Copyright © 2002 by Susan Simone, Manjul, M. M. Thakur, and Richard Whisnant, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the authors.
The Road to This Project
The path to activism through art is not always direct. We are never sure how to measure our impact. In my work I have chosen to use the vehicle of community history to encourage the empathy and shared understanding that is the groundwork of social change. I have chosen this path because I am committed to the belief that one of the greatest barriers between people is a lack of vision. Unable to imagine what life is like for communities whose circumstances are different from our own, we substitute what we know about ourselves for what we do not know about them.
As a photographer, my goal is to create images that tell the stories of people who live day to day in difficult situations, to be open about their circumstances, but also to pay tribute to the pride and dignity that prevail as they make their way through the complex of arrangements necessary just to keep going. I am interested in survival.
For most of the world the mountain country of Nepal is embodied in IMAX images of the towering beauty of Mt. Everest, the trekking diaries of the winding trails below, and the hard radiance of portraits of the wind-worn ethnic peoples who live tucked away in remote villages. These aspects of Nepal along with the rich temple art of Kathmandu are documented in a strong library of visual images and well-written tales. This is the Nepal that I anticipated when I went to live in Kathmandu for the first six months of the year 2000. This is the Kathmandu of legend, the Nepal of Shangri-La.
The real Kathmandu can be overwhelming. It is a crowded, smoggy city, a ghost of the original idyllic valley clamped tight in the hold of the infamous global economy. Saved from the squalor of the maquiladoras by the absence of a reasonable system of roads (75% of the goods in Nepal are carried on the backs of porters over footpaths), the majority of people in Kathmandu survive in a traditional poverty girded by the caste system and made chronic by endemic corruption in the government, the NGO's and the foreign development agencies. Trying to understand what is going on, how in the world people get through their days in these conditions, became the challenge I faced while living and working in Nepal.
Just as I was about to declare myself over-loaded and temporarily out of the business of documentary projects, I met the Nepali poet Megh Raj Manjul. He came into my life at an art opening where, on a cool February evening, Manjul paid tribute to a feminist exhibition reading a poem he had written about his own mother. Even though I could not understand the words he was reading, I was fascinated by the feeling of the words. "Ama", "Tika", "Raato." Sloughing off my cultural hesitations, I pushed through the crowd to talk with him.
Manjul is a master of the art of the immediate. His personality is open and curious. When I showed him a postcard from the exhibition, "We Are All Housekeepers," he did not linger long on the surface, but began to press me for details, for the story of the lineage from slavery to Civil War to the public institutions and labor struggles of today. In turn, he told me his story. Manjul began his career as an itinerant poet working for the democracy struggle in the 1970s and 1980s, singing poems in the remote mountain villages to explain to the people why they needed to support the struggle. He is something of a legend, like Woody Guthrie, especially in a world of illiteracy where song and story are part of the fabric of life.
Since a democratic government was finally installed in 1990, Manjul has seen many hopes destroyed. In an effort to carry this story to the world, he asked me to work with him. I would take photographs of the ordinary people I saw as I walked in the streets of Kathmandu and the surrounding hills. Using these photographs as a source of inspiration, he would write verse in the voice of the people. Together, we would create our version of the untold story of Shangri-La.
By the time I left Nepal in July 2000, Manjul had written more than 50 poems in response to the photographs I had taken. In the intervening year, I have created a series of Composite Digital Images that bring together the people, their stories, and Manjul's poems. All of the images are composed in Photoshop and printed on Archival paper. The original photography was shot with a 35mm. camera on black and white print and color slide film.
I hope that you will join me and Manjul in acknowledging the beauty, the perseverance, and the immensity of life in this remote part of the world.
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The Photographs and Poems
Wash These Times / Washing Shadows
The Village Inside / Cutting my Dreams
Please Stitch Back My Heart?
This Is How I Sit
The Tailor's Question / Halembu Girl
Three Women in Their Field
Water Buffalo Gyre
Does The Concrete Laugh?
The Shopkeeper's Song / The Porter's Song
I Wait for Time
There's No Way I Can Carry the World
Seller of Small Offerings
Death, Where Is He?
Elephant Feet / The Elephant and The Jungle
Elephant Bath / On Top of the Elephant
The Guestworker / The Roadworkers' Plea
Wash These Times / Washing Shadows
[All poems translated by M. M. Thakur except "Wash These Times," which was translated by Manjul and Susan Simone.]
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We invite you to watch the short movie, "Washing Shadows." Approximately five minutes long, the movie features Manjul reading/performing his poetry, music by Manjul and Aavas, photography by Susan Simone, and video by Richard Whisnant. View the movie at
Your computer will need a recent version of the RealOne Player in order to view this video. A free download of the RealOne Player is available on the web at:
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I came from the eastern part of Nepal, from the mountains. I was born into a large family. We were poor but also of the Brahman caste so education -- reading and writing -- were a part of my life from the beginning. I started to write poetry at the age of 10, when I was in the sixth class. While still in high school in the Bhojpur area, I was awarded the title -- Bal kavi -- a "poet -child," a child who is a poet already.
After finishing high school, I went to Dhran, a small town in between the Himalayan mountains and the Tarai (the plains of southern Nepal), to study further in a college. There I took part in a poetry competition and won the first prize, which gave me the recognition and incentive to continue. At this time in Nepal, poetry was read and celebrated in large public gatherings. In addition to public acclaim, these open readings brought me into a circle that included both young and older, more eminent poets. Since formal education was limited to rote and concentrated on commerce, this contact was critical to my growth as a poet.
I moved to Kathmandu two years later so that I could continue my study at the University. In Kathmandu, I became a part of an even wider circle of poets who became my mentors. I also started to win prizes including an award from the Royal Nepal Academy that established my reputation in the country.
At this time (the late 1960s, early 1970s), Nepal was involved in a struggle to bring democracy to the country. As a poet and lyricist, I joined other artists and began to turn my writing to the cause of my people. We started a new movement in the field of literature and music called "Ralfa" -- dedicating ourselves to the movement against social and political injustice. For 5 years, the musician Ramesh and I traveled to many of the remote rural areas of Nepal (a country where even now 75% of the people live in areas inaccessible by road). I have documented this experience in the travelogue/memoir Samjhanaakaa Paailaaharu. Nepal is unusual in the receptivity of the people, those who are illiterate as well as those who are educated, to poetry and song. So, in this way, I became known throughout the country for my poetry.
In the years since, I have become a member of the central committee of the Progressive Writer's Union and I am an executive member of P.E.N. Nepal. I am also a member of Pragya Sabha of the Royal Nepal Academy. I am a professor of poetry and literature at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal. As a poet, I have also traveled and taught in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines, North Korea, Sweden and Finland. My poems have been translated into English, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Assami, Urdu and Japanese. One of my novels is now being translated into Norwegian.
At the age of 45 I shifted from a part-time focus on photography to serious work as a documentary photographer interested in community stories. My first study was "Lives of Cuban Women", a project completed with the support of the Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas (FMC - Federation of Cuban Women) in 1990-91. After moving to North Carolina in 1992, I became involved in the movement in support of the Housekeepers' Association at the University of North Carolina (UNC), completing a sound and visual installation tracing the struggle against racism by African American workers at UNC over the last century. This show was supported by grants from the North Carolina Council for the Humanities, The Puffin Foundation, and Alternate ROOTS. "We Are All Housekeepers" was on exhibition statewide from 1997-1999. I was awarded the Kathryn H. Wallace Award For Artists in Community Service by the Triangle Community Foundation for this project.
Building on this work, I completed a second community study in 1998, "Northside Community: An African-American Neighborhood History" with the support of a project grants from the Fund for Southern Communities and the North Carolina Council for the Humanities. In 1999 I was awarded a Fellowship by the Arts Council of North Carolina that allowed me to develop "Fotos Del Pueblo," a study of the emerging Hispanic community in North Carolina. I was also hired by Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, North Carolina in 1998-99 to create an educational exhibition of photographs and text documenting "Celebration 2000," a one-year project that involved the building of an 11-home subdivision for African-American and Hispanic low-income families. All of this work has been exhibited in a variety of venues in North Carolina including the Weatherspoon Gallery in Greensboro, the Horace Williams House and the Chapel Hill Museum, at the Fiesta Del Pueblo and in local restaurants and schools. For more about my work, please visit my website: http://www.purplevalley.net/Photos_by_Simone.htm
In January 2000, my husband was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to work in Kathmandu, Nepal. This gave me the opportunity to travel and photograph in a new community. In Kathmandu, I developed a collaborative project with Megh Raj Manjul, a Nepali poet, some of which is presented in this issue of Jouvert.
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