An art experiment in Gorkha – Srijanalaya

An art experiment in Gorkha

Before the Nepal earthquake of April 2015, I had never heard of the town of Ghyachchok. During the weeks after the quake, as I was stationed at the Yellow House, a bed and breakfast in Lalitpur, coordinating relief missions with friends, many names were brought to my attention. Every day, volunteers brought new information from remote neighbourhoods of Kathmandu and the affected districts. Details were updated daily on, an open data platform set up by Kathmandu Living Labs, a company that uses technology to address civic problems. We jotted the details on paper, along with requirements and numbers, and taped them on the outside walls of the Yellow House. “Khadichaur, food and shelter for 150 households, Raju, Tel: 984XXXXXXX.” More and more people gathered every day – those wanting to help, and those who needed it.
Soon after, the Shikshya Foundation – a non-profit organisation that focuses on education – wanted to meet me. Sharareh and I brainstormed ideas with Kumudini Shrestha and her brother, who were both board members of the Foundation. “It would be great to take some artists and entertainers to the affected rural districts,” said Sharareh. “At the very least, we will make the children smile.” The Shikshya siblings liked the idea. “We have to be careful though,” the brother chimed in at one point. He was concerned that the purpose of the mission that was quickly taking shape might be misunderstood. The brother had a point. People were still without roofs. Would everyone understand the value of art?Ghyachchok, however, came up in a slightly different context. A month after the first quake, the frenzy that had followed had subsided. People were starting to think of alternative ways to help those affected. Towards the end of May, I organised a meeting with the goal of helping children and teachers. Being an educator, and having conducted workshops and training sessions with various groups of teachers in Nepal, I reached out to my network: groups of artists who regularly worked with children, a couple of officers from international organisations such as ChildReach and colleagues who were interested in education, all showed up at the meeting. A mixed group of volunteers and expats, now regulars at the Yellow House, also attended. Later that week, I planned support-group sessions for parents and teachers, and a schedule was posted on the Facebook page that the Yellow House volunteer group had created three days after the first quake. A retired British psychotherapist talked about shock and trauma. A Nepali mother of two played music and made everyone dance. I handed out information on psychological first aid. Sharareh Bajracharya, an arts educator, collaborated with Jess Linton, an art psychotherapist, to demonstrate how art materials and activities can be used to address emotional and mental well-being.

“But we have to do what we believe in,” Kumudini said. “I’m sure a lot of people, children especially, could use some play these days,” she reassured us. We all believed in the potential of art to entertain and to heal, and more importantly, to instigate social change.

As a result, ArtWorks was born. Later that week, Sharareh met Dhwoj Gurung, a Kathmandu-based painter with strong familial ties to Ghyachchok. The idea was to take artists and dancers, along with educators and volunteers, to the village in Gorkha for three days, to conduct workshops and programmes with the students and teachers. Sharareh and Dhwoj planned the logistics. Initially, it was hard to figure out how many people we would be working with. Dhwoj wanted to invite villagers from neighbouring communities too, but wasn’t certain who would show up. Even our ArtWorks team was gradually expanding.

Ghyachchok was across the river from Barpak, a village that had received much media attention, being the epicentre of the earthquake. Several relief helicopters had descended upon Barpak, but nothing had come to Gyachchok. The villagers felt dejected and abandoned. “We just need to boost their morale a bit,” Dhwoj said, at a meeting held the day before we were set to leave.

Dancers from Nritya Aangan – a company that provided classical dance lessons – and nine members of Circus Kathmandu were at the meeting, along with Jess Linton and artists from Srijanalaya, an arts organisation founded by Sharareh. Srijanalaya had started as a one-room space in old Kathmandu’s Yatkha Baha tole. Children from underprivileged backgrounds regularly visited the space and played with art materials, most of which Sharareh purchased with personal funds. Srijanalaya now has a network of diverse professionals who provide arts education to children, at various sites within the Kathmandu Valley, as well as in Pokhara, Dhankuta, Birgunj and Nawalparasi.

