Wednesday 16 January 2019

Facing the camera : A history of Nepali Studio Photography

Jebin Gautam
The Early Photographers

In the crammed studio space of Bahadur Photos in Thahiti, Bhushan Kayastha patiently greets his clients. There is a musky whiff of age in the studio; decades-old photographs, taken by Bhushan’s father and grandfather, hang on the walls, covered in years of collated dust. It was in this very neighborhood, around the mid-1910s, that Chakra Bahadur Kayastha, Bhushan’s great-grandfather and one of Nepal’s foremost studio photographers, first started serving private clients.
“My great-grandfather was a woodcarver in the royal court,” says Bhushan. “But observing his skill with wood, his employers believed he could channel his creativity to photography.”
In those days, it was mostly Chitrakar painters employed in the Rana palaces who were encouraged by Dambar Shamshere (1858-1922 AD), the first Nepali photographer, to pursue photography. These budding photographers were hired to photograph officiating ceremonies, marriages and various other events in the lives of the Rana aristocrats.
In the late nineteenth century, taking and developing photographs was still an expensive process, given the equipment available – such as glass plate negatives and enlargement machines. But around the second decade of the twentieth century, cameras became smaller and more portable and older models were handed down to the court photographers.
Nepal’s first ‘private’ studios were started by these very court photographers with handed-down cameras. Krishna Bahadur Chitrakar, who worked for Babar Shumshere, chose cameras and other photographic instruments over the customary gift of land for his years of service. Similarly, Gyan and Shanta Karmacharya started a photo studio in 1917, with a camera gifted by Tej Shumshere.

The Early Clients

These early studio photographers served the burgeoning Kathmandu middle-class – mostly their own families, friends and neighbors – who thrived in bureaucracy, business and trade. Photographs afforded these early consumers a sense of self-importance and social progression. In the decades prior to the 50s, photography was one of the only forms of western import openly consumed by this small group.
Most of these studios were based in the homes of the photographers themselves, in a room with natural lighting and a decorated canvas background. “But rather than being grounded in their studio spaces, these photographers travelled to the homes of their subjects,” says Sridhar Manandhar, whose family was an early photography patron. The canvas background travelled with the photographers. Furthermore, since photography was still a relatively expensive pursuit, people mostly took pictures in groups.
The early middle-class subjects copied the postures adopted by the aristocrats and the royalty. The poses were fixed and the expressions stoic. This was primarily because of the rudimentary technology of the time –exposures took a long time and a smile could result in a blurry facial expression.
The early photographers placed a strong emphasis on symmetry, with subjects seated off-center but with their legs crossed towards the middle. This symmetry was believed to direct the gaze of the observer towards the center, providing the photograph with depth and dimension. This technique might have been learnt from Shah and Rana portraitures, where often the king or prime minister sat in center, flanked by subordinates.

The Rebels
In the 1960s, as photographs became mandatory for citizenship certificates, legal documents and other identity documents, studios became more common in urban areas and highway towns. This allowed photographers and their patrons to experiment more, perhaps also an effect of the advent of democracy, where new ideas flourished. This new generation prioritized candid photographs and rebelled against the perfect symmetry that the first generation of photographers had perfected. The subjects didn’t look at the camera; they smiled, laughed, played with props and shook hands. These poses were possible also because of advances in technology, as subjects didn’t need to sit still for long periods of time.
Amrit Bahadur Chitrakar, who grew up assisting his father Krishna Bahadur, recalls a catalogue with various poses that all photographers kept in their studios to assist their subjects pick out a style. He also fondly remembers the growing number of cinema halls in the Kathmandu Valley, which the youths frequented and sought to copy the poses of the movie stars. One can easily see traces of Mala Sinha and Dev Anand in the portraits from that era. They also experimented with different themes, where they reenacted fighting scenes and dance routines. Chitrakar recalls mostly young people visited the studio around festival time, when they had new clothes.

