Postcards from KathmanduThree generations of photographers from the Das family with a visual overview of a changing Nepal
Thakur Das Shrestha, originally from Nepal, established the famous Das Studio in Darjeeling in 1927. Since then, his descendants have been documenting the changes of their home country through photography.
Their work will be displayed in Postcards from Kathmandu’s Past, an exhibition of photographs by three generations of the Das family, with works by Dwarika Das Shrestha (1926–2004), Gyanendra Das Shrestha (born 1955) and Kashish Das Shrestha (born 1982).
The exhibition opens on 28 April and will go on till 4 May at Wind Horse Gallery located at Moksh Bar in Jhamsikhel. One particular image has an expressed commentary: The Basantapur AI Blue Sky, produced two weeks ago, on a day when Kathmandu city ranked as one of the top most polluted cities in the world.
The sky and some colour tones of the smoggy day with fiery sunset has been deliberately AI enhanced to emphasise how blue-sky spring days in Kathmandu valley are rapidly becoming rarer.
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Dwarika Das Shrestha was the second of four sons of Thakur Das in Darjeeling. By 1950s, Das Studio was already a popular social hub for locals and visitors. People stopped by to have conversations about current affairs and photography.
They bought Das Studio’s postcards and posters of Darjeeling and Sikkim which were immensely popular in the days before the Internet. Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark regularly spent time there, and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and French monk Matthieu Ricard were close family friends.
Dwarika was active with the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and went on several expeditions with Norgay from Darjeeling. Although he had wanted to join an Everest expedition, his grandmother convinced him to abandon the idea because of the risks involved.
In 1960, Dwarika moved back to Kathmandu permanently and set up the Das Photo Store in Khicha Pokhari, just off New Road. Apart from studio services and documentary photography, he also offered photo and video classes, and volunteered as a photography teacher at St Xavier’s School in Jawalakhel.
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Dwarika helped introduce the country to the outside world during the 1960s and 70s as he was the first person to produce commercial postcards of the country for visitors to mail back home.
Dwarika maintained an active social life in Kathmandu, which included the royal princes of Nepal whom he had known since their boarding school days in Darjeeling. He also met Nepal’s former Prime Minister B P Koirala, who was at that time an underground national leader spearheading the pro-democracy movement against the monarchy. Dwarika took a photo of Koirala and printed it as a poster for his supporters to use.
Dwarika’s image of Swayambhu, photographed from the stupa’s west face, had become immensely popular in the 60s and 70s as a postcard. His son Gyanendra re-created and published an updated version of the image in the 80s and 90s with equal success. It remains a defining frame and this angle on the stupa has been reproduced by countless professional and hobby photographers and, more recently, Instagrammers and TikTokers.
Gyanendra Das Shrestha was born in Kathmandu, and is an internationally published award-winning photographer. In 1976, aged just 21, he won his first international photography award, the Koishikawa Rotary Club Prize, organised by the Asian Cultural Center for UNESCO. Two years later, he won the Asian Cultural Center for UNESCO Prize itself.
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Gyanendra opened his own photo shop, Das Color Lab, in early 80s, pivoting from documentary to commercial photography, and focused on expanding the studio services and postcard and poster market his father and grandfather had pioneered.
His ‘Top of the World’ poster of Mt Everest rom Kala Pathar became the defining image that popularised the Everest Trek and that vantage point. His Annapurna panorama from Pokhara lakeside taken in the 80s became another instant classic and the view has been replicated endlessly by photographers since.
Das Color Lab closed its shutters for good before Gyanendra joined his family in New York in 2006. But the posters and postcards it produced through the final decades of the 20th century continue to influence and define the market for commercial photography today. His son, Kashish, is in turn an internationally published writer and photographer with 25 years of print and broadcast media experience.
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Kashish picked up photography and writing as a teenager because it was in his blood, and also because he wanted to document the youth culture he was part of in the 90s. He also photographed Bhutanese refugee resettlement in eastern Nepal and the Maoist conflict, and later in North America.
Kashish traveled to Rolpa and spent a week with the Maoist rebels, many of whom were teenagers. As the conflict continued to grow, he photographed and wrote about the rebels extensively for Nepali Times from deep inside their strongholds in the western plains and the eastern hills. Kashish uses his writing and photography to fund independent research and pro bono policy work on sustainable development in Nepal. His works have been exhibited at various venues over the years, including at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Stanford University in California, and all seven Bhutanese refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. His 2009 solo Americana exhibition, ‘Marfa to Manhattan’, was supported by the US State Department.
Kashish is currently working on a food anthropology and pop culture project on the history of momo.
“The transformation of spaces, as small as a public square, or as large as the valley, gives us much to think about,” he says. “These transformations have been shaped by us, and affect us. This is not to say that old was good or new is bad. Nepal has rapidly urbanised in the last decade, and it can fairly be said this transition has been neither thoughtful nor sustainable. It has simply just been.”
Read also: Portrait of a photographer in rural Nepal, Monika Deupala
Postcards from Kathmandu's Past
Friday, 28 April 3PM till 4 May, 2023
Wind Horse Gallery with support from Photo Concern
Limited Edition Prints from the Das archives on Hahnemühle paper. The first editions on display at the exhibition are Giclée prints.