Heading to the hills
The bus ride to Abu Khaireni was smooth enough. At the highway town, we took a right towards Gorkha. Asphalt soon gave way to dirt. Most of the one-lane road that skirted the rugged hills was covered in sludge, a result of the previous week’s rains. As the bus bumped and jolted, the Circus Kathmandu team in the back yelped and groaned.

The bus journey ended at Baluwa, a nondescript town at the base of the green Gorkha hills, which was dotted with newly constructed tin shelters, dilapidated buildings and mounds of rubble. A walkway forked at the town centre, one path leading to Barpak, the other to Ghyachchok. We snacked at a tea shop and then hiked towards our destination, despite the blazing midday sun. It wasn’t trekking season, but there was work to be done and walking was our only option.

Dhwoj had warned that leeches might be a problem if it rained. The night before, I had torn off strips from a kitchen rag and rolled them into small balls filled with salt. In case we encountered too many leeches, dripping salty water on them would detach them from our skin. Thankfully, we stayed dry through most of the steep uphill hike, which took almost three hours. Only towards the end, as we approached a devastated town called Milim, did a faint drizzle start. Finding the trail was tricky at Milim, as stones and wooden beams from collapsed houses were scattered all over the settlement. A lone man stood above the rubble. “Only a few died here, but none of us have anything left,” told us. Past Milim, the trail was level and we walked around a ridge to reach Ghyachchok. I felt a stinging itch, and Jess bravely picked a leech from my left foot. I had been lucky to only attract one.

A group of small children ran towards us at the entrance to the village and surrounded Dhwoj, tugging at his sleeves and hanging from his shoulders. “They are always like this,” Dhwoj said as he handed them sweets. Women belonging to the Aama Samuha, the local mothers’ group, stood with flower garlands to welcome us. We had been told that this was part of Gurung culture. Some of the mothers were dressed in traditional attire: bright red blouses and sparkling, green and gold necklaces. Behind them, variously-coloured tarpaulins were scattered over the settlement. How had the women managed to salvage their festive outfits from the wreckage? And where did they find the energy for this welcome?

We were escorted towards what appeared to be a hidden valley. “The aftershocks kept coming. For days we couldn’t even talk or eat properly,” a woman told Sharareh, speaking Nepali with a local accent. Later, over dinner inside a tent, another woman described her experience as she served greens gathered from the community forest. “I saw my house crumbling right before my eyes. People thought I was dead for sure, because the houses were so close to each other. Thank god it was a Saturday, sir. The children were all outside. In fact, I had sent my kids to collect small stones for the school construction site. Those stones saved my kids.”

My sleep was fitful that first night. The tent was hot, as I neglected to unzip the side windows. Torrential rain and thunder woke me intermittently, but the morning came clear and sunny. From the school grounds, where our team camped, we could see the Barpak settlement spread out on a distant hillside. After a cup of tea and some biscuits, Jess and I arranged plastic chairs in a circle inside a classroom constructed out of tin and wood, with a mud floor. Word had been sent to neighbouring villages that educators from Kathmandu were going to work with teachers that day. We waited for more people to arrive. Once everyone was settled, we gave our first direction: “Draw something that is important to you.”

The house as metaphor
Being made of stone and mud, almost every house in Gyachchok had collapsed. The one concrete structure that was unscathed looked out of place. All but one of the school buildings had been levelled. Even the remaining school had a crack on the ground floor. The teachers hadn’t all inspected the damage. When we first met them, they appeared stoic, but they were in a difficult position. As well as dealing with their own losses, students and community members looked to the teachers for support and guidance.

At our instruction to draw something important to them, all teachers drew houses or school buildings on the white cards that we passed around. For 20 minutes, they used pastels and coloured pencils to add details to their art work. Then, we gave each teacher the opportunity to describe the work and comment on the process.

“It was difficult at first,” said a young woman who taught at a primary school. “My house is the most important thing to me, so that’s what came to my mind. But now it’s gone.” She paused. “But I looked at what others were drawing and slowly started having fun.”

Another teacher, who had sketched a garden next to a school house, spoke up. He emphasised that having a well-maintained, clean school environment was important to him. Jess agreed with him, that having gardens and a proper school environment was important to teachers and students. “But the school environment depends on social factors too, right?” she posed the question to the group and paused so that I could translate. This was an important opportunity to connect ideas that came out of the conversation to the less tangible problems that the community faced. “The school environment also depends on how teachers and students treat each, especially during these difficult times,” she continued. As I translated, the teachers gently nodded their heads and I noticed some moist eyes, including those of a male teacher who hadn’t spoken a word so far.

