In “Kaiten: History, Memory, Identity,” an indigenous artist’s symbolic resistance to history

The exhibition of paintings and pastiches highlights the history of oppression faced by the Tamang people and presents a symbolic resistance to that history.

Rhishav Sapkota

  • Read Time 6 min.

Kathmandu: Siddhartha Art Gallery, housed in what was once a part of the residential complex for Baber Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana, acts as a cool refuge from the hot and sunny afternoon in Kathmandu. The gallery is currently exhibiting “Kaiten: History, Memory, Identity”, a show of paintings and pastiches by the artist Subas Tamang.

The exhibition highlights the history of oppression faced by the Tamang people and presents a symbolic resistance to that history.

Artist Tamang traces the name behind his exhibition to an important institution of the Tamangs called Tamba. Tamba is used to signify the person who has attained a thorough understanding of the genealogy and ancestral history of the Tamang people. What the Tamba then recounts is called Tamba Kaiten.

Tamang wants to tell a story about his people through his art, arguably making him a symbolic Tamba—a quintessential storyteller. Tamang is also the recipient of the Himalayan Light Art Scholarship sponsored by senior Chinese artist Zhao Jinaqui which enabled him to explore his ethnic roots through his art.

A visitor watching a Tamba recite a Kaiten

Tamang comes from a family of artists. His father is predominantly involved in stone carving. His grandfather’s youngest brother, also starring in one of the artwork in the exhibition and who passed away about two weeks before the exhibition started, was a Lama (priest) and an artist himself. But Tamang’s early childhood was devoid of any cultural consciousness about his ethnic background, owing to his upbringing amid a non-Tamang community in eastern Terai. Tamang, who is 30, came to know about Lhosar, a major festival for the Tamang people, only after he came to Kathmandu to start school as a sixth-grader. He chuckles at the irony.

Subas Tamang’s late grandfather

It was only during his Master’s, he says, that he started to seriously explore his ancestor’s history and the subjugation seeped deep into it. But resources on the Tamang history are scarce and non-western perspectives even rarer, he soon found out.

When asked if he likes explaining his art, he nods enthusiastically. “The socio-political dimensions of my art make the explanation of the context behind it mandatory,” he says.

The Muluki Ain of 1854 categorized the caste/ethnic groups of Nepal into a hierarchical structure that broadly contains 5 categories: the twice-born castes (wearers of sacred thread), the non-enslavable alcohol-drinking castes, the enslavable alcohol-drinking castes, the water-unacceptable/impure but touchable castes, and the water-unacceptable/impure untouchable castes.

In the hierarchy, the Tamang people were subjugated to the enslavable alcohol-drinking castes.

The first of the artworks he introduces inevitably deals with this hierarchy, especially the different punishments that were given for the same crimes based on where the perpetrator fell on the social strata. One such artwork depicts a Tamang face against a blood-red background with a cow on his crown. With this piece, Tamang says, he wanted to portray the unfair criminalization of the slaughter of the cow, an animal sacred to the twice-born thread-wearing Hindus. “Non-Hindus, even if their culture permitted them to kill a cow to eat it, would be persecuted,” Tamang says. “As they still are under the present law.”

“I never intended to bring a drastic change in cultural consciousness through my art,” Tamang says. “This is my attempt to show solidarity to the identity movement.”

Tamang describes the context behind another one of his artwork, a long portrait of a Tamang elderly who instead of a head has a state ordinance demanding corvée (unpaid labor for a certain period) from the Tamang people of Bumtang, Nuwakot to collect the inner bark of the Daphne plant.

Other similar portraits share the same prominent features but differ in the contents of the ordinances and the subjects. One ordinance contains permission to cross boundaries to collect the bark used to make the Lokta paper; another contains an ultimatum to collect enough raw materials and a warning of punishment in case of failure. “The Rana rulers called this physical exploitation Kaagaji Rakam, a tax that the rulers were entitled to,” Tamang says. “As a consequence, our people couldn’t tend to their crops, which further hampered their economic status.”

Another variant of the Rakam came in the form of Baigaani Rakam where the Tamang people were ordered to work in royal mango orchards. In one of Tamang’s pieces dealing with this, the Tamang subject’s head is replaced by a bunch of mangoes. “If we look around what now is the Trishuli Hydropower, we can still see big mango trees the Tamang people used to tend to,” says Tamang.

He titles another one of his artwork ‘Mahendra Mala’, after the official textbook in schools in the Panchayat era. The Tamang subject holds a Mahendra Mala book that has in it a story about the relationship between the Tamang people and the Himalayan Monal, a story the artist wasn’t particularly content about. The story says that a certain Lama brother wasn’t particularly happy about the Monal swooping in to eat his crops put out under the sun to dry. The Lama brother scares the bird away and the Monal flies towards the North. The Tamangs migrate to the South later on but the scared Monals never dare to follow. Paradoxically, the head of the subject is replaced by the Damphu, a percussive instrument of the Tamang people, which has a figurehead of the Himalayan Monal attached to it.

“Ironically, we Tamangs have a musical instrument that has the bird itself. The bird moves in sync with the drums in a dance,” Tamang says. The subtlety of misrepresentation that the Tamang had to undergo doesn’t go unnoticed.

The exhibit features an image of Gole Kaila, the Nepali Congress’s People’s Liberation Army fighter. Gole Kaila lies dead, photographed to be sent to make the rulers in Kathmandu happy. Kaila died in action in 1950 in Biratnagar but was never declared a martyr. Later, author Shyam Kumar Tamang wrote about the obscure freedom fighter in his book “Janamukti Sena: Euta Nalekhieko Itihaas”. “Most of my art here portrays the oppression my ancestors faced, the woodcut on Ko ko mhendo (Oroxylum Indicum) depicts a Tamang person who fought for freedom albeit was rarely recognized.

Late Gole Kaila, the obscure Nepali Congress’s People’s Liberation Army fighter

“We need to be able to rewrite our past so we no longer have to exist under a paternalistic gaze in the books of history,” Tamang says, pointing to stolen slates that have carvings on them. The slates show a gradual fade of their inscriptions. The slate with the most prominent carving consists of an excerpt from a book designed for entrants of the Public Service Commission that describes the Tamangs as people who were ready to sell their wives for fun and inclined to enslave themselves. The story fades through each slate until it is no longer recognizable.

“I never intended to bring a drastic change in cultural consciousness through my art,” Tamang says. “This is my attempt to show solidarity to the identity movement.” 

Art, says Tamang, can rarely ever be isolated from social conditions. “There is a continuous exchange of ideas and collaboration happening in the art scene in Nepal, especially among indigenous artists,” he says. “Our duty as indigenous artists stretches beyond our personal agendas. Our art  begs for cultural awareness.”

Subas Tamang, the artist. Photo: Justin Zhao

The exhibition runs from September 10-28. All of Tamang’s artworks are also for sale.