Report on Community Project Thulo Byasi (Nadine Plachta, 5.6.2015)

It was early—05:30—on a Saturday morning when the alarm rang. The sun was rising brightly in the sky, announcing that another day in Kathmandu had begun. I jumped out of bed to wake up Thinley Gyamtso, who was still sleeping in the living room. Originally from Tsum, a remote mountainous valley in the northern Gorkha District, he had been sent to Kathmandu for education when he was seven years old. The day the first earthquake struck, Thinley Gyamtso and his two elder brothers had moved in with me. They had feared the cracks in their house caused by that first tremor, and these had grown considerably in size during the following aftershocks. Thinley Gyamtso had recently completed his School Leaving Certificate exams and was waiting to be admitted to an arts college in Nepal’s capital city. I thought it would be a good idea for him to come with me this Saturday. We set off to a children’s art class being held at a community camp in the Bhaktapur neighborhood of Thulo Bhyasi. The day before, I had talked to Hitmaan Gurung, an artist and founding member of Artree Nepal, a contemporary arts collective based in Kathmandu. He had invited us to visit the community project the Artree members had helped to establish in Thulo Bhyasi.   Driving into Bhaktapur on a scooter, we asked locals sitting in arcaded rest places for directions. We eventually spotted the site after turning left off the main road a short distance from the bus park. There was a large tent constructed with long bamboo poles that supported tarpaulins, which in turn were weighed down by bricks to protect against the winds that often arise in combination with pre-monsoon rains. To the left of the main tent a cluster of family-sized army tents had been set up. A makeshift kitchen and sanitary facilities rounded out the temporary community camp.   The children’s art class was already under way in the main tent. Lavkant Chaudary was animatedly stirring into action around thirty kids sitting excitedly with paper and pencils on plastic sheets on the ground. Lavkant shouted in Nepali: „What do you want to become in the future: a doctor, a farmer, a mechanic, or even a hero? Write it down on your paper, together with a short story of who you are. You have ten minutes time.“ He repeated the task a couple of times to ensure that even the youngest had understood. Mothers holding infants on their arms came to watch the class, and sunrays flickered through holes in the tarpaulins, forming a play of colors against the checkered pattern of the tent wall. These days temperatures were reaching up to a maximum of 34 degrees Celsius.   Curious about what I was scribbling in my notebook, Aashish came up to me. The young boy wore a blue pullover over black Adidas pants that were, like his slippers, obviously too large for him. We exchanged what we each had written, I unsure whether he would be able to understand a word. His paper proclaimed: „My name is Aasish Basukala. I live in Bhaktapur, Bhyasi 10. I am twelve years old. I want to be an engineer in the future.“   Upon completion of the writing exercise, the children stood up and formed a line, placed their hands on the next person’s shoulders and snaked their way through the community camp. They eventually came to halt and formed a large circle. Music was played on loudspeakers and to a song whose refrain went „You share with me, I’ll share with you“, the children passed a basketball one to the other. When the music stopped the one holding the ball had to leave the circle. Eventually only two children remained for the final round. Eventually, Aasish won.   When I asked Lavkant about the children, he explained: „They all come from the neighborhood of Bhyasi. From the very beginning of our involvement in the camp, we’ve been conducting daily art classes for them. But as schools are to start from tomorrow, we will continue our program on Saturdays only. The elders and older youths will be working in the fields then, leaving the children alone in the camp. It is a perfect opportunity to help them overcome the trauma they experienced in the earthquake through artwork.“ The next item on the program was face and arm painting. Boys changed into tigers, and girls became beautiful butterflies. Sheelasa Rajbhandari is among the painters. She sat on a wooden board, the body colors right beside her. I was impressed by her compassionate facial expression and her ability to work with the kids. Sheelasa pointed out that while she can help children recover through the arts, the men of the community deal with their trauma by meeting friends and drinking alcohol. The women are left behind on their own, yet they are the members of society most seriously affected by the recent events. Women have a particularly strong attachment to their house and belongings, both now reduced to rubble. For this reason, Sheelasa decided to focus on the women of the community camp. Two hours later, a workshop will start, involving all females of the site. Sheelasa wants to engage them in artwork as a means of dealing with their emotions: „This afternoon, the women will have to choose a color representing their emotion and put it on paper. What is the color of jealousy? The jealousy, for example, you feel when your neighbor’s house is still intact while yours has collapsed. And what is the color of anger? Anger because your husband does not care about you.“ Dependent as they are on the financial support of their husbands, many women struggle to ensure an education for their children. Sheelasa now introduces the women to the idea of knitting their own portraits, to be sold in an exhibition on the camp she plans to do in due course.   At the women’s program, I met the three sisters of a family I had spent some time with while participating in a workshop organized by the South Asia Institute in Bhaktapur in 2005. Ten years have passed without any contact but one of the girls recognized my face. It was a happy reunion but also a sad one given the fact that the house where I had frequently visited them had collapsed. The mother vividly remembered my visits with a host of details I had long forgotten. When I waved a good-bye, she said in Newari: „You come to see us when our new home is built.“ It is a simple sentence like this that reflects Nepalis’ undying hope in the midst of despair.   After buying two large-sized clay pots of Bhaktapur’s famous curd for our friends at home, Thinley Gyamtso and I went back to Kathmandu. Having the curd together with chura, the staple of the Newari diet, in the evening, it was hard to believe that the earthquake had ever happened.

shelasha2 thulobyasi sheelasha