About Time

An archive traces the feminist history of Nepal

Sindhupalchok | 1969
A student standing next to her teacher, with her books. The Shree Krishna Ratna High School is in the background. kate rafferty hall / nepal peace corp photo project
Elections 2024
01 June, 2019

In March 2018, the Nepal Picture Library—a digital photo-archive based out of Kathmandu that focusses on Nepali social and cultural history—put out a public call. They were looking for researchers to help build a visual archive examining women’s histories in the country. The research work first became open to the public at an exhibition titled “The Public Life of Women: A Feminist Memory Project,” which was part of a photography festival held in Kathmandu later that year. The archive, which continues to evolve, includes photographs, letters, diary entries, pamphlets and other formal and informal records documenting women and the role women have played in Nepal’s contemporary history, starting from the mid 1930s.

The intention of the research project, which officially began in April 2018, was to assemble a feminist history of Nepal. It attempted to redefine and reclaim mainstream narratives which have historically been dominated by men. Although the project’s focus was on gender inclusivity, there was also a recognition that the “past needed to be freed from the grips of economically and culturally dominant groups.” The archive, which now stands at close to eight thousand photographs, makes evident that despite women having played critical roles in political, social and cultural spheres of history, they have failed to be recognised or remembered for their contribution. While the narratives of women have often been cast, if at all, in light of their struggles in domestic spaces, their participation in public life has largely been ignored or considered anecdotal, at best. The archive, particularly being one that is visual, seeks to offset this notion, paving the way for a history of a country to be seen through an alternate lens.

With the archive, Diwas Raja Kc, the lead researcher and archivist of the Feminist Memory Project, and NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, the founding director of the Nepal Picture Library, make the case for building a women’s history. Positioned as an “archival campaign,” this is an attempt to ensure that women’s “historical visibility will advance the case for liberation.” The exhibition was divided into six thematic sections: “Women of the People” focusses on women taking to political action; “Reading under the Candelight” deals with women who made headways in the field of education; “Women for Women” looks at women who were active in civil society; “Words of Women” documents women who penned feminist literature; “A Room of One’s Own,” which recreated the writing room of the acclaimed Nepali author Parijat; and “Out in the World” contains photographs of women who travelled the world “to express their freedom and their agency.

The Caravan has excerpted part of this exhibition, and interviewed Raja Kc and Kakshapati—who are also the curators of the showcase—in an attempt to gain insights into their methodology for this project and its future directions.

You state that the impetus to create a dedicated women’s archive rests on the “feminist impulse to memorialise women’s pasts” and “to develop a vision where Nepali people can see themselves reflected.” How does a visual archive, including and beyond the notion of evidence, help to achieve these goals?

Diwas Raja KC: The notion of evidence is actually key here. When we say “beyond,” we are alluding to iconology—it suggests that a visual archive such as the Feminist Memory Project draws its effect essentially by creating a repertoire of representation as a redress for historical amnesia and social exclusion. When we design our visual archives, we are, on the other hand, much more interested in understanding what people are “doing” with photographs. In 2016, we had launched a visual archive on the Dalit history of Nepal, which was in many ways a conceptual and methodological precursor to FMP. Since then, we have been thinking about how people who are marginalised and kept outside the purview of history relate to records and documents. Even though established practices of history continue to ignore people in the margins, we found that a significant number of them were keeping or collating notes, scraps, clippings, photographs or other memorabilia. Such scraps are not ordinarily given value, but we learned that the preservation of these types of materials in informal ways can tell us quite a lot about people’s orientation and affect towards history. We find that photographs are more valued as indexes than icons. The photograph has an ability to point and designate—rather than simply represent—and say something along the lines of “there they were” or “here we are.” We found this process of indexing to be particularly urgent in the cases of Dalit populations, as so much “evidencing” is required around the violence and atrocities faced by them, and perhaps it’s not far-fetched to suggest that this evidentiary style dominates Dalit art and photography. But this indexing of the photographs was precisely the thing that mattered the most during FMP as well, in the sense that they were showing how women existed in the very same place and time where history unfolded. This argument about contiguity is the first basis for women collectively making a claim on history. When people engage with the FMP materials, it’s striking to notice how index fingers literally spring to action, as if to say: “Look! I see her! I recognise her. There she is,” or even “There I am!” The most fundamental aspect of FMP is this work of locating and identifying women within specific coordinates of Nepali history and experience.

NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati: We have found that a visual archive enters people’s imaginations in powerful ways that mainstream historical narratives in more traditional non-visual forms do not. It renders these histories immediately “visible”—on the street as a photo exhibition, or online as a social-media post or in newspapers as a photo feature. It is more effective as “evidence” than any other medium, perhaps, as we see for ourselves these claims to history that have been ignored all this while. And yes, very often we do see ourselves reflected in these images, and in many ways are prompted to partake in this history-making by contributing images and narratives to the archive.

Could you detail your process of research: who were the individuals you reached out to that have been giving shape to the feminist landscape of Nepal? In what ways have they been “working to preserve the history of past women?”

Diwas: Since FMP is, first and foremost, a visual archive, one that is open and ongoing, the initial part of the research was designed for material acquisition and photo documentation. The project started with us reflecting on both visual archival methodologies as well as various feminist issues of importance in Nepal through a reading and discussion seminar that we organised in the early stages of research. We identified most of the individuals for the archive through secondary reading; especially the more obscure ones were culled from our readings of labour and peasant histories. Sometimes the first step was to getting people to name women who were active at certain critical junctures of Nepal’s political history. It didn’t take long for us to realise that many women in Nepal were already involved in building chronicles of other women. Some had stories, memories and anecdotes, but others were actively creating name lists of significant women. We discovered this was a common pursuit among women exposed to any degree of feminist consciousness in Nepal; we even found a few instances where women were creating personal archives of women’s photographs, and others had collected postcards, letters and handwritten notes. Realising that Parijat, perhaps the most well known woman writer from Nepal, had also collected photographs and exhibited them was noteworthy for us, as we understood that in many ways, FMP has just built on and carried forward a much wider archival impulse among Nepali feminists.

NayanTara: We have been trying to think of the “process” as going beyond just the populating of, and research around, the archive. In fact, we have been trying to think of this entire archive as a process, and a participatory one as far as possible. Each time we put these narratives out in the public domain, we issue an open call for further contributions and participation. We actively create ongoing engagements with and around the archive, inviting people with varied interests ranging from research to pedagogy to activism, to interpret and incorporate the narratives in their own projects and platforms. We hope this will diversify both the interpretations of the archive, as well as the audiences and participants who engage with it. We also design public programming that engages with the themes and topics that the archive indexes, and create discourse around the gaps that are identified. One such attempt is a recently launched discussion seminar, titled “Imperfect Solidarities,” which will run through 2019. These series of explorations have been prompted and informed by FMP collections and inquire into the intricate and imperfect workings of solidarity-building and collective action within the feminist and women’s movements in Nepal.

It is well known that histories that are preserved are a function of the position that the individuals or communities occupy in their society in terms of gender, class, caste and so on. During your own research, have you confronted these structures? If so, how have you guarded against this alternative representation of Nepali history falling into the same trappings, or perpetuating a similar hierarchy of narrative?

Diwas: To be honest, it’s a constant struggle. Structures of hierarchy are resilient, and even our best efforts towards inclusion and justice cannot guarantee that old structures of power will not reinvent or seek to continue in new forms. It would be naive to imagine that those with power will not act in response to the threat of the obliteration of their power. But more than that, it would be even more naive to think that these structures that you mention are things that exist “out there”—independent from us, something to be encountered and dealt with. It is important to understand that these structures of hierarchy in fact play out through all of us and none of us are exempt from its workings. The work we do around creating alternative ways of seeing, looking and understanding thus has to be underpinned by a constant undertaking of self-examination, critical appraisal and revision. We have to be willing, as well, to examine our own perspective, power and privilege, as well as those of others.

