years ago, this set of photos depicts the bathing of the Machhindranath chariot. The ceremony takes place at Chobhar, where the Bagmati flows out of the Kathmandu Valley

It is projects like Nepal Picture Library that preserve visual heritage by treating and rescuing images as primary sources. They might not have been of great relevance at the time when they were created, but today, in a changed cultural context, their contents suddenly become of great importance. Nepal Picture Library not only contributes to the study of Nepali photography, but also generates knowledge and raises questions about how issues of memory, identity, and history can be explored through images.

A huge fish caught in Phewa Lake in Pokhara during a visit by King Mahendra (1968).

Trekking somewhere in the mid-western mountains, Shrestha took this photo of three young girls and a dog

Alban von Stockhausen is a Nepal based anthropologist and photographer who has worked in several international projects on ethnographic images and photographic archives.

Postcards and Beyond
The Mukunda Bahadur Shrestha Photo Collection
11- 20 August
12 noon - 7 pm
Siddhartha Art Gallery
Baber Mahal Revisited

1. S Karki
saw the photos on print and had to come online to comment. although print media might be dying a slow death, it is still the best way to publish photos. the ones put up on the internet does not do justice to Shrestha's superb work. Also i agree a lot with what the writer says about photographs being like history books which give us a glimpse into Nepal's identity from 40 years go. kudos to the team! keep up the good work. 

2. ananta karki
In 4th and 5th picture, as far as i know this is not a Machhindranath chariot,. it is Adinath idol, looks similar with red machhindeanath. this is done on the occasion of Chaitre Dashain at Bagmati-Nakhhu confluence.

Nice to see these old rare pictures...

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)