Returning to Kathmandu
This blog will chart the journey of the project Jeewan Jal. You stand at its source. A trickle of an idea not yet in full flow. So far the people involved are me, Sian, my assistant Megha who I have met virtually but have yet to share a cup of tea with and, some imaginary Patan based participants, interested in offering up their hearts and minds and creating something together.
The plan is to link in with the work of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit based a Patan Hospital on the Southern side of the Bunghamati river in the Kathmandu Valley. This is my fourth visit. Increasingly I feel like I'm returning somewhere rather than leaving home.
The hope is to pick up on the momentum of a previous community arts project on the theme of water in Patan held in 2015. This project was entitled 'Sacred Water', run by a Vietnamese artist with the support of two local Nepali artists, myself and women from local women's groups. 'Sacred Water' explored stories and memories of water. Through drawing, collage, clay and conversation participants found the support and space to explore and express themselves unlike they had before. The women would share and reflect in a mixture of Nepali, Newari, colour and form. We told stories of vengeful snake Gods, jealous mother-in-laws, and dreams of love marriages and literacy.
I learnt that women, who are the household water bearers, also bear the brunt of the struggle to survive and keep their families well. Especially, given an increasingly degraded water system, stressed to breaking point from rapid population growth, pollution and weak governance in a country recovering from civil war and now an earthquake.
Water was a porthole to everything you might need to know to understand Patan's society. People would talk of the abundant past when the Bunghamati would risk bursting her banks; old caste hierarchies which dictate access to water, or lack of and; the significance of water spiritually through its continued use in daily ritual and worship. Through the water system, we could map a tension between the old and new, 'traditional' and 'modern' felt elsewhere in society. The ancient stone system laid out gradually from the Malla period 2000 years ago is still in use alongside a more recent state pipeline which, bills households for water that does not arrive. Perhaps this is the cost some are willing to pay for the hope that one day clean water will flow to their home.
Those who can afford them, buy household tanks which are filled weekly from water trucks conveying water from deep boreholes outside the city. These trucks, blazoned with colourful messages from Buddha and the Hindu Gods are a life support system for those that can afford it but at the cost of depleting the water table and reducing the Bungamati to a pungent-smelling stream in an oversized river bed.
We could also see that memories of symbolism and ritual around these ancient stone water system, like the infrastructure, too is eroding. Students today are taught in English and Nepali, which means that the Newari language and traditions of their parents and grandparents further recedes into vague memory. By charting water from national to household scales, we began to see so many of these narratives and relationships. Narratives in which women held central ground.
These projects are always an exchange but I had not expected to feel and exchange so much during my stay last year. I was on my way to a project workshop when the earthquake hit and so many lives were thrown up in the air. That was 8 months ago and now, with the summer coming and the fuel blockade lifting, I return, hoping that minds are less occupied and that I can offer something of value to a place that has struggled with so much.