Pictures of women taking pictures

Here’s a book for every daughter of Nepal


I unwrap The Public Life of Women, A Feminist Memory Project, and then slide the book out of its maroon case. An olive photo book with black pages reveals itself to me.

My palms and fingers close around it in an embrace, the texture of a book always tells you something. I flip through the pages and want to turn to the only other person on the terrace-pub, a stylishly-dressed young woman, to say: What a gorgeous, wholesome book!

Flipping through the pages, I am swept by gratitude for the women who came before us, for making sitting alone in public places in Nepal possible for women.

When my friend shows up, I nudge the book in her direction. She says: “The white letters against black pages are symbolic, like light in the dark, showing us the way forward.” Valentina Abenavoli’s aesthetics will not just pass you by — the design carries the depth of the content, even if the book might need a stronger binding.

This collection by Nepal Picture Library is based on an archival campaign representing women from all  backgrounds from all over Nepal. The acknowledgement, as acknowledgement should be, is generous and not at all rushed.

Read also: Feminist prints, Monika Deupala


Feminist project NT

Mamu receives the book, flips through it and says: “This is the book for every Nepali woman. Many thanks to whoever made this.” She sits down at the dining table and starts turning the pages right away.

She pauses at the photo of urban Nepali women in Moscow in 1963. Yes, they did represent a certain class of Nepali society. Still, it makes me wonder if my mother, growing up, gained hope from women like them. And even though she has spent her own life in and around the kitchen, perhaps knowing that there were women out there, who were trying, gave her hope for her unborn daughters? The thought makes me weep.

I wish Mamu had a moment like Prativa Subedi, standing coy of the ocean in a 1994 image, a reminder of The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

“We will save the book for my unborn daughters,” I say. Mamu nods.

Read also: Coping with patriarchy, Bhumi Ghimire


Feminist project NT

Throughout history invisible lines have been drawn around women. This book is about those who have taken us beyond those lines.

The first images in the book are of women at public events. Strangers stare back from the images. They feel familiar, because which woman is not  familiar to another? They were women who cooked and cleaned alongside their public or political lives. Some operated as flag bearers for the men they loved. Long after I have put the book down, the image lingers of Rashmi Shah pillion riding on a motorbike with her husband, and her poem where red becomes the colour of revolution, the colour that binds them.

The book is a collage of arrested moments in some stranger’s camera or perhaps that of acquaintances, mostly male. It is a representation of the gaze, all of them very different from one another, just as the women we see in the images, who tried to change the idea of belonging in class or caste.

Read also: Memory of a conversation, Pratibha Tuladhar

Feminist project NT

Sushila Shrestha’s ‘party marriage’ to Ashok Rai, which breaks the social convention is one such example, where marriage is also a political project. There is also mention of an ‘arrest warrant’ but no details divulged, making Shrestha’s story one of the many incomplete anecdotes in the book. 

Shanta Manavi is also ‘compelled’ to work as an underground operative after she met Modnath Prasrit in Banaras. And the un-captioned mugshots collected by Parijat and Punaya Prabha Devi Dhungana. So, they become an enigma.

In the mystery of the intersection of the private and the political, are the very public images of Nani Maiya Dahal at the election victory rally in 1981. The photos are probably the first such we see of a woman leader woven into the fabric of her supporters. They depict what Nepal might have had to offer to its women politicians. 

Read also: Are women not Nepali enough?, Sahina Shrestha

Feminist project NT

And yet, their political careers have always been short-lived, mostly oligarchic in nature, many of them operating from backstage, emerging time and again and then, exeunt.

Women are beautiful. And the most beautiful are those who have fought like images of the Tharu women from Karjahi of Dang who led the peasants’ revolt in 1980 against local landlords. We shine brightest when it is dark.

The photos of women in education are the most important for obvious reasons -- they trace the trajectory to women’s becoming. There is the fierceness of conviction in Chandra Malla establishing a school for girls in Makhan, circa 1935. Two high school teachers in Tehrathum in 1970: something remarkable about the light in their eyes. Female students prepare for Kathmandu education in an image from Doti in 1966. Little girls stand around them, watching, a moment so familiar to me. Seeing my Nini go to TU as a child was how I first decided that someday, I too would go to university. 

Images of ladies’ handbags and shoes and no-shoes are representations of status and economic independence.The book is more than just images, it is a repository of scraps and letters, articles, interviews, records, copies, journals, and notes and legal documents tucked in neatly, each revealing something about lives known and unknown. The images are flanked by texts in both English and Nepali, the Nepali version reads better and provides better context.

Read also: Singing of sorrow, Indu Nepal

Feminist project NT

The book follows no chronology, but segments act like the stream of consciousness, flowing from one thing that stands out to another. Some recent photos appear in black and white, as if to give them a dated feel. Probably aesthetics.

So many lives: their aspirations, suffering, dreams, period cramps, menopausal mood swings. Who knows what they were experiencing at the time they were facing the camera. It is as much for the audience to feel as for the subjects of the images. Like Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati says in the curator’s conversation section, where one is in their lives when they engage with the images impacts how one interacts with images.

And she raises an important question: What about those who were not photographed?

More archiving, then?

Read also: Making Nepal’s history colourful

Pratibha Tuladhar


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