Retelling Gurkha history

Paying artistic homage to the lives of wives Nepalis left behind when they went to war


History is not always fair to the protagonists who find themselves caught up in it. The history of Gurkha soldiers is no exception.

Brave khukuri-swinging soldiers in combat khakis and hats marching off to battle have been an iconic part of Nepal’s past. Forgotten on the pages of history, however, are their sarong-clad wives in Nepal or abroad, their struggles and their contribution.

Lately, there has been an effort to correct this with welcome attempts to document the experience of Gurkha wives. Suzana Thapa Shris’s recent exhibition Gurkha Women: An Echo in the Story helped filled this gap by retelling the stories from the perspective of the wives of soldiers.

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“When Gurkha soldiers were fighting wars, it was their women who single-handedly led the households, they were the silent heroes,” explains 29-year-old Thapa Shris. “With limited money and resources, they raised families and boys who grew up to be lahure themselves. Their contribution is immense.”

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After her first exhibition Bharseli Gurkhas: From Stories to Portraits which looked into the lives of Gurkha soldiers from her ancestral village of Bharse of Gulmi district, Thapa Shris felt that she also needed to put the spotlight on the wives. 

Coming from a Gurkha household herself, where her grandfather was in the Indian Army, Thapa Shris was introduced to her family’s praetorian past from a very young age. She grew up with her grandparents in Butwal, listening to the lore both from the battles as well as the home front. 

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Her father Bom Bahadur Thapa, a horticulturist by profession and a writer, wrote a book Bharseli Gorkhagatha ra Serofero about his ancestors. And when Thapa Shris started her project, the father-daughter duo interviewed some 50 women in their 70s and above from Baglung, Gorkha, Gulmi, Kaski, Palpa, Rupandehi, and Sunsari. They were all wives of Nepali soldiers who had served in the UK, India, Singapore and Malaya (now Malaysia).

“The exhibition took shape as we were looking into who these women were, their life stories and their contribution to Gurkha history,” she adds. “Their identity and contribution has been the main objective of this exhibition.”

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Thapa Shris never formally learnt art, but her raw talent for portraits is there for everyone to see. Also on display at the Nepal Art Council from 25-28 November were sketches, archival pictures, visual footage of interviews, and installation art with traditional music in the background.

But the highlight of the event were evocative testimonies with their respective portraits depicting two kinds of women: those left behind in Nepal and those in foreign lands where their husbands were deployed. Most struggled to make ends meet, and that too in a new place where they did not speak the local language.

“We automatically assume that Gurkha soldiers are well-off and their lives easy but that is not always the case,” explains Bom Bahadur. “There was no immediate means of communication or any channel to wire money. It was these brave women who made their way.” 

While archival footage helped the audience peek into their lives in foreign lands, an installation art of a classic Nepali knitted bag filled with envelopes depicted how in those days letters were the only medium of contact between spouses.

One section was dedicated to hand photography intended to show the resilience and the kind of lives these women led. All the portraits here had wrinkled hands of the women resting on their patterned lungi.

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The exhibition also featured traditional dresses and jewellery of the Gurkha women as well as wooden utensils used by these indigenous communities in the past. Lungi, gold beruwa bangles and traditional gold asarfi rings synonymous with Lahureni were also heavily featured.

“The gold came much later after the wartime,” adds Suzana. 

“One thing all the bojus said was that they were happy that they at least got to wear gold.”

The father-daughter duo is now planning to transcribe all the testimonies and turn them into a book. Says Bom Bahadur: “I am glad our Gurkha women are highlighted. The fact that my daughter is working on it makes me even prouder.”  

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