Returning to Kathmandu
This blog will chart the journey of the project Jeevan Jhal. You stand at its source. A trickle of an idea not yet in full flow. So far the people involved are myself, Sian my assistant Megha whome I have met virtually but have yet to share a cup of tea 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 Im returning to somewhere rather than leaving 'home'.
The hope is to pick up on some of the momentum of the previous incarnation of a Community arts project on the theme of water held in Patan 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 stories of vengeful snake Gods, jealous mother in laws, and dreams of love marriages and being able to read.
I learnt that women as the household water bearers also bear the brunt of the struggle to survive and keep their families well given an increasingly degredated system, stressed to breaking point and beyond from rapid population growth, polution and weak governance in a country recovering from civil war and now earthquake.
Water was a porthole to everything you might need to know to understand Patan society. People would talk of the abundant past when the Bunghamati would risk bursting her banks; old caste heirarchies which dictated access, or lack of to certain water sources in the city; the significance of water spiritually through its continued use in daily ritual and worship. We could even map a tension between the old and new, 'traditional' and 'modern', through the ancient stone system laid out gradually from the Malla period 2000 years ago, still in use alongside the more recent state pipe line, unpredictable in its ability to deliver water to those hooked up, despite being billed. Perhaps this is the cost some are willing to pay for the hope that one day clean water might 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 themselves 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 pungeantly smelling stream in its oversized 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, means that the the Newari language and traditions of their parents and grandparents might further recede into the vaguaries of memory. By charting water, the care or lack of care at national to household scales we began to see so many of these narratives and relationships, especially those of the women who were they to have had more choice could have imagined themselves marrying later in life, staying in school, learning to read, earning a wages and even choosing the man they might marry irrespective of what might be fortold in the stars or dictated by the caste system.
It is just days before I return to the country where, I, a seasoned adventurer, came into so much proximity to fear, hope and resiliance. These projects are always an exchange. I enter into them hoping that everyone might leave having grown in new and unpredicted direction but I had not expected to feel and exchange quite so much during my stay last year.
I was on my way to a workshop with the artists and women when the earthquake hit. 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 now with minds less occupied by the challenge of daily survival I can offer something of value to a place that has struggled through so much.