The art of living

Many of the everyday items Nepalis traditionally used in their homes are going or gone. So have the words that described them. Plastic buckets have replaced brass gagro. Linoleum floors have taken the place of sukul straw mats.

Most young Nepalis do not know what petaro, sakari, chulesi, dalo, doko, theki, dhiki, dheri, kolhu, sandook or mandro mean. Nepali words that described many of these objects are now extinct. Tharu words for utensils, Gurung vocabulary for household furniture and Rai or Limbu terms for farm equipment are all endangered.

Judith Conant Chase has been in Nepal for nearly 50 years, and has made it her life’s work to collect and preserve many of these traditional objects. In 2012, she set up the Living Traditions Museum at the Amatya Sattal in the Changu Narayan complex to house her collection, so it could be seen by as many Nepalis as possible. By preserving the objects she has also saved the Nepali words for them.

When the earthquake struck on 25 April 2015, Kathmandu Valley’s oldest monument zone was badly damaged. Some of the 1,300-year-old Licchavi era temples went down, the museum was damaged, but the exhibits were intact (including the Tharu clay pot hanging from the rafters in the photo, right). The structure has now been rebuilt, and Chase is trying to have the museum reopened in the new year.

Travelling across Nepal in the 1970s, Chase admired the simplicity of people’s lives, their cheerfulness despite hardships, and the everyday handmade objects they used around the house — like the umbrella that Gurung villagers in Bhujung wove from nigalo strips and leaves, which Chase found ingenious because it also kept a farmer’s back dry while bending over to tend the fields.

Maithili jewellery fascinated her, especially the sculpted silver bracelets that had strips joined into a ripple pattern. Over decades of being worn during work, the metal was weathered and polished into a shiny metallic brilliance. Doko baskets are perfectly crafted through a technique handed down from generation to generation of Gurung families, as are the felted carpets and capes of villagers in Ghandruk, and in Kathmandu the intricately carved bapa, used as a shrine in Newa homes. Another example, from Humla, was the colourful Nyinba woollen greatcoat, worn once a year during festivals (pictured overleaf).

All these items, lovingly preserved, will be returned to their cubicles and exhibit cases once the Living Traditions Museum reopens. Chase’s book, Living Traditions of Nepal: The Beauty of Purposeful Living, is an encyclopaedic guide to the artefacts, and more.

The voluminous 440-page, coffee table book is superbly illustrated and designed, and divided into sections representing the Himal, Midhills, Tarai and Kathmandu Valley. The text is arranged like extended captions, and interspersed with extracts from Chase’s journal of four decades ago.

Chase decided to use her journal entries because the words recorded her feelings more accurately at the time, making the memories so much more real.

One such extract, after seeing a sadhu at Pashupati on Shivaratri: ‘I feel invigorated, intoxicated, inspired, as if being in love. There is a whole way of being in the world that I had only sensed dimly… There is a feeling of a secret that everyone else knows that I am just beginning to glimpse, frustrating and enticing together.’

She marvels at the ‘hanging life support system’ of Tharu homes, where food and storage items dangle from the ceiling, where protective smoke of the central fire preserved and cured stored food items. This was technology developed over centuries ‘out of a particular set of natural resource and household needs’.

‘The lives of the Nepali people and their art objects are elegant, inspired, vigorous, humorous, vibrant, romantic, sometimes even a bit wild,’ writes Chase. ‘They are woven, hammered, carved, turned, painted out of the hand of artists, both household and professional.’

The Beauty of Purposeful Living: Living Traditions of Nepal

by Judith Conant Chase

Serindia Publications (July, 2019)

Hardcover: 440 pages, $100

ISBN: 978-1932476-90-3

A life in the most precious place on earth

Judith Conant Chase still remembers flying into Kathmandu in October of 1974, looking out of the window at the wrinkled terraces of rice fields, forested hills and the snowy mountains beyond, and telling herself: “This is the place.”

The American had come to Nepal to try to climb a mountain in the Langtang Valley, and 45 years later she is still here. Along the way, she has done pioneering work to document Nepal’s crafts, joined an ashram, started an organic agriculture movement, collaborated on a project to market ceramic products and started a museum.

“Nepal was so casual, and of the earth. It connected to nature in so many ways in the puja and the way people worshipped,” recalls Chase, who resonated with  the Hindu mantra ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’ — truth is God, and God is beauty.

She travelled across Nepal, and while many foreigners at the time marvelled at the scenery outside, Chase was drawn to the interior of people’s homes and the everyday objects they used: wooden storage bins, straw mats, bamboo baskets, clay vessels, metal craft.

Chase never rushed through the countryside. She lingered and learnt from families she stayed with, collecting beautiful objects and understanding their traditional use and significance. She kept a journal, knowing that one day she would want to write a book and perhaps set up a museum.

Read Also: Art of everyday living, Reeti K.C.

Both the museum and the book have happened. The Beauty of Purposeful Living and the Living Traditions Museum in Changu Narayan complement each other. The museum was badly damaged in the 2015 earthquake (left), has been rebuilt, and nearly five years later it is to reopen.

“It was so impressive to me that there were no roads, and yet people were so capable, so self-sufficient,” Chase recalls of her travels through Nepal in the 1970s.

Chase met and married Jim Danisch in a Hindu ashram in Banepa in 1984. Danisch worked on a ceramics promotion project in Thimi for the German agency, GTZ, training locals to make glazed pottery and developing a new type of kiln. The two went back to California to set up a pottery business, but soon found they were getting too old to chop firewood and cut grass, so one day Judith told Jim: “Let’s go home.”

They returned to Nepal, where they worked on a farm in Kavre, and put together the Living Traditions Museum (See review, opposite.) After Jim died in 2016 in Dhulikhel, Judith continued working on her book and rebuilding the museum. All the while, the organic farm in Kavre demanded a lot of her time — helping villagers with pesticide and chemical-fertiliser free agriculture, preserving traditional seeds and the biodiversity of the forests.

“Nepal in the monsoon is just so intoxicating. There is all this variety of words in Nepali for different types of rain, and the vegetation is so lush because of the warmth and moisture — there is extraordinary growth, which you do not have in a temperate climate,” explains Chase.

In an experiment, she set aside a 1 sq m test plot in Kavre to study and classify every kind of plant that grew in it. There were 27 types, but she could identify only 18 of them. Chase thinks Nepal’s soil and fertility is so rich that artificial fertilisers are not needed — all the nutrients are already in the soil.

Does it not pain her to see Nepalis not valuing nature, and the farms of Kathmandu Valley being replaced by urban sprawl? “It is not just Nepal, it is happening all over the world,” she says. “It is not exceptional, but it is tragic. Much is gone, but the vibrant traditions continue. Kathmandu Valley is one of the most precious places on earth.”

Kunda Dixit


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