In the 70s and 80s, studio experimentation was not solely fueled by creativity; it was also an attempt to create new kinds of product, so patrons would continue to visit the studio. Double exposures, where two images of the same subject are layered next to each other, was innovative technique aimed at drawing in more customers. Various props were also introduced, including fedora hats, sunglasses, kimonos and gunyo-cholo. It was an attempt to create alternative looks for consumers to be photographed in – the same person could change their clothes and take multiple, different pictures.
The canvas background also multiplied and proliferated, providing customers with a number of exotic locales to choose from. Once a year, new frescoes were painted so that old clients would return for new photographs. Sidhartha Shakya of Purna Studios relates that they would often get request from customers themselves to the change the background.

The Digital Era

Back in Bahadur Studio, Bhushan Kayastha explains things have changed much since the heydays of studio photography. These days, when most families own their own cameras, customers only visit studios for specific photographs that amateurs cannot produce, size specifics reproductions, or to simply print out their own photos.
With the increasing use of digital photography, studios have started looking into ways to invite customers back into the studios. This has included efforts like merchandizing photographs, with studios offering to print out photos on ceramics and mugs. Bigger studios are attempting to revitalize the staged family portrait, where grandeur, perfection and symmetry are prioritized, and where value is generated through the photographer’s skills and editing techniques and the grandeur of the studio settings. These are reminiscent of the old royal portraits, not only in the technique of the photographs but also the intention – to capture social mobility and affluence, through elaborate poses and impeccable jewelry and clothing.
In contrast, small neighborhood studios continue to do business, providing niche services like the taking of portraits for various identity cards, green-card lottery applications and passports and visas. They provide a quick, easy service that most homes cannot produce, even with top-of-the-line digital cameras.
With the increasing accessibility of digital cameras and the advance of digital storage capacities, thousands of pictures can be taken by just about anyone. These days, everyone is a photographer. Are the days of studio photography over? Or will studio photography reinvent itself as it has over time, and offer photographers and patrons new opportunities to create memories?

  Bauddha Stupa from south side before 1960s

Thursday 10 January 2019

Books saved me by Aishwarya Baidar

I explored Aishwarya Baidar today and found her words appealing to me. Its rare to find such writing. This is her story of how she found her refuge on books. This is her story of her love for books. This also is an inspiring saga of a non popular girl in school who later became the most popular just because of her writing. Let me present her own words here for you. 