It was important to remind the teachers that they were strong, that each had the inner resources to cope with this disaster, no matter how bleak or daunting the rebuilding process may seem. The fact that they had shown up at this workshop was proof that they were open to exploring ways of coping. “Some of you have already collaborated on projects. You came together, planned and constructed these shelters and toilets. If you continue to support each other and work together, you will all be okay,” I added.

I learnt more about the temporary shelters from Suresh Pokhrel the following afternoon. During our first night, I had noticed that he looked strikingly different from other members of the community. Suresh explained that he had grown up closer to the nearby town of Baluwa. He had ventured up to Ghyachchok about five years earlier, in search of work, when he heard that the Gurung community was looking for teachers. The Bahuns – the high-caste group that Suresh belongs to – typically live closer to the highways in Nepal, while the Gurungs and other communities have settled in and around remote valleys. Over time, ethnic groups such as Gurungs and Tamangs (collectively known as the Janajatis, or the indigenous people) have been marginalised and oppressed by high-caste Bahun Chhetris. So the fact that Ghyachchok was so remote, without proper motorable roads was an unsurprising feature of Nepali geopolitics. Unfortunately, the earth shook most violently in the central high-hill regions, largely affecting the already-impoverished Janajati communities, particularly the Tamangs.

“This ground was a cornfield until three weeks ago,” explained Suresh, clutching an infant to him. “The previous school site up there is useless, so we negotiated with the landlord and rented this plot for a year.” The teachers and villagers had worked together to clear the land. Individuals like Dhwoj Gurung had raised funds and transported corrugated tin sheets, which were in high demand after the earthquakes. A few members of the army arrived the day after the quake to help clear the rubble. Throughout our stay, we saw the uniformed state employees demolishing a house close to the new school compound. Apart from the army’s efforts, there were no other signs of state presence in Ghyachchok, no logos of INGOs, no child-friendly spaces or temporary learning shelters. In Kathmandu, numerous meetings were held between government representatives and regional and international organisations. Specific groups that met to discuss specific issues were known as clusters. For example, there was a shelter cluster, an education cluster and a sanitation cluster. But Ghyachchok had fallen off the radar of these cluster coordinations. Nobody was surprised. Ghyachchok is one of many settlements in Nepal that is hidden within the hills, forgotten, not registering in the collective imagination of policy makers. When I asked Suresh whether the village had received any government help, other than from the army, he answered, “What government?” and smiled, sarcastically. “They pay the salary of only three teachers in this school. All other salaries, including mine, are paid by the village.”

We were standing between two school buildings. Each had six rooms. I did a rough calculation. If one room is allocated to each of the ten grades, only two extra rooms would be available for administrative or storage purposes. The situation was tight, but I was amazed by the community’s vitality. If it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t have been able to conduct the ArtWorks programme, in which almost 30 of us were camped at the school grounds for four nights, most sleeping in long rows inside the classrooms where 400 Ghyachchok students would attend school this year.

Art as therapy
Debra Kalmanowitz and Bobby Lloyd, in their article ‘Inhabiting the uninhabitable: The use of art-making with teachers in Southwest Kosovo’, discuss work conducted by art therapists with school teachers in war-torn Kosovo during the early 1990s. The Kosovo crisis was largely man-made, whereas the earthquakes in Nepal were a natural disaster. However, parts of their work helped me to make sense of the work I was doing.

Connecting the external with the internal through the art-making process is at the heart of Kalmanowitz and Lloyd’s argument. They believe that after the first step – once basic physical needs, such as food and shelter, have been addressed – it is important to engage the thoughts and emotions of disaster victims, to get them to share their feelings so that they can flow out, rather than remain stuck inside. Making art provides an organic way to do that. The process of drawing a house is an example of how individuals can connect their internal resources (imagination) to the external (the house that has been destroyed), and hopefully jump-start psycho-emotional recovery and rebuilding. The authors cite the work of art therapist Melinda Ashley Mayer, who used the house as a metaphor for the body, family and society. They wrote:

The ‘walls’ of the house have literally fallen down and the old structures now only exist within the individual body. It is this individual body that has the opportunity – through what Mayer calls ‘play’ – to be linked together with the house of the family and that of society, so as to build a ‘new house’ with new structures, return to the old, or do both.

Based on feedback from teachers and reflections from therapists, Kalmanowitz and Lloyd conclude that art provides a way of coming to terms with one’s experience. Art activities could be beneficial for anyone, adults or children. The role of art-making in aiding children to move forward is uncontested, especially in cultures and societies that don’t have a tradition of open, regular conversations about one’s thoughts and feelings. So many cultures, like the high-caste Hindu community I grew up in, don’t encourage open expression, with “the belief that if it is not said, it will eventually go away,” in Kalmanowitz and Lloyd’s words. Art could play a big role here.

Art-making activities combined with group reflections provides participants with some basic skills, at the very least. They get better at expressing themselves and listening to each other. On our final day, during a casual conversation, the teachers conveyed how the session had made them feel lighter, and provided a starting point for their school year.

One teacher had begun a conversation about the school environment during one of the first sessions. Another teacher had alluded to his hopes and dreams. He sketched motorable roads and electrical poles around his house. Later that day, I noticed the same teachers sawing off wooden beams, in order to install solar panels at the school. The micro hydroelectric plant constructed a few years earlier had supplied electricity to Ghyachchok and five other villages in the area, but the earthquake had destroyed the plant, rendering the settlement without power since April 25.

The faces of the teachers, especially the men, were heavy with the burden of responsibility, and they barely spoke. Yet, inside the makeshift classroom, I noticed instances of joy during the art-making process. There was an almost tangible sense of collective relief at the opportunity to be in a space where they could, for a while, just sketch, draw and play with colour.

One of the art therapy teams in Kosovo gave flour, salt, oil and water to teachers, and asked them to play with the materials and create something. Kalmanowitz and Lloyd wrote: “They seemed to be finding that creative space where the human spirit can find joy in an immediate, instinctive response to a ball of flour, salt, oil, and water.”

Returning to life
For three days and nights, the Ghyachchok compound came to life with colour and music. Shades of red and yellow, green and blue mingled with joyful sounds and movements. Hula hoops and balls were thrown around, stories read and created, Kathak and traditional dances performed.

As an educator, I tried to strike a balance between planning and responding, between controlling and letting go. I had brought picture books and sketched a general plan to work with teachers and primary grade students, leaving enough room in the plans for modification if surprises arose. After the first session, I conducted another session with teachers on literacy, explaining the idea of difficulty of texts  and the importance of matching children to the right books.

A few of the teachers supervised primary-grade children as they read stories and looked at the pictures. My hope was that the stories and pictures would inspire a few, or at least help them relax. But they soon got restless and scattered throughout the school compound, disturbing the movement workshops that Circus Kathmandu were conducting with the older students.

On the morning of the third day, a plan had to be devised. Older students were matched with younger ones, forming smaller groups of twos and threes. I asked the older students to read to the younger ones. “Explain the stories,” I requested. “Ask questions. Just spend some time together.” This kind of partnership, regularly practiced in the New York City public schools in which I had worked, is known to promote organic interaction with books and engage students in a meaningful way. Always eager for novel experiences, students respond well and look forward to peer reading. I was glad to note that the Ghyachchok students also enjoyed this experience. In fact, some of the older students stayed after school, searching through the pile of books and poring over them.

On our final evening in Ghyachchok, we had several memorable conversations with the teachers. After the storytelling performance, some members of our team danced on stage with students and village elders. Clouds moved slowly over the hills and two distant waterfalls. Jess, Sharareh and I talked to three local teachers. Several conversations were taking place. One of the teachers said that she had been trying to read but could not remember anything. Jess reassured the teachers that there was no one right way of reacting to traumatic experiences. Disorientation, loss of memory, exhaustion and confusion can be considered normal reactions to an abnormal situation. Later, the teacher revealed how she had left her four-year-old son in Kathmandu with her mother-in-law the day before the earthquake. “Babu wants to come back to Ghyachchok,” she muttered, on the verge of tears, “But I don’t know what I will do with him here.”

Another teacher, Sangeeta Gurung, was calmer. She summarised her life story in a few minutes: how she had moved to the village with her husband about a decade earlier, at a time when there was no electricity or regular water supply. “Every woman in this village has contributed to bringing water and electricity here,” she told me. She spoke in a measured tone, her composure a sign of her emotional maturity and intelligence. But sadness and dejection bubbled under the surface. “We have worked so hard to develop this village, sir, and we were doing so well. But now, this happened.” She paused, momentarily at a loss for words. Several times, Jess and I had emphasised the importance of staying in the present, of not thinking too much about the past or the future, and how necessary it was to keep going. I didn’t feel like repeating this again. Another teacher began recounting how she had been partially buried. If she hadn’t managed to stick her hand out of the rubble, she may not have survived.

It was clear that the teachers had a lot to share. Listening to them felt like the only thing I could do.

Taking the project forward
Back in Kathmandu, Sharareh and I sat down with Kumudini. We shared photos and talked about what had worked and what needed improving in the ArtWorks programme. Two things were clear: the primary-level students needed more supervisors, and the teachers needed further sessions. How could we take this project forward? Kumudini urged us to consider taking ArtWorks across Nepal, not just to the districts affected by the quakes. Her brothers had struggled with maths and science at school. Artistically inclined from a young age, both now had successful careers, one in film and the other in fashion. If it hadn’t been for art, they could have struggled to find their way in life. “If you can just light a few sparks with this programme,” said Kumudini, “If you can show some of these students that there is a whole other world for them, we will consider our job done.”

I knew exactly what Kumudini meant. I had also been weak in maths and science. Had it not been for friends who passed novels around in boarding school, I may never have discovered reading and my curiosity might never have been stoked. I would not have known about the worlds that existed beyond my own. If it hadn’t been for books, my various desires – to learn about these worlds, to meet people who lived in them, to understand their different ways of thinking and being – would not have been fulfilled.

I have always understood the value of literature and the art of writing, but this trip compelled me to think more deeply about our time at Ghyachchok, about the trip, which was a sort of an experiment. How effective had the programme been? Would it make sense to go all over Nepal, or just to a few villages multiple times? Should the focus be on visual and performing arts, on more innovative ways of creating and making, or should language arts be given equal weight? The quake had brought the artists and volunteers together, compelling us to take this journey. We had decided to leave our comfort zones for a few days and embark on an adventure. I had devoted hours to working with teachers and students, relished the company, and had ignored the bug bites around my ankles.

So what? What did we really accomplish? What did we leave behind? Kumudini mentioned sparks. That is good enough. But it is also important to think about ways of integrating the arts into the school system, in a realistic and sustainable way. The government curriculum is heavily dominated by obscure texts, disconnected from students’ immediate lives, taught in an old-fashioned way. Rote learning is emphasised, so that students memorise answers to questions for an end-of-year exam. Visual and performing arts are given little attention.

An education without a rigorous arts component is like raising a child inside a walled compound. An arts-based curriculum brings out human diversity, valuing multiple intelligences, enabling students to appreciate each other’s talents and personalities. Educator Paulo Friere wrote that art can help people develop a new awareness of self. Maxine Greene has written about how art can release one’s imagination. Art also breaks internal barriers, those created by the mind and emotions.

Art is not just a skills-based approach limited to lines or colours, or an approach taken by Southasia’s flippant popular culture that uses art to entertain the masses. When I talk about arts education, I am talking about an approach that is inclusive and interdisciplinary, combining practices that emphasise traditional techniques as well as postmodern experimentation, ranging from dancing to writing, from painting to making, with the collective emphasis on unearthing and digging deeper, on peeling layers and pushing boundaries, of exploring new ways of perceiving and sensing the world, the focus being not only on developing thoughts and ideas, but also on understanding multicultural, diverse humanity. In so doing, in embracing an outlook like this, art provides limitless possibilities for personal growth. Practices around art-making and thought-sharing have the potential to soften emotions and break down mental barriers. Much of this is beyