Print Edition - 2012-09-01  |  On Saturday

Impressions of the Valley

  • Nepal Diary—Part III
- RACHEL STEVENS
Impressions of the Valley

Aug 31, 2012-

NOVEMBER 18, 2006

My days are currently anchored around the routine of working at Sunil Shakya’s metal workshop in Patan—Sulav Studios. Sunil, his nephew Santosh, and a small army of metalworkers are helping me create two sculptural installations made of copper and fabric. The first comprises of three sets of eight-spoke dharmachakra wheels, and is almost complete. The second is inspired by the Bodhi tree and the Buddhist ‘Wheel of Life.’

There have been some major developments in the country these past few weeks. Citizens were feeling hopeful, as the Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance were reportedly close to finalising a peace agreement at last. Political posters—particularly those of the Maoists—have been plastered over buildings, bridges, temples, and shrines in the city. An interpreter explained that these were advertising a three-day rally in Kathmandu. I also learned that the Maoists were ‘asking’ Valley residents to house and feed groups of 10 to 15 cadres during the rally. Fear was palpable among those families in the Kupondole area that I spoke to. Fulbright scholars were even advised to vacate their apartments should cadres come.

To confuse matters even more, there were newspaper headlines trumpeting the success of the peace process: ‘Peace at last’, one declared, followed by other similarly buoyant titles. But on the streets, things were still volatile. Protests were being held decrying the Maoists’ tactics, and to my relief, the housing demands, at least, were withdrawn.

Nonetheless, thousands still poured in from outside the Valley to celebrate their party’s official integration into the government. You could see them on the tops of buses and trucks, chanting slogans, clearly overjoyed. And many young men and women who comprised the ranks had replaced their distinctive red headbands with plastic red sun visors. It was a party all around.

DECEMBER 11

Winter has arrived in Kathmandu in the form of slow, persistent rain.

Fulbright and the American Center (under the auspices of the US embassy) are hosting an exhibition featuring the work of Sulav Studios and myself, to take place at Sunil’s workshop. My installations are in various stages of resolution, and I find myself oscillating between acceptance and anxiety as the day approaches.

On one hand, work on the Bodhi tree sculpture is progressing faster than I expected, but there is often an erratic aspect to this progress. Today, for instance, all of Sunil’s workers were assigned to hammer, chisel and file away at the tree’s Medusa-like tangle of branches. But many fiddled with their cellphones while making small talk—banging and scraping at the metal without even looking at it. To top it off, Shem, the welder, was late, and I couldn’t get much done until late afternoon. When he finally arrived, he was reeking of liquor. Shem had been

celebrating the coming of the first winter rain with friends and was clearly in no shape to work. With this, any illusion that I retained of having control over my life has been shattered. How I miss it.  

DECEMBER 21

The days leading up to the exhibition have been intense, right up till the end. On the morning of the opening day, I arrived at the Shakyas to hang the two installations. Santosh and his family were on their way to pay homage to a goddess specific to their caste. The Shakya women were beautiful in their saris, and Puma, Santosh’s wife, was as stunning as ever.

Sunil opted to stay home—a good call too, since we needed every available minute to prepare for the 3 pm launch. The workers cleared the space and installed the giant copper Buddha alongside an army of small deities. I penned a speech to read at the reception, a narrative of the serendipitous meeting with Santosh, and the chain of events that followed, resulting in our

collaboration. I was anxious to install the Bodhi tree, as I knew how long it would take to attach the cloth leaves to the canopy, and we only had an hour and a half. We were helped by members of Sunil’s family, and although I felt a pinch of resistance at not getting to do everything on my own, I reminded myself that Nepal is a culture characterised by community effort. And so, once again, I surrendered.

The moment I gave in, the bustle itself became a wondrous experience; women and children rushed back and forth hanging leaves and pressing them into my hands, calling out the colours in English—“red!”, “yellow!”, “green!”—and workers hoisted the umbrellas of the dharmachakra piece high into the air, floating well-above a landscape wherein contemporary art and traditional Newar Buddhist icons coalesced. And in the midst of it all was Indra Kumari, Sunil’s 70-year-old mother, sitting serenely next to the Bodhi tree; a poetic coupling if there ever was one.

By mid-afternoon, the caterers arrived, followed by the embassy people. All complained of the traffic jam that had brought Patan to a standstill. There had been a road fatality earlier in the day and people had been protesting for hours. They spoke of the various things they’d encountered: a burning bus, rioters hurling stones, motionless vehicles packed into narrow streets. But these were eventually forgotten as a celebratory mood took over. Speeches were given. Food and drinks flowed and conversation hummed around the artwork, all culminating in a wonderful celebration of friendship and cross-cultural collaboration.

That reminds me, I’ve less than a week left here. I’m not exactly sure how I feel about that.

JANUARY 4, 2007

5:45 am. Insomnia.

I’m resettling into my home in Las Cruces, New Mexico. As I rummage through photos and mementos and recall the many adventures, joys and discomforts that constituted my time in Nepal, I already miss the complex and paradoxical place that was my ‘home away from home’ for five months. I miss the Shakyas. I miss the collective warmth of the Nepali people. As a Buddhist might say, life is comprised of little deaths, in that the substance of life is change, impermanence. I will strive to remember this.

JANUARY 6

My thoughts float back to my last, hectic week in Nepal. I had to pack and ship 450 pounds worth of copper sculptures to New Mexico. I enjoyed many farewell meals and a final excursion to the Kapan monastery with Santosh and Puma. It was time well spent with people I’d come to look upon as family.

On the morning of my departure, I was at the Shakyas where Indra Kumari performed various rituals meant to ensure my safe journey. A very plump lump of tika was planted onto my forehead, and a garland of marigolds and a khata draped around my neck.

Later on, when Santosh took me back to my place on his motorcycle, we passed by sights that had become familiar to me—Patan’s Durbar Square, past my favourite three-headed goddess, Basundhara, and many other landmarks I could recognise on sight. And as hard as it was, I finally said goodbye to Santosh, thanking him for everything.

At the airport before I left, I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror in the restroom. Dressed in a Newari cholo top, decked out in Tibetan jewelry and the

garlands, khatas and tika that had comprised my parting bestowals, I couldn’t help but smile at myself. Had I ‘gone native’ or what?

And on that note, I sign off from these diary entries. I feel heartfelt gratitude for having had the experiences I did in Nepal, for having met so many incredible people who have, in their own ways, changed me for the better. I will hold them close forever.

Namaste.

Stevens is Professor of Sculpture at the New Mexico State University and was Fulbright scholar to Nepal in 2006-7. Nepal Diary contains excerpts from her stay during this period.

Published: 01-09-2012 10:44

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