When I was in the seventh grade, I received a book as a gift from my sister. It was The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. After that, I spent all of my pocket money in buying novels. I also had a thing for fancy stationeries; I always opted buying fancy notebooks, notebooks which later were filled with poems, wishful thoughts, award acceptance speeches, and sometimes raps as well. The pages of the novels I owned and the notebooks I filled are my most prized possessions.
When I was in the ninth grade, my father’s business went bankrupt. We were forced to sell our house, our cars and even my mother’s jewelry. We were chased by loan sharks. The atmosphere inside my house after the incident had a stink of grief. My mother and father argued all the time and their love for each other started withering. At a tender age, I understood how vile money was and what it does to people. The everyday fights between my parents impacted my behavior.
I was unable to identify any emotion within myself besides sadness. I became quieter and over a period of time I was that kid in the classroom whom every teacher noticed because of the gloom reflected on her face.  During my school days, you could say I was a wallflower. I blended well so that I could no longer be noticeable. Keeping things to myself was my expertise.
I did have couple of friends who knew only my name and a few trivial details about my life. And that was fine by me; I never really wanted anyone to find out who I really was. I gave that luxury only to my diaries and my notebooks. I adapted to ‘ostrich mentality’, but in my case instead of sand I’d stick my head in the novels I read.
The books I read were my escape. I found solace in the smell of pages and comfort in the words. Due to my family’s circumstances, the real world felt like a painful migraine. So I dwelled in different author’s worlds. Sometimes the magical sphere of Harry potter would obscure my family problems; sometimes I wouldn’t feel so bad for myself because of Khalid Hosseni’s characters. Sometimes I listened to Coelho’s preaching, trying to understand, and sometimes I drowned myself completely in Sylvia Plath’s words. The books I read were a shoulder for me to cry on and there was never a time when I didn’t borrow books from libraries. I spent all my leisure periods living there.
Once, during a free period, I was reading Coelho's Alchemist. Suddenly my math teacher, Sunil Sir, whom I tremendously respected, found me reading. He told me that he had already read the book and how wonderfulit was seeing me read books like that. From that day onwards, Sunil Sir and I started to exchange novels. At his house, there were countless books that lined the wall, shelf after shelf. As a bibliophile, I was intrigued by his collection of books. He always encouraged me to borrow books from him and so I did. He was a prodigy who had a knack for solving mathematics equations and his love for literature was limitless.
Because of Sunil sir’s affinity towards literature, I was able to connect with him.  And I am forever grateful to him for lending me his books. The novels built a bridge for me to start sharing things. He may not know it but every time I think about school, I think of him. School! It also reminds me of Pink Floyd’s song, “Another Brick in the Wall”. And I was not surprised when Binay Sir, who taught us Social Studies, introduced the idea that kids are taught not how to think but what to think. He also sparked an interest in writing for me.
 I remember we had to write something for our school before our SLC exams. And my article was titled ‘My Last Letter to Vidhya Sagar’. I poured out my heart while writing that article; everything that was on my mind spilled on the pages. And I remember all the students being called to the Hall one day after the submission of the articles.
This memory is vivid in my mind. I remember Binay Sir walking inside the Hall with a piece of paper. All of us thought it was a notice for our exams. But out of the blue, he called out my name, “Where is Aishwarya Baidar?” My first instinct was to slouch and hide my face. My friend sitting right next to me pointed at me. All of a sudden, I felt heat gushing through my body and I timidly raised my hand. He then smiled brightly and announced in front of all the students how much he adored my letter. He recited the letter word-by-word. I was dazed.
All the claps I received suddenly put me on the spot and I was trying hard to process what was happening around me. Later, he came up to me and told me that I could write. In a way, I knew that I have been writing throughout my life. But it was Binay Sir who made me realize that I could put words together sense fully.He encouraged me to write more. That spark has now become a fire, a roaring blaze.
 I always thought that my childhood days were grey but now when I go down memory lane, it really wasn’t! Yes, I had to go through circumstantial problems but beautiful things also came along the way out of nowhere.  There were books to help me; it led me toward people who thought alike. Had I never read books, I would have never come across teachers like Sunil Sir and Binay Sir. It was often difficult for me to find a place for myself, but there were always books that provided comfort.
The most incredible thing about books is that you can put them down for as long as necessary. But if you come back in a year it’ll still be there, faithfully waiting for you to turn a page. The greatest teachers I regard are the novels I read up till now, the songs I listened to and the movies I have watched. And I wish that everyone else would also discover the lessons in these art forms. There is something so beautiful about being able to sit down with a book you love and participate in various adventures together.

(Aishwarya Baidar is a Language and Arts instructor with the US Embassy’s Book Bus.)
and this article was taken from on 10 January 2019. 

Tuesday 1 January 2019

Happy New Year 2019; new year note for you

Hey beautiful souls out there
I am so happy to write the first post of this New Wonderful Year 2019, I am super excited to welcome this new-year. Last year was wonderful I lunched my album “Ghazal Ko Suvas” and I am happy to see your positive love and support. The album is still on the way to many hearts. I am hopeful this year my words and music will reach heart of all Nepali around the world. Last year we did many concerts around the country with the name “Ghazal & Sufi Night” this year also we will be conducting it in more large scale.
This year we also have a plan to record some international music for the audience around the world. Along with some chant and kirtan we also have plan to record a pagan song. I completed my master degree on English Literature from Tribhuvan University on 2018 so this year I will be exploring the outer world.
I wish you will gather amazing moments this year. It is said that we don’t remember the time in regular series rather we remember the moments that we create in the middle of this time. I have known from my experience that traveling brings must amazing insights to live happy life. I hope this year you will also travel far wide to those destinations which you love. I also wish you not only travel outside but enter the royal castle inside your heart. Because where ever you go if you are not settled in your heart properly you never find peace or fun in any journey.
Years will come years will go but if we find the balance in new and old, good and bad, sad and happy moments then life always is a celebration. I hope you are happy where ever you are.
My best wishes for your upcoming opportunities, glory, beauty and harmony.

Your Friend Suvas Agam. 
Pic Courtesy :

What you seek is seeking you: Rumi


Cha ke ke lukeko sajal ti nayan maa

Creativity is the greatest rebellion in existence : Osho


I don't know what I think until I write it down: Joan Didion