In the early 1970s, two women from very different backgrounds met in Kathmandu and became intimate friends. Both were ‘hippinis’ whose unique stories will be part of the Photo Kathmandu festival next four weeks.

Petra Vogt was a German actress, model and muse, a member of the experimental Living Theater and partner of American beatnik poet and photographer Ira Cohen. Petra and Ira traveled overland to Nepal during the hippie era and settled in Kathmandu. Together with former Velvet Underground drummer Angus MacLise they published books and magazines on rice paper under the name Bardo Matrix Starstreams.

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Vidhea occasionally fulfilled her traditional role as a Newar woman

Petra acted as a model for Ira’s hallucination photography, using Kathmandu of 50 years ago as the backdrop. She experimented with different art forms and created notebooks filled with visionary drawings and writings, inspiring Nepali hippies like Jimmy Thapa and Trilochan Shrestha and had a special interest in the aghori baba cult, skulls and cremation grounds.

Ira and Petra’s home in Yatkha became the hangout for itinerant bohemians to share their passions. Petra, nicknamed Cleopetra, used to organise the occasional ‘Be-In’ -- gatherings of hippies for ‘goat head soup parties’ which she did not attend herself.

Petra’s friends William Forbes and Susan Burns, who still lives in Nepal, remembers her as dressed mostly in black and purple, never leaving the home without her dramatic outfits and make up.

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She was a foreboding person who lived in a small world of which she was the queen,” Burns remembers.

But Petra had a softer side too, which is evident from her correspondence with friends. Among her close acquaintances was Vidhea Shrestha, a rare Nepali hippini. At various times Vidhea lived with Ira and Petra, and modelled for Ira.

Vidhea was born into a well-to-do family in eastern Nepal and was educated in Darjeeling. With her sister, she ran a boutique in New Road catering to foreigners.

Through Petra and Ira, Vidhea met countless other artists, participating in wide-ranging discussions on every imaginable subject. ‘They opened up this whole world for me,’ she said in an interview with Mark Liechty, author of Far Out, Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal. Vidhea credits Petra and Ira with showing her a world of possibilities ‘that I could have never gotten from my own family or society.’

Wearing short skirts, drinking, smoking and spending time with hippies, Vidhea broke every norm, and paid a price. 

In the late 1970s, Petra moved to India to spend time with aghori babas, and is now believed to be a nun with the Brahmakumari in Europe. Vidhea became a semi-professional jazz singer and died of cancer in 2010. Her son Yanik is a well known RJ in Kathmandu.

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