Atrocities against Tharu expressed in art

Lavkant Chaudhary

As they enter Lavkant Chaudhary’s Masinya Dastoor exhibition at the Siddhartha Art Gallery, the visitors are strongly drawn to one particular work on display.  

They are three canvases titled DDT depicting circles within circles in the first one. Chakra, the circle of life, but it is also a bullseye, and the tiny figures of animals and people are rendered in the style of a traditional Tharu folk art. The figures are the size of an adult mosquito, and a greyscale exterminator points directly at the centre of the target, ready to spray dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane.

The other painting are lifelike paintings of three DDT cans amidst a backdrop of insects, and the third is of a colourful cloud of butterfly silhouettes.

Chaudhary says the American-supported eradication of malaria from Chitwan and the Tharu homeland in the Tarai destroyed not just mosquitoes but but also the Tharu people. The paintings, he says are the “silenced histories of the Tharu community.”

The Tharu were genetically immune to malaria, but once the disease was eradicated by killing mosquitos, settlers came in to clear the forests, land was bought at a pittance from Tharus unable to read the land deeds.

The Masinya Dastoor is expression through art of an aboriginal people the rulers in Kathmandu treated as expendable. The works are housed in two floors with earthy acrylic on canvas paintings (pictured below), land title copies with ink superimposed, wood carvings, an art installation and video. Each artwork across these various medium connect back to the historical persecution of the Tharu people.

Chaudhary says he used to be as ignorant about Tharu history as the rest of Nepalis, but was inspired when he began researching his community during a six-month art project initiated by Artree Nepal in Bhaktapur after the 2015 Earthquake.

“All I came across were recurring stereotypical ideas about the Tharu. We were just water snail eaters  jungle dwellers, alcohol drinkers, and an honest tribe. That was our identity,” he recalls.

Sangeeta Thapa of the Siddhartha Art Gallery says some indigenous groups in Nepal were taken as bonded labourers since Lichhavi times 1,400 years ago. Later on, under the Shah and Rana dynasties when the caste hierarchy was codified into the first Mulki Ain of 1854, indigenous groups were placed under the category of paani chalne masinya matawali (touchable but enslavable alcohol drinkers) which made them expendable by the state.

Despite slavery being abolished in 1926, the kamaiya bonded labourer system persisted until it was outlawed as late as 2004. But by then the Tharu had lost most of their land.

One of Chaudhary’s art installations is of small wooden boxes hung from the ceiling, each filled with grain and a single brass bullet. Next to it, the Diary series recreates pages carved into wood from the diary of Jokhan Ratgainya, a Tharu journalist and revolutionary who was killed in June 2001.

In one corner, the Tamasuk series, with pen and ink drawings on Nepali paper, leads into the Dastoor series, stippling drawings of day to day activities on archival paper prints of the dastoor (legal orders).

The second floor hosts large striking oil paintings that detail day to day scenes alongside violence: from the conflict years, and the Tikapur massacre of 2015. Another installation is of ghaila pots hanging inside a darkroom which projects light on the walls. On one wall, a video replays a barmasiya folk song and then shows a burning miniature village as eyewitness accounts of violence.

Chaudhary writes in a description that he has used art to fill the gaps left by Nepal’s mainstream media to communicate the atrocities: “I found strength in unearthing what has remained silent and kept silent by the Nepali media, the state, and civil society.”

His art speaks volumes about displacement and resistance, easily comparable to the struggles of indigenous peoples in the subcontinent and beyond. The mix of mediums, attention to detail and the historical narrative woven into each work makes for an exhibition that is an experience, one that sheds light on Nepali history and the indigenous peoples who have been silenced.

Masinya Dastoor

by Lavant Chaudhary

Siddhartha Art Gallery

Until January 9 2020