28 February, 2004

Goodwill Hunting: Sadbhawana Party

Sushma Joshi

On January 23, 2004, dozens of students were imprisoned in Janakpurdham for their activism against regression. Janakpur, viewed by local inhabitants with pride as one of the first gadatantra in history - its democratic politics is written about in the epic Ramayana, claim local scholars - is a place where students would rebel against a repressive system. But local inhabitants had another related event to mark on the same day - January 23th was also the third death anniversary of Gajendra Narayan Singh, the charismatic leader and founder of the Sadhbhawana Party.
The Sadhbhawana Party represents the broad swath of the Terai belt, and raises issues of citizenship, language, culture and decentralized government-central to the concerns of the madesh's inhabitants-on a national level. The current Constitution discriminates against the Terai people in many ways, say political leaders. Sadhbhawana's platform is based on redressing these discriminatory system, and in taking the madesh into the political mainstream.
Citizenship is a central concern. "Indigenous peoples like Musahar, Khattabay, Dom, Dushad, Halkhor and Leheri remain unable to get their citizenship papers," says Shyam Sundar Sashi, a Janakpur-based reporter. "A recently arrived Marwari can get his citizenship after five years, but indigenous people, with no land or money, have a harder time." Citizenship rights are still being granted according to the now defunct Constitution of 2020, with no correction being made for the new constitution of 2047. Women who are married across the border to Indian husbands, and who return home due to abusive spouses, find that they are unable to get citizenship papers for their children.
Decentralized government is another concern. "We get a holiday during Kukur Puja in Tihar," says Sashi, "But we do not celebrate this holiday. We should get a day off in Maghay Sangranti, which is our main festival." A decentralized government would allow local administrations to follow their own schedules, language and dress. Madeshiyas should be allowed to wear their own clothes, including the dhoti and the gamcha, at government offices, is a popular demand. Adequate representation in police, army and civil administration is another.
The Sadhbhawana Party, in spite of their championing of local issues, did not win in the last election in Dhanusa district. The Nepali Congress won two seats, the CPN-UML won one, and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party won one. Sadbhawana has a strong base of support in Rajbiraj, Sarlahi and Siraha, but seems to have little popular support in Dhanusa.
"The Sadhbhawana Party doesn't have strong leaders," says Ramkumar Yadav, a member of the CPN-UML party. "They say they will take the concerns of madeshiyas to a national level. They make a lot of noise, but can't translate it into action. Look at Gajendra Narayan Singh - he became a minister and started to wear pahadiya clothes. Yo kursi-ko lagi halla cha." Yadav, who runs a travel agency, says that the Terai will not develop by distinguishing the madesh from the pahad, but by taking part in an integrated national politics.
Rajeswor Nepali, a member of the Nepali Congress, has his own take on the Sadhbhawana Party. Sitting in an office filled with respectful followers, the white-haired Mr. Nepali has a commanding presence and an open smile. After 42 years of reporting for various papers, he also developed a photographic memory. A man with a stooped back wanders in and sits on the bed. This is Arvind Kumar Thakur, a "living martyr", the assembled men explain. Mr. Thakur was imprisoned and tortured for sixteen years in Nakkhu jail for attempting to kill King Mahendra with a bomb. The presence of older political activists with the weight of history behind them is palpable.
The name Sadhbhawana (good-will), Mr. Nepali claims, was chosen at his suggestion two decades ago, in 2040. "I was one of the four people who convened the first meeting," he says. Initially started as the Nepali Sadhbhawana Parishad, the organization was formed as a cultural advocacy forum to raise the concerns of the madesh on a national level. The founding members were active in the Purbanchal Congress, which later became integrated in the Nepali Congress after BP Koirala returned to Nepal in 2035.
