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From royalty to rebels: a family of photographers reflect

A photograph from the exhibit "The Chikratar Collection: Historical images from Nepal spanning over 120 years".
“These were very special days which needed to be commemorated.… Photography at the start of the 1900s was special for everyone, even the aristocracy, and setting up these photo shoots took time as it was a one-shot prospect. The shutter would stay open for up to five seconds – that is why nobody smiles – if they moved they would fall out of focus,” said Kiran. PHOTO SUPPLIED

From royalty to rebels: a family of photographers reflect

A new photo exhibition brings together the work of three generations of Nepalese photographers. Claire Knox talks to the artist, Kiran Man Chitrakar, about his rich lineage.

In the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, Durbar plazas and squares adjacent to royal palaces and temples are heaving, colourful spaces. Vendors clutch rattan baskets spilling with daisy chains, violets and butter-hued marigolds, students leaf through books and women float by in saris.

In the early 1900s, royal painter and court photographer Dirga Man Chitrakar would cycle past the Durbar courtyards to what was then the royal palace (decades later it would take on a darker legacy as the site of the 2001 Nepalese Royal Massacre, when the Crown Price killed both his parents and other members of his family, before becoming a museum in 2006 after the dissolution of the monarchy).

Dirga spent his early life as a celebrated traditional painter. It was only when his brother fell ill and he turned to the palace physician for help (gifting the doctor a delicately painted medallion), that the prime minister, Chandra Shumsher, became aware of the artist’s skills and employed him.

Kleiman said the photos’ depiction of the aristocracy and governments evoked conduits of change that are universal. “There’s been lots of change in Nepal recently…Cambodia is still a monarchy…Nepal had one for so long and then the people wanted change.” PHOTO SUPPLIED
Kleiman said the photos’ depiction of the aristocracy and governments evoked conduits of change that are universal. “There’s been lots of change in Nepal recently…Cambodia is still a monarchy…Nepal had one for so long and then the people wanted change.” PHOTO SUPPLIED

These are images vivid in Kiran Man Chitrakar’s mind. Although Kiran still lives in the house of Dirga – his paternal grandfather – he never met him. His father, Ganesh Chitrakar, who also became an official photographer of the state rulers, would regale a young Kiran with tales of his rich lineage.

The 53-year-old Kiran, now the director and chief cameraman for Nepal Television, is also the curator of the photography lab and museum his father founded in Kathmandu in 1971. On Sunday, Kiran will exhibit 50 images from his catalogue of almost 3000 original glass plate negatives at Meta House – intimate, sepia tinged glimpses into the lives of the ruling Nepalese elite over three generations, many from a time when the country was sealed off from the rest of the world.

Dirga’s photographs of hunting expeditions, lavish royal ceremonies, serfs and Hindu idols are juxtaposed with his son and grandson’s treatment of the sweeping Kathmandu Valley landscape, architecture and iconic religious landmarks. The collection reveals the fascinating transformation and urban development of a city. “This may be of interest in Phnom Penh, where I understand building is happening very quickly,” Kiran said, in a phone interview from Kathmandu.

Former CNN reporter David Kleiman – who worked with Kiran in the 1990s in Nepal, during the Nepal Civil War which saw 12,000 killed – assisted in the organisation of Sunday’s exhibition, having lived in Cambodia for several years, and said he was interested in the links between the two countries.

“Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple, most of Cambodia is Buddhist…Nepal is the birthplace of Buddha and it is predominantly Hindu – these mixings of cultures don’t happen all around the world.”

Of his grandfather’s royal portraits, Kiran remains in awe of the time and effort invested in each piece.

Kabindrapur  temple: “Though the building was restored, the top two levels were not rebuilt and that makes this picture significant...most people don’t know how it originally looked.” PHOTO SUPPLIED
Kabindrapur temple: “Though the building was restored, the top two levels were not rebuilt and that makes this picture significant...most people don’t know how it originally looked.” PHOTO SUPPLIED

A favourite of his is a picture of the distinct Kabindrapur Temple, a traditional Nepalese pagoda close to the family’s home: a tiered, ornately carved 17th-century performance pavilion and home to Saraswati, the god of music.

All three of the Chitraker clan were destined for a life in the visual arts. The name literally means “image maker”, or artist, in Nepali and is a caste belonging to the Newah community of the Kathmandu Valley: the artisans would traditionally paint detailed ritual masks, ceremonial vessels, pauva (scroll paintings) and pagoda frescoes.

In the mid-18th century, ruled under the Gurkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Nepalese empire conquered Kathmandu Valley, occupied swathes of northern India and advanced into Tibet. After the Anglo-Nepalese War in 1815-16, stability within the royal family began to waver and after the bloody Kot Massacre, the reign of the Rana dynasty – accused by critics as autocratic - began under Jung Bahadur Rana .

Ganesh studied under the watchful eye of his father and took over Dirga’s palace position when he retired at 71. In 1951, after the end of the Rana rule and as the country opened its doors to the world, development organisations flooded in. Ganesh snared the role of USAID’s chief photographer and took the first aerial shots of Kathmandu Valley in 1955.

Although the complex caste systems of Nepal are beginning to be eroded, Kiran said much of it was still intact.

“In our Newar culture, we have traditional jobs which are related to our caste. In simplest terms, Chitrakar is “one who paints or draws” but in fact it is anything related to images or colours. I don’t know how many there are, but it is safe to say that most Chitrakars in the modern era have begun to engage in many other professions. Regardless, by tradition all Chitrakars learn to draw... and annually at the Dasai festival (and other festivals and at all the Newari temples in Kathmandu) we must each be responsible for all the religious painting. So even a Chitrakar who may be a businessman will at least once a year be required to paint. In that sense it is still a very distinct caste and the traditional arts are still taught to the next generation.”

While he declared that through his television career he “had been present for every significant historical event in the country,” and his grandfather and father had been afforded “unparalleled access to the ongoing changes of their time”, Kiran remained tight-lipped when asked how abolition of the monarchy in 2006 and Nepal’s transition to a republic affected his family.

Kiran Man Chitrakar behind the camera with King Birendra in France. PHOTO SUPPLIED
Kiran Man Chitrakar behind the camera with King Birendra in France. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Kiran is in the process of digitising the glass slides – although weak copyright laws plagued him, he said. When asked whether Nepal’s history of isolation had stunted the growth of art, he argued it had rather fostered and preserved traditional techniques that contemporary art could sprout from.

“It wasn’t the inhibition one might think. In fact the mastery is the key, and now we see a strong emergence of innovative techniques in everything from animation, painting, fashion, and of course photography as well. If anything it may be the loss of traditional arts that are at risk.”

Kiran has aspirations for his children to carry on the family legacy: his daughter has just finished a degree in anthropology and is writing a thesis on photography in Nepal while his son, studying computer science, is helping him digitise the collection.

For him, the Kathmandu Valley, sprinkled with beautiful, ancient towns, temples and UNESCO world heritage sites, remains a constant source of inspiration. “It’s the beauty of Nepal. It’s people, traditions and culture. Some of this is changing so quickly – and this is interesting to document amidst all the change... this isn’t just a family history but an archive on the history of Nepal.”

The Chikratar Collection: Historical images from Nepal spanning over 120 years, Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard, Sunday, 6pm.

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