Preserving Identities: Exploring Nepal’s Personal Histories in ‘The Importance of Loss: Migration, Memory and Continuity’

In a world of Artificial Intelligence (AI), when we negotiate with our identities on an everyday basis creating digital beings and landscapes coded by inputs from uncountable sources, it is pertinent to ponder upon our history and tradition as tools of archive making and representation of contemporary life. The artists Hitesh Vaidya, Jagdish Moktan, Nabina Sunuwar, Pooja Duwal and Tashi Lama of Aakrit Collective mentored by Sujan Chitrakar seem to employ the very tools in the exhibition The Importance of Loss: Migration, Memory and Continuity to navigate through the cultural and socio-political landscape of Nepal marked by displacement that informs the everyday lives of the contemporary citizens. Curated by Georgina Maddox, the exhibition is presented by Unnati Cultural Village, Nepal, that endeavours to preserve and promote its cultural heritage through multidisciplinarity in the arts. 

A multi-ethnic and a multi-cultural state, Nepal has a long history of intermixing of cultures as a consequence of migration and its geographical location bordering India, Tibet and China. Extreme elevations of the Himalayas within the region that includes world’s highest ranges, thick forest hills, fertile plains that are interconnected by a natural river system have produced complex biodiversity, livelihoods and Nepal’s tourism industry but also pose challenges to its population in terms of infrastructural development due to high frequency of earthquakes. Being historically accorded as the birthplace of Buddha, transmission of Buddhism happened across regions in east Asia from Nepal, that can be witnessed through art and architecture, one of them being the Paubha/Thangka painting, that is in one or the other way incorporated by some of the exhibiting artists and the presence of pagodas eastwards. They look at Nepal from diverse perspectives bringing in Nepali art and architecture, handicrafts, cottage industries, public spaces, politics and their personal experiences within larger schema of things. Revisiting their past, especially through familial history and memories, these artists question the essence of ‘home’ and investigate what comprises ‘belonging’.


Hitesh Vaidya, Narrating the city – Mahakali, Acrylic on wooden panel. ImaCourtesy: Unnati Cultural Village.


Hitesh Vaidya’s intricate and vibrant paintings produced on wooden panels ‘Narrating the City’ trace public spaces that have over the years transformed into hotspots due to their traditional cultural significance, where the way of life takes shape. As informed by Maddox, his works are inspired by the Paubha paintings of the Newar community of artisans in Bhaktapur, that he comes from. Encompassing the past and the present, in the same frame, Vaidya maps places such as the Mahakali zone (drawn from a bird’s eye view), the historical pond, Nagpokhari, Nyatapola temple (Pagoda) with its elaborate stone, metal and wood elements that has witnessed many earthquakes and has been rebuilt over time.  Transformation of the space within temporal axis emerges as a recurring motif in his paintings. The high peaked Himalayas and forests, the Pagoda and the Durbar squares bustling with festivals as well as the mundane routine of the inhabitants, tourists photographing (often exoticizing the local culture), and other architecture together narrate the contemporary life of Nepal. The wide view in many of his paintings with episodic details, where the viewer is invited to focus on distinct kinds of activities happening within the frame suggests a cartographic structure accorded to the form adapted. For Vaidya, the spaces both public and domestic are symbolic of shared memories passed down from generations forming social and cultural histories, problematizing creation of identities through induced nostalgia for forgotten past remembered that seeps in fragments to form contemporary rituals and everyday practices.


Hitesh Vaidya, Narrating the city – Nyatapola, Acrylic on wooden panel. Image courtesy: Unnati Cultural Village.

In Jagdish Moktan’s hyper-realistic charcoal portraits produced in collaboration with his father Phurnamgel Moktan, juxtaposition plays a significant role in weaving personal, historical and political narratives that overlap. His work delves into the communist movement of the late 80s and early 90s and explores his father’s profession as a traditional Thangka painter and his identity as an indigenous activist. His family portrait sequentially becomes redder as his father overwrites on the portraits in Nepalese script taken from various communist books and letters he wrote to his comrades. Here, the portrait of the family remains same but by the last frame, it turns completely red due to less gaps in the text in progression, pointing towards history of communism as an overarching political landscape affecting his family relationships. In the other series, titled ‘Drifting Towards the Red Star’, he has created portraits of his comrades. Collaborating with his father to paint Thangka motifs in red as apparels of the faces, he conjures up images that are evocative of historical reimagining, where the cladding signifies identity formation. This approach is also extended to the natural landscape of Nepal in Moktan’s works. He turns archive into a source of lived experience to reflect on family history that informs and is informed by larger politics of his region. 

Jagdish Moktan, Family Portrait (left) and Drifting Towards the Red star series (right), In Collaboration with Phurnamgel Moktan(Artist’s father), Graphite and Ink on Paper. Image courtesy: Unnati Cultural Village.


Nabina Sunuwar, Feeling of Home V, Relief print on Nepali paper. Image courtesy: Unnati Cultural Village.

Personal history is further explored with a very different approach by Nabina Sunuwar through her woodcut prints of spaces of her ancestral home that act as signifiers of layered and intimate experiences. While Hitesh Vaidya looks at public spaces and homes in a larger landscape, Sunuwar focusses in on the micro histories of her grandmother’s ancestral home in Okhaldhunga which is a village close to Kathmandu. Wanting to get to know her grandmother better, she went to stay in Okhaldhunga where she developed a bond with the house. When her grandmother passed away, she felt for a need to create a series of portraits to remember her grandmother but also to explore her heritage – her sense of home. Domestic objects become storytellers as they hold in themselves diverse kinds of generational historical narratives. The lived spaces induce nostalgia in her, only to mark the relationships that were formed at different points in the past that now remain in fragments of memories. These prints besides going through her ageing old home, is also a documentation of local agricultural practices that are slowly eroding as more people migrate to cities for alternate livelihood opportunities and resources. The process of woodcut here serves as a source of direct engagement with re-creation and re-enactment. The artist contemplates on the aftereffects of migration and displacement that moulds one’s sense of belonging and longingness for a lost time, spaces and objects besides the loved ones. 

Nabina Sunuwar, Feeling of Home Series, Relief print on Nepali paper. Image courtesy: Unnati Cultural Village.


Pooja Duwal goes back to oil painting to discover the subtleties of action of the street and the mundane captured in all its essence – a woman standing in the balcony of her home, streets dogs sleeping away in front of a shop on a lazy afternoon, close-up of a vibrantly coloured door, people playing chess, an old woman sitting on the sidewalk to rest and other such ways of life. Choosing to paint on-site becomes a tool to contemplate on the everyday life where traditional ways and modernity collapse into each other. The neighbourhoods of native town Bhaktapur come alive in her frames titled ‘Glimpses of Home’ mediated by her own experiences and memories layered upon by the impasto like brush strokes. Duwal brings in her own approach and flavour to academic style marked by a tendency of artists employing a dramatic play of light to capture the everyday life. Interpreting the city in different times of the day, the Sun plays a very important role in her works. Her series of paintings titled ‘The Realm of Women’ treats her women subjects as the protagonist of her frames standing on balconies of their home returning the gaze back onto the outside world adjusting to their space and reclaiming it. Duwal’s canvases with isolated fragments of spaces such as local/ old architecture, homes and market areas which are occupied by one or two subjects turn into an extended study of heritage and history as a lived and continuous process.

Pooja Duwal, Glimpses of Home, Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy: Unnati Cultural Village.


Tashi Lama explores the Thangka tradition of painting through a series of works titled ‘Karkhana’ that literally translates to ‘workshop’ to call attention towards the crises that the artisans of the carpet industry face today. In a bid to increase market at less costs, sustainability takes a back seat and artisans’ well-being is neglected. The handmade carpets were in vogue during 80s and 90s but with advent of technology in manufacturing by the end of the twentieth century, mechanisation of designs led to easily produced designs on a mass scale especially coming in from China. The craft of weaving the carpets is losing its charm in Nepal itself with resources not being properly allocated to the artisans. Lama’s father like other artisans had to travel abroad to get the kind of patronage he used to get. Dwelling upon the very concept of displacement as a repercussion, Lama juxtaposes the acts of carpet weaving with symbols of migration such as passports and suitcases. Mythical beings like the dragons are holding thread balls. Instead of the Buddhist deities, the protagonists/ subjects of his vibrant Thangka paintings are contemporary citizens but are represented with a face without any features signifying countless artisans’ anxiety over their fading traditional occupation as they are uprooted from their craft to find labour intensive alternative jobs overseas. Drawing from a vantage point of familial history, the artist contemplates on the uncertain status of the carpet industry through a mis-en-scene that incorporates traditional Thangka elements coming from Tibetan Buddhism and the objects of contemporary carpet weaving in an organic manner. Through such synthesis, the artist looks into the loss that his family and other artisans have felt within the industry. A blend of historical symbols of Thangka and contemporary visual culture including urban street art, Lama’s compositions serve as catalyst of assertion of the voice of local artisanal communities.


Tashi Lama, Karkhana IV, Mineral pigment on cotton canvas, Gold. Image courtesy: Unnati Cultural Village.


What is recurrent as one navigates through the booth presentation at India Art Fair, is a sense of remembrance of a slowly fading past or in essence, memories, which these artists try to confront as well as preserve. In this process, they have built an archive of Nepal’s lived experiences, whether it is through community spaces, homes, domestic objects, traditional art practices or family portraits. “The exhibition looks into the changes affecting South Asia in general in the larger landscape of late-capitalist economy. They [the artists] are all talking about how they are dealing with this change.”, remarks Georgina Maddox, curator of the exhibition. Going back to their personal experiences and traditional forms of livelihoods, the artists make sense of the concept of home and belonging to a certain space and time. Due to competition from mechanical production, fast economy, and access to resources in mostly urban areas, in the past decades many traditional occupations and industries have faced a crisis in sustaining themselves, especially the primary sector and the ones which produce handmade crafts. This reconfiguration of the market has forced many to uproot themselves and find sources of livelihood elsewhere in the city and overseas and vice versa is also evident through inflow of migrants from other regions. 

It is interesting to note that, history here, is represented as continuity focussing on lived experiences that witnessed the time passing marking the spaces – homes and public architecture with their ‘footprints’ remembered through feelings of loss and fading memories. The experiences pan out in form of childhood memories, everyday livelihood activities, community rituals, people migrating for employment and remembrance through lived spaces and objects we associate with. These spaces carry with them a historical past, where the contemporary culture is birthed through its inhabitants that will inform its future dwellings and landscape. Bringing the old and new together it reflects broader transformations in South Asia, transcending borders to become a universal exploration of personal histories and displacement through art and architecture, memory, and visual storytelling, encouraging preservation of identities, local cultures, economic practices and heritage.

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About Author

Saloni is a writer and photographer. She completed her B.A. in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi and her M.A. in Arts and Aesthetics from School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has interned with National Museum and Sahapedia in the past. Currently she works with LATITUDE 28 and TAKE On Art.

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