"I chose the name "Sadhbhawana" to show that the madesh and pahad could work in harmony for the same goals," he says. The other three founding members were Balram Nayak, Ramjanak Tiwari and Sankar Keriya. Dr. Harka Gurung had written the Basai-sarai pratibedan, a paper that suggested that Madeshiya people had major allegiances to India, and therefore should only marry within Nepal. The meeting was convened in response to this piece of literature.
Mr. Nepali, who ran a paper called Lokmat Saptahik, disagreed with Dr. Gurung's viewpoint. His newspaper was promptly banned. Mr. Nepali's writings continued to be published in Samiksha, a newspaper edited by Madanmani Dixit. Mr. Dixit strongly supported their case.
On Shivaratri of 2040, a central committee of Sadhbhawana was formed, with 9 members, and Gajendra Narayan Singh as convener. On Chaitra 12, Mr. Singh was caught in Mahottari, and imprisoned. Mr. Nepali, who was also imprisoned, managed to run away. ""I told the police I have to give my exams. I was studying for my MA in Maithili at this time. "You don't want to spoil my studies, do you?" I asked them.""
A major meeting was held in Shankar Hotel on Jeth 4-7, 2041, to protest against Mr. Singh's imprisonment. Many national leaders supported this meeting, and Mr. Singh was released the next day. Mr Singh's political activism led him to spend seven years in prison, and eleven years in exile in India. Influenced by Gandhi, Mr. Singh was known to lead a simple life. He also started a social services organization for the poor.
With the advent of democracy in 1991, Gajendra Narayan Singh declared that the Sadhbhawana Parishad had turned into the Sadhbhawana Party. Mr. Nepali, who wanted to keep the Parishad as a united front that would advocate for madeshiya issues, disagreed with this move, but was overridden. "I did not support the idea of it turning into a political party because it would become a regional party, one that could not go into the hills. I wanted the Parishad to stay a united front that would lobby for madeshiya issues." Mr. Nepali left Sadhbhawana at this point, and has remained an active member of the Nepali Congress Party.
Mr. Nepali's prophecy of regionalism seem to be come true after the death of Gajendra Narayan Singh. Immediately after his death, the party broke into two factions - one supporting Anandi Devi, Mr. Singh's wife, and one supporting Badri Prasad Mandal. The Anandi Devi faction is known to support the democratic parties. Mr. Mandal, true to his name, is seen to be part of the Royalist faction. This fracture has weakened the already shaky base of Sadbhawana.
Bijaya Lal Das, the President of the Badri Mandal faction in Janakpur, seems uncertain when asked if their party would win in a future election. "No," he says definitively, then revises his first thought with a second, "Yes, we will." Sitting in his newly opened store, Mr. Das seems more like a storekeeper than a political leader-he lacks the charisma and the intellectual rigor of the older leaders I have just left behind, proving right Mr. Yadav's assertion that Sadhbhawana lacks strong leaders. He seems equally uncertain about the political mandate of the party. "We are also Nepali citizens - two children of the same mother," he says but then seems at a loss to proceed further.
"We have the sign of the hand that belongs to Sadhbhawana," he says, "The Anandi Devi faction will definitely have to join us during elections." He points out that Hridesh Tripathi and Rajendra Mahato, members of Sadhbhawana who initially left the party, have re-entered the party again. "They accuse Badri Mandal of taking police protection," he says. "But the police gives protection to all parties." Mr. Lal's concerns about internal divisions, delivered in a fractious manner, seem far removed from the gracious and broad-minded vision of Mr. Nepali.
There is no disagreement in Janakpur that the status quo has to change. The discrimination against the madesh, imposed by the pahadiya government and administrations, has to stop. Even the political parties, who advocate equality, only have a minority of madeshiyas in top positions, and this has to be redressed. But few people, it seem, are willing to follow the Sadhbhawana's party line. "We live in the same country. We won't get anywhere by saying we are madeshiyas, and you are pahadiyas. Sadhbhawana espouses sampradahik views that will split the country, that's why I don't support it," says Ram Kumar Yadav. Three years after the death of Gajendra Man Singh, a fractured Sadhbhawana Party, it is clear, won't be winning any votes of popularity in this district.

15 February, 2004

The School of Thangka

Sushma Joshi
The Nation Weekly Magazine, 2004

Through one of the many winding lanes leading off the main shrine of Boudha, Kathmandu, you can walk past craftsmen hammering delicate silver jewelry, past workshops which manufacture wooden casks, past a dump-heap where an old woman scavenges for recyclables, and into a large and spacious monastery. This is the Shechen Monastery, one of the many monasteries that dot the land around the main shrine. But Shechen, which is based on the Ningmapa tradition, has something a little different to offer.

This warm February morning, a scattered line of animated foreigners carrying scrolls in their hands exit out of the building. As we climb up the stairs, we see photographs of thangkas framed and exhibited on the walls. On the second floor, monks rush about carrying trays full of tarts adorned with fresh fruits while people carrying diplomas get their photographs taken. At the threshold, we meet Monk Matthew, a Tibetan Buddhist monk originally from France. Monk Matthew greets us warmly, and shows us around the room adorned with freshly painted, ornately brocaded thangkas. It’s the graduation day of the first class of the Tsering Art School of the Shechen Institute of Traditional Tibetan Art.

Charlotte Davis, a slim woman dressed in a Tibetan bokkhu outfit, is part of the graduating class of 13 students. Charlotte, who has a degree in Fine Arts from Australian National University, is from Sydney. "I was a Buddhist, and I wanted to practice art that would incorporate my spiritual practice," she says. Charlotte arrived in Nepal in 1998, when the Shechen monastery had just established a new building. "I didn't really know how it would go," she says with a smile. "But the teacher Konchog Lhadrepa is very warm and humble, and very hospitable. This place became my second home."

Charlotte, who volunteers as an administrator and has her fees waived, says the school is still very affordable even for foreign students - the tuition ranges from Rs. 1300 (Rs. 72=US $1) a month for day students to Rs. 3500 a month for boarding students. The locals pay Rs. 650 a month for tuition, and Rs. 2000 a month to board.

Pema Tsering, a charming young man with bleached hair and white clothes fit more for a pop star than a thangka master, says he was always interested in paintings. He spent a year learning from another teacher in Boudha before he found out about the school. Originally from Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Pema says: "My parents were very religious, so we would go to monasteries a lot. I used to take my pen and paper and draw what I saw. Foreigners liked what I drew. Eventually I found a sponsor." After a year in Boudha, Pema Tsering joined the thangka school, and has been there for six years.

He points out the thangka he did for his final examination out to me. The Buddha, made with gold paint, is elaborate and beautiful. "It usually takes students 45 days to finish a painting, but I had to go to Bodh Gaya with my parents, so I had to finish it in 30 days," he says with a mischievous smile.
Tenzing Oser took all of 45 days to finish his thangka. Originally from Khasa, Tenzing, who is dressed in the robes of a monk, says: "We're trying to revive the Karshoma tradition back." He explains to me that there are many styles of thangka paintings, and the Karma Gadri paintings derive from the Karshoma School. The paintings are in high demand - three of the graduating class have already been sent to Hongkong to execute a painting there.

The third floor is filled with old thangkas recovered from Shechen Monastery when the monks fled Tibet in 1959. A particularly striking one, rectangular and covering an entire wall, has details so minute and perfect it would require a microscope to see the details. Outside in the open-air balcony, students eat chocolate cake and fruit tarts as they meet the international guests who have come to attend the opening.

The school was started when Monk Mattew got together with a partner, who volunteered to teach thangka painting. The school feels like an institution with Western-style funding, not the resource-poor institutions of Nepal. Funded by the Dutch government and a private donor, the school has many international students, including those from Japan, France, Korea, Australia, US and Denmark. Many locals hail from Mugum, a remote part of Nepal. Besides Sherpas and Tamangs, there are also a number of Bhutanese monks at the school. "One of the monks here had a good relationship with the Bhutanese Queen," Charlotte explains. "That's why we have so many Bhutanese monks."

The students, Charlotte says, don't necessarily have to be artists, nor be talented. But they do have to be Buddhists in order to keep the art within the context of the practice.

Will Charlotte continue to practice when she returns to Australia?

"The art gives me the opportunity to combine my practice," she says. "Its very meditative. I was here for six years, but I feel like its just the beginning. I can deepen my practice a lot more. I will return to Australia and continue my painting there."

The Shenchen Institute is an example of how the unequal balance of intellectual exchange between the East and the West - now heavily skewed in favor of the West - might be rectified. Most young people from developing countries long to go to North America and Europe for their education, whether it is in the sciences, arts or humanities. Institutes of this nature, by offering an international and quality education grounded in traditional arts and indigenous knowledge, blaze a trail for new institutions to develop and flourish right here in Nepal.

NOTE: The "Monk Matthew" referred in this article is of course the famous Matthieu Ricard, author of "Happiness", whose fame I was quite oblivious of when I met him.  

02 February, 2004

The Marlboro Nomad

Sushma Joshi, February 2004

Photographer Gill Goucher’s exhibition brochure of the Khampas starts with a photograph of a nomad with a wry smile, holding a baby who pops out of a pouch inside his half-open woolen jacket. The baby, wrapped in sheepskin, looks less like a kangaroo and more like a wide-eyed alien. Goucher is from Australia, and that down-under sense of humor pops up more than once in the portraits of nomads with a very contemporary sense of style.

Keith Gardner, the Australian Ambassador to Nepal, who opened Goucher’s exhibition in Kathmandu, followed up the theme of the alien by remarking, “Khampas look like people from out of this world.” He went on to talk about their elaborate hair-dos and love of jewelry (could the Khampa ambassador, if such a personage were to exist, have used the same words for an exhibit of photography about Australians?: “These warm, humble people have a great love of tattoos and eye-brow rings, which they love to show off along with their mozzy bites on their sickies on Mondays”?) Before anybody could groan at the diplomat’s exoticization, Mr. Gardner had already added: “But they are very much of this world.”

Khampas, indeed, are very much of this world. Nepal knows little about the Khampas other than the fact that they were once going back and forth between the Nepal-Tibet border, fighting against the Chinese with funds from the Americans and the tacit approval of the Nepalis. After Nepal’s relationship with Beijing improved, it started to get tougher on the famed guerillas. Many of them eventually found their way down to Kathmandu, where they today live on the fringes of the Tibetan refugee economy. Others lucky enough to get identification papers found themselves en route to foreign countries, especially the United States. The cultural capital of New York remains the sought-after destination for many Khampas who find themselves stranded in a legal void. Nepal, while culturally welcoming, remains a place where passports are impossible to extract from bureaucrats without generous bribes, not just for refugees but even for the indigenous citizens themselves.

The communities in Boudha and Swayambhu remain the main hub of the Tibetan refugees. Many of them are now second generation immigrants with a Nepali identity. While the community remains tightly-knit, its members continue to be influenced by the emotional impacts of the outward flow of migration. The Tibetan diaspora has now become as global as the Chinese and Indian, and it comes as little surprise that the people left behind want to join their friends in the US and Europe, even though they are fully aware of the hardships they will encounter there as low-skilled workers.

The Kathmandu reality may be very different from the nomads Goucher met in Kham. Or perhaps not. The global desire to travel, it seems, hits nomads wherever they might find themselves, in the high desert or the congested heart of a capital city. But these desire to move and flow goes both ways, with style making its way into the heart of Kham as quickly as the Khampas find themselves in Fifth Avenue.

Scholars have been quick to point at the similarities between Native people in the Americas and the Tibetans of the high plateaus. Not only do they look similar, they even have similar rituals and rites, processes and worldviews. Some scientists posit that the new landmass that drifted off from what is now Asia and became the Americas was one big mother-continent. Whether it’s that pre-historical link between continents or the simple migration of new media that brought John Wayne to Kham, there is no question he has arrived, along with the Marlboro Man. The tilted hat of the cowboy is more than an aesthetic – it’s a lifestyle. The cosmopolitan adaptations of nomads in sheepskin sporting fedoras may seem out of this world. But no more so than middle-class folks in Sydney sporting tribal tattoos.