29 December, 2008

The End of the World

Hi all! My book's being published this January by Fineprint! Please do buy and read it--it will be available in all major Kathmandu bookstores.

I am headed out to Spain till February 7th but you can send me your thoughts, suggestions and feedback at this email: sansarmagazine@gmail.com, and I will try to get back to you when I get access to email.

Peace, love, happiness (and for Nepal-based folks, some electricity) for 2009!

Golden replicas

Sushma Joshi
Kathmandu Post

If you can't join them, beat them.
This Maoist maxim was illustrated all too clearly to me when I went window-shopping to Bhatbhateni supermarket last week, and was bemused to see a whole shelf of Hindu gods and goddess replicas -- manufactured in China. The Ganesh was misshapen, the Shiva and Parvati duo looked white, and Krishna looked fat and charmless, but other than that they were definitely from a rather recognizable and familiar pantheon of deities. All were gilded in the classy gold of new China. On another shelf, there was a large ceramic Laxmi sitting cosily with Dutch milkmaids and Italian garden figurines. Perhaps an American entrepreneur, tired of being a Dharma Bum, had gone over to some factory in Guangzhou and tried to spin his fortune out of cheap labor and unbeatable prices.

Whatever the story, it seems China, tired of beating followers of religion and religious leaders, had decided to beat religion in another way: by jumping in with the rest of the world and taking on the commercial marketing of it. If China can pirate Disney and Hollywood, it can pirate Hinduism. The only blindspot of course, is that they (whoever they are) had forgotten one thing -- that most religious imagery in Nepal and India is manufactured by people who are practitioners, and who spend a great deal of time and labor-intensive effort creating careful statues of deities who they believe are imbued with the spirit and breath of divinity. This intangible factor, of course, is much harder to manufacture in Guangzhou. If the Chinese had their way, they would bottle the breath of divinity and sell it at $1.99 in New York, but unfortunately (or fortunately), this breath still needs a real living context of practise around it -- which is why Green Taras made in Nepal, carefully hammered out by Newars in Patan, fetch a few lakhs that the fourteen hundred rupee Khasa resin Tara sold in the footpath can't command. And yes, many of the statue makers in Patan sell to Taiwanese Chinese, Hongkong Chinese or mainland Chinese.

But for the moment, this seems not to matter -- the shop assistants at Bhatbhateni assure me cheerfully that the plastic statues are flying off the shelves. I look at them more carefully and realize the light plastic object d'art have made it into my own family home. There was a gilded Ganesh above the TV. It lasted approximately a year, after which it fell apart to pieces after being thrown to the ground by an overactive infant. Of course, at the end of the day, daily worship centers around the metal statues bought in Ason, and the plastic objects, disposable, vanish after a few years. Which is not to say the commercial-industrial complex of China is interested in objects that last for ever. Indeed, that would kind of defeat the purpose -- the idea, it appears, is to create disposable Gods that one needs to buy more than once after the baby has taken it apart.

Does this mean that China has come around to religion? Of course not. The underlying anxiety that the Chinese have with religion remains -- look at the way they still meddle with the succession of Tibetan Buddhist leaders, forgetting party duties to go find newly reincarnated Lamas. Or the way they persecute Falun Gong practitioners. Just because China manufactures and markets Hindu gods and goddesses doesn't mean it supports religion.

Perhaps we can apply the same maxim to Nepali Maoists -- just because our own home grown variety have let religion alone and have subscribed, at least outwardly, to the flashy ethics of democracy doesn't mean they don't subscribe to other aspects of Maoism. For instance, the censorship of the press.

The Great Leap Forward of Mao, which aimed to jumpstart industrial and agricultural growth through communes, ended in famine and starvation. About 40 million people died during this time. And one reason is that the commune leaders, desperate to show they were performing, over-reported grain harvests. But the grain storages were empty, and millions of Chinese starved to death in 1959. “The best way to prevent the country from following another movement like the Great Leap Forward is to create mechanisms that check those in power, “ says Dali Yang, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society and Institutional Change Since the Great Leap Famine . "Had there been a free press and other institutions of oversight that are commonly found in open political systems, the Great Leap famine would certainly not have attained the magnitude it did," said Yang in the Chicago Chronicle.

