Breaking the Cycle

A Nepali photographer’s attempt to engage with taboo aspects of womanhood

Photographs by Bunu Dhungana Text by Tanvi Mishra
12 November, 2018

“I KNEW I HAD BECOME NACCHUNEY—too impure to touch—this is how Bunu Dhungana, a Nepal-based photographer, recalled the first time she saw bloodstains on her underwear at the age of 13. She remembered informing her mother, and that they both cried. After their conversation, Dhungana was confined to a dark room for seven days.

Dhungana’s photographic work, “Confrontations,” using herself as the subject, reflects on her experiences of growing up in a traditional Nepali-Hindu community between the ages of six and 36. Using her body as the trope for discourse, her work comments on society’s role in shaping the reality of women, and the effect it has on their psyche and sense of self. “For as long as I remember, I was always reminded that I was a girl and I had to behave in a certain manner,” she said. “The way I should sit, laugh, talk … there is this way of being. The dos and don’ts are clearly laid out. There is an idea of how a woman should be. And I hated it.”

The oppressive expectations of society drove Dhungana to leave Nepal for India in 2001, and she recalled being persistently questioned about her plans for marriage or children as she grew older. Under the pretext of enrolling in an education programme, she hoped to access a more emancipated environment in Delhi. However, it soon dawned on her that societal norms are transnational phenomena, and though moving cities may have granted her more agency than she had in her immediate community, she said freedoms elsewhere are also “questionable.” “Confrontations” started taking shape in May 2017, after she attended a photography workshop where she chose to work on the topic of single women.

The work is a reckoning of sorts—a confrontation of the stigma and restrictions she faced all those years, first as a girl in her parents’ house and later as an unmarried woman in Nepali society. It reflects on incidents in Dhungana’s life that have had a lasting impact on her. These range from memories of being excluded from festivities and sections of her house when she was menstruating during her adolescent years, to the domestic violence she faced in a relationship at the age of 17. It also draws on her abuse by an older man at the age of six, and the decision to confide in her parents 29 years later (a choice prompted by the creation of this work). Dhungana uses her personal experiences as a reference, and she also states that the work is “as much psychological, as it is sociological.” The images are as much about her internal state as they are a mirror to the viewer, and so to society.

The series hinges on self-portraits, where Dhungana deploys the traditional symbols of marriage and femininity—sindoor in her hair, a tika on her forehead, a rato dhago, or red thread, wrapped around her head—to underscore the suffocating expectations of a patriarchal society. Dhungana’s use of the colour red, as a recurring visual marker, signifies the violence of abuse and taboos surrounding menstruation, and evokes the looming institution of marriage. According to her, the colour symbolises the “auspiciousness, sexuality, fertility, and life” of women in Nepal. “It is as if ‘womanhood’ somehow is defined by this colour. To explore red made sense culturally, socially and politically.”

Despite being a conceptual body of work, Dhungana’s photographic series directly raises several issues, such as menstruation, that are often spoken about in whispers, if at all, in South Asian societies. Dhungana notes that menstrual blood is considered impure in Hinduism, where periods are viewed as “women paying a price for Lord Indra’s sins.” The taboo surrounding menstruation is certainly not particular to Nepal. However, practices such as Chhaupadi, which require women to be banished from their home during their menstrual period, are still followed by many communities in the country despite the practice being declared illegal in 2005. While her self-portraits repeatedly use metaphor to evoke a feeling of suffocation—the thread of expectations wound too tight—the images of menstrual blood follow the opposite photographic language. Detached, distant and almost reminiscent of medical specimens, they provoke the viewer, especially when juxtaposed alongside her portraits, into confronting a reality that is universal for women.

Having faced the brunt of traditional attitudes towards menstruation (being relegated to a room with no sunlight, served food separately from the rest of the family or prevented from accessing the dining table and other spaces considered sacred such as the puja kotha), Dhungana responds vehemently to the expectation of silence. In this part of the work, she does not rely on metaphors and abstractions to soften the statement. “Women are expected to be subtle, always,” she said. “I wanted it to be direct. It was very very deliberate, I wanted it to be in people’s faces. Is it the blood that offends everyone? The idea of purity and impurity was something that made me so angry. The work is my reaction to how a woman is supposed to be by being, doing and showing what I am not supposed to.”

Dhungana is vocal about the fact that women have to constantly conceal their fears, desires and emotions. Recalling the instance of abuse, she said that those around her recommended that she “forget and move on.” She remembered the “shame and anger” that she experienced as a result of both, the traumatic incident and the responses insisting that she refrain from telling anyone about the abuse. Her images, however, do not just speak, but shout about everything that Dhungana was told to keep hidden. When asked about her choice to use photography and the act of visualising past experience, she said, “The camera allowed me to express. To be angry. Something that is not considered appropriate for women in everyday life.”

All of Dhungana’s images communicate their message at different decibels. Some silently express dissent against social norms, such as the photograph of a ghumta—a cloth used in Nepali wedding ceremonies—tied around her neck, almost as if she is being strangulated. Whether Dhungana is wearing a neat line of sindoor in her hair or a tika on her forehead, her gaze always directed back at the viewer, is confrontational. It is a reminder of a feeling all too familiar for women—an often seen reluctant conformity to societal pressure, a front that is put on despite the rage that may be brewing within. Society presumes that a woman with these accoutrements, especially on an auspicious occasion such as a wedding, would be joyous, but Dhungana subverts this expectation.

In other images, she uses techniques that appear overt and exaggerated, covering her face with countless bindis or sindoor. With lipstick smeared across her face, Dhungana alludes to the possibility for women to overstep boundaries set by society. “Some people tell me how some images are over the top. I am glad they are. I want the images to scream,” she said. It is this defiance that is at the core of Dhungana’s work, a defiance that is unwelcome in a patriarchal society.

The underlying ethos of Dhungana’s work acts as a prescient ode to the current wave of women speaking out against their abusers, of the pot boiling over and their refusal to be silenced. Speaking about the ongoing MeToo movement in India and the women naming their abusers on social and mainstream media, Dhungana said, “It is so powerful. Almost redemptive. Women are actually speaking out. And irony is how when women speak or make work of art, we do it for attention, of course we want attention, high time we put the attention on things we need to discuss.”

Dhungana’s work is currently on display at Photo Kathmandu, Nepal’s international photography festival that aims to initiate conversations with local audiences through the medium of photography. To exhibit these photographs amid the very society that she questions and critiques is an act that is bold, which renders her vulnerable at the same time. It is an effort to spark dialogue on issues that have for long remained untouched. Rather than being shown in the safe confines of a gallery, the work is being exhibited in a public courtyard that belongs to the local Newar community.

While visiting the exhibition, I saw women huddled around the photographs, peering over each other’s shoulders; perhaps Dhungana’s disruptive propositions resonated with them. Young children ran around prints of the self-portraits, asking their parents what the photographs mean. For Dhungana—whose uncle recently said in reference to her 15-month-old niece, “We can’t let Bunu influence Katha”—the curiosity of young girls about her exhibition is a pivotal moment. Dhungana had questioned her uncle about what he meant, and he remained silent. Her work attempts to dismantle these silences, and explore possibilities for girls such as Katha, in which imagined freedoms are a reality.