NayanTara: Despite the inherent limitations, we have tried to identify and conceive of alternative structures that allow for more participation in the archival process. Much of this is determined by intent, language and physical access, but also the perceived value and ownership of the archive by the very individuals and communities it seeks to address and engage with and, of course, resources— both human and otherwise.

You mention that by bringing attention to the possibilities opened up by women’s entry into politics and public life allows mainstream male-dominated histories “susceptible to new meanings.” Could you elucidate on this, and the kind of shifts in the dominant narratives that you refer to?

Diwas: That line stemmed from the insight that in Nepal’s mid-twentieth-century anti-oligarchical and popular politics, men had mobilised certain ideas about a new mode of public life premised on universal participation (perhaps for the sake of their own relevance and survival). When one interrogates that history, one sees that several women entered political movements and public life because they felt called into action by this promise of a universal community. In the autocratic milieu of Nepal, men who chose the path of reform or revolution risked tremendous danger, and it was because of their own vulnerability that they exhorted women to take action. But most of them were not calling for a radical transformation of gender norms—often, it was quite the opposite. Even so, when women did respond to this call, and go out, there was an apparent divide between men’s and women’s expectations. Once women came out collectively, they make entirely new positions and subjectivities possible. One sees this in the biographies of almost all the prominent women leaders like Sahana Pradhan, Mangala Devi, and others, who are now considered pioneers of Nepal’s feminist movement. Many of them were able to enter and maintain relevance in politics because of their prominent husbands. But simply noting this association, as is often done, misses much of the point. They brought new dimensions to what was said and could be said about how Nepal’s past and its future diverge. And that is what we meant by suggesting the susceptibility of history to women’s public action and meaning-making.

What is the time period that the FMP covers in terms of tracing the feminist history of Nepal? Do you have any anecdotes from when the women who are featured in these photographs saw their photographs and so, histories, being made public for the first time? Was this the first time they viewed their histories to be part of a larger narrative of progress of women or feminism in Nepal?

Diwas: The archive goes as far as we can find photographs. The earliest date we were able to record was 1936, which is quite early in terms of the history of photography in Nepal. The kind of response you are describing—of women seeing themselves in the photographs during the FMP exhibition—was very special to us, but it was also quite regular. It happened frequently, and if you count other forms of identification that the exhibition made possible (not just seeing oneself but seeing oneself through others), there are probably hundreds of anecdotes. As I argued above about the feminist impulse towards women’s history, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that FMP was the first time so many women could view themselves in history or in relation to history. It’s probably not even the first time it was happening primarily through photographs. But the kind of broad frame we provided the exhibition with certainly felt novel. FMP was really trying to make an argument about history—epistemic as well as affective, as opposed to the more common method of celebrating successful and accomplished women.

To be photographed itself is an act of becoming public and being seen. Could you elaborate on the ways in which these women came to be photographed, by whom, who were the photographers and what was the intent of this documentation at the time?

Diwas: During the research phase, it was not possible to identify the photographers, since we are talking about eight or ten thousand photographs, not a hundred. Due to the nature of the project, the authoring and the agency of the photographer was not what took precedence. And the provenance of most photographs in personal, family albums (the genre of photographs we were primarily dealing with), as well as the feminist rubric of the project, demanded that we look at authorship askew. This meant that, at the time, the photographers’ intention wasn’t the most salient question. For some collections, however, we have had the chance to reflect on what the women in the photographs themselves were intending when they stood in front of the camera.

NayanTara: A carefully arranged family portrait, a class in progress, an off-guard moment by the sea, a protest gathering of thousands, a defiant identity-card photo: moments in time documented for multiple purposes by multiple photographers, but all giving us insight into the personal and public lives of Nepali women. A sense of this multiplicity–who stands before the camera, behind it and why, and who interprets, views and engages with these narratives–is what allows FMP to challenge monolithic versions of history.