The energy crisis, left unchecked, could lead to an unplanned Great Leap Forward-like famine, with many people losing jobs as factories and private enterprise close or shift. A slow slide into food crisis during the time of a global recession is not unlikely, especially in areas like Mugu, Dolpo, Humla and Jumla where food shortages are a yearly reality.

Eight months after they won an election, the Maoists still have to show the people what they did with the people's trust, a few millions of donor funds, and a bloated 600 member Constitutional Assembly. Obama, newly elected President of America, has set himself a scorecard that people can check him against in about a year's time. He's put a lot of agenda on the list, and he expects people to come back and see how well he did on his own self-appointed goals. Do we have the same from our leaders?

Walking by Durbar Square on Thursday, I saw a gigantic poster of Mao pasted on the Kumari House. Turns out it was the 116th Anniversary of Mao's birthday, and the party was holding a quiz contest. Who are the national betrayers who held a rally after the Mahakali treaty? Year, month, date please. the quizmaster asked. Team one to eight couldn't answer. Neither could the crowd. Despite the eagerness to please, the organizers' questions and expectations were just too hard.

Lets hope that the Maoist leaders don't set up expectations that are just too difficult to meet for ordinary people. While Nepalis are cheerful, buoyant, and easily adjustable, they can't really work or produce anything in a country with fifteen hours of loadshedding. Huddling around the candle is one option, but that's not really going to turn Nepal into Switzerland. Of course, there is no loadshedding between Baluwatar and Maharajgunj so the leaders may not even know what people are referring to.

For the moment, the Maoists have our trust. This is a breakthrough opportunity to turn the country around and take it forward to the next level. We don't want to become like the Iranians who went from the frying pan into the fire, from the Shah to the Ayatollah. Now lets support them so they can move forward, if only to make electricity available at a reasonable cost. If the Maoist leaders can harness the hydropower potential and bring electricity to the majority of Nepalis, that would be a landmark achievement in itself. The question is, can they do it? Or are their promises of energy more reminiscent of the replicas in Bhatbateni -- gilded in new gold, but broken after a year of hard use?

20 December, 2008



Anjan Gajurel is thirty years old. Like many other thirty-year old Nepali men, he sports a fashionable haircut and a sweet smile. But don't let the modest demeanor fool you—for Anjan, who grew up in Janakpur, is now one of the hottest art directors in Bollywood, and owns his own top of the line studio in the most competitive industry of Mumbai.

Anjan was like any other aspiring Nepali student only a few years ago, when he did his Intermediate in Fine Arts from Lalitkala Campus in 1998. From there, he went to the JJ School of Art in Mumbai (he decided against Australia since it would require him to work and pay his own tuition.) After a four year Bachelors in Fine Arts, Anjan found his teachers appreciative of his dramatic learning curve in painting—initially at the bottom of his class, he'd reached the top ten percent by graduation—but also learnt that paintings had a tiny market. Ironically, he said, he sold more of his mediocre paintings than the ones which received great praise in the final show at the Jehangir Art Gallery.

"I needed to survive in Bombay," he says. So Anjan took himself to a course in animation, hoping this would lead to a stable job. The course was full, and he was told to return in a month. While waiting, somebody in the animation course suggested he try his hand at art direction. Anjan had no idea what art direction was, but he went along. His first set was on "Kusum"—the scale and grandeur of the sets shocked him.

Starting out as a first assistant in Balaji Telefilms, Anjan had zero knowledge of this new profession. His boss had twenty-five assistants already—Anjan was the twenty-sixth. "Now I don't know where those twenty-five people are," he says. "I now have 7 studios which employ around 600-2000 people per day, but the rest of the people who started with me are no longer around." SJ Studios, which he designed and has operated for the last six years, has seven studios and is booked months in advance with TV serials, films and ads. The studios, especially the hospital, police station and a "royal bungalow" set, are so well-designed they are always in demand.

Which just goes to show how you need to struggle and sustain yourself in a very competitive industry. But its not just hard work that keeps you there, although Anjan readily admits that he has no time to breathe in Bombay—at one point, he was working on sixteen different projects at the same time, including gigs in interior decoration and art direction for features as well as ads. It's the belief that you have the talent, and that such talent will be recognized ultimately in an industry hungry for real creativity and professionalism.

Anjan, like other Nepalis, had to face some initial prejudice for being non-Indian. "When I was just starting out, they'd respect me before I told them I was Nepali," he admits. But now that he's established and at the top of his profession, he is treated the same as his colleagues. Anjan may be one of the youngest people in the art direction world—he had to fight to get his union card, which was only available to people after five years of work experience. "Before they wanted five years of work experience," he says. "Now they are starting to look at background and training."

Anjan recently did the sets of Kabul Express. "I was in Afghanistan, the location was apparently one of the most dangerous ones," he says. "After an Indian engineer was killed, I got a car and two security guards. They would try to loot foreigners in Afghanistan." Despite all this, Anjan stayed beyond his specified contract of 15 days, and stayed with new director Kabir Khan for the entire 52 days of the shoot. "We designed the rubber AK-47s, the Pakistani check post, the costumes, logos, barracks, everything," he says. "I would wander the market and get to look. We only had three hours of sunlight, and the workers would go to roza after a few hours. But I managed to do the set very realistically—at one point, I put a bulb inside a loudspeaker and captured that conflict look."

"Cinema is a dream world," says Anjan. "And the sets bring a richness to the experience of watching films. My friends visit my sets, and are amazed by the list of books in the library. They try to pull one out because its so realistic, and the whole thing falls out." He laughs. Anjan's dream is to work on a fantasy set which would allow him to design everything from his imagination. He'd also like to work in a historical film. "I'd like to come back here and do a film about the history of Nepal," he says. "I would love to do the sets of such a historical film." The budget of big sets can run to a few crores (the Madhuri Dixit film "Aaja Nachle" had a Indian rupees six crore set) and he says that such a film could be made with financing from Nepali entrepreneurs and investors who live abroad and who could be convinced to finance an international film for an international market.

After only six years in the industry, Anjan now owns his own apartment in Malad—a dream that is unrealized by many Bombay residents who may live and work there their whole lives.

"I don't believe in awards," he says. "Aamir Khan still doesn't go to those ceremonies. It's given to people who bargain and buy awards. I avoid awards, people should know me by my work." Indeed, many of his new work come from referrals, from those who've worked with him and seen what he can do.

"I loved films as a child," he says. "I would tell my brother and leave in the night to go see the video films being projected at village weddings, then come back and go to bed before my parents could figure out where I'd been." He got two rupee third class seats and saw all the Bollywood classics. His parents (his father works as a trainer at the Rural Development Training Center) didn't like his cinema outings, fearing he'd become a dropout. His brother Suman Gajurel, whose Basai was sent from Nepal for the Oscars a few years ago, encouraged him after learning of his interest.

Although Anjan is at the top of his profession in Mumbai, he remains fairly unknown in his home town and country. Recognition in Nepal, regrettably, still hinges on age and seniority. But lets hope not for long—for many young men and women in Nepal, who are hungry to show their potential and creativity in different industries, the example of a young boy from Janakpur who used to run out of his house to see video films during the night will be inspirational.

Anjan is clear about one thing. "If you show the talent inside you, you can break into Bollywood," he says. "There's a lot of Nepalis in Bollywood who will help you out." Now if only this vision could spread to other industries inside Nepal.

12 December, 2008


Can a victim say “no” to a camera which promises to expose injustice,
while knowing full well that the photograph may only provide a vicarious reproduction of their lived experience out to a sympathetic but ineffectual audience?

Can a photograph change the world? For many gazing at the photographs hanging at the latest exhibit at the Art Council at Babar Mahal, “Prison and the rights of detainees,” an awareness raising campaign on the conditions of Nepali prisons held a day before the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it appeared that it could.
A picture is worth a thousand words, goes the old saying. The human rights world of Nepal, it seems, has embraced this theory with a great deal of enthusiasm, funding exhibits featuring everything from the effects of war to the families of the disappeared.
The photographs, taken by Kiran Pandey, and featuring overcrowded jail rooms, unhappy inmates, and broken down facilities, make a good plea for reform.
Nepali prisons are horrifically overcrowded, with extremely low toilet and sanitation facilities. In one prison I visited in Nepalgunj a few years ago, men took turns to sleep because there was not enough floor space. Many slept under the open sky in the cold Terai winter months. The official capacity of Nepali jails (as of 2008) is 5000 -- currently there are 8810 inmates.
While the photographer has done a meticulous job, he's not exhaustive. A female photographer may also have caught a specific detail that plagues female inmates -- while the government allocates a set of clothing which includes a sari, petticoat and blouse for female inmates, it doesn't include that most essential of garments for women i.e. feminine underwear.
“This exhibit would have been better held at a public place like the Basantapur Durbar Square,” a viewer commented, and it was hard not to see his logic. The hall was crowded with UN employees and photographers -- clearly, a choir of the converted. The exhibit will be taken out and shown in five districts, which will expand its impact beyond the awareness-saturated valley crowd.
The impact of photographers like Sebastian Salgado, who've documented social issues (in his case, workers and migrants) has been global. His powerful photographs of people at work and at move have shaped the way we view the world. Riding on this trend, photography has seen a popular resurgence in the social movements of Nepal. The “People's War” photo book and exhibit made a profound impact on the turning of the civil conflict by showing visually the impact of conflict on all parties. Kishore Kayasttha recently did an exhibit on the families of the disappeared, which appeared online and showed how the disappearances still impact entire families.
Photography, however, is not just a panacea in itself. And often the viewer has to ask herself (or himself) if the glossy photographs on the wall really work to fulfill their function (in this case, social awareness) if they're not tied to other, more concrete policy and programming. Going back to Susan Sontag, who wrote a powerful book titled “On Photography,” in which she looks at the way technologies of reproduction can be used to capture the subjects, the viewer must ask himself if the inmates, in this case, were again “captured” and imprisoned in a format that denude them of their rights.
The majority of jail inmates in Nepal still await trial -- their rights are clearly being violated not just because they are denied basic needs, but also because they are being denied a fair trial. As with all victims of human rights violations who've faced not just one layer of violations, but several layers -- including the injustice of human rights providers who take up their time and energy promising justice but fail to deliver on these promises -- even the presence of a camera can add an additional layer of helplessness. Can a victim say “no” to a camera which promises to expose injustice, while knowing full well that the photograph may only provide a vicarious reproduction of their lived experience out to a sympathetic but ineffectual audience?
Jails, even the well-funded and well-managed kind, cause problems to communities all over the world. Many social advocates see incarceration as an unhappy solution to what may be other underlying symptoms, causes and manifestations of social inequality. In Nepal, the problem of overcrowded jails may not be solved by more jails, but through programs in community and restorative justice programs which would deal with the least violent offenders.
The heavy emphasis on the formal justice system, which has seen donors pouring money into an old-fashioned and longwinded court system, must shift to programs in restorative justice programs which solve minor offenses within the community quickly and fairly. Justice delayed is justice denied -- and for many prisoners their long wait for a fair trail is itself a violation of their human rights, inbuilt, paradoxically, into the system of justice.
The Nepali justice system clearly needs reform -- including better penal systems with adequate facilities and systems for those who must be incarcerated. But for many others who are jailed without adequate proof or for minor offenses, programmes which encourage them to provide community service may be the best alternative.
OHCHR has done a commendable job by taking the first step to expose the horrific conditions of Nepali jails. Now let us see it take this advocacy to the next level -- including funding for better sanitation and dormitory facilities, quicker and fairer trials, and more importantly -- the development of systems that provide an alternative to the formal justice system.
Posted on: 2008-12-12 19:33:25 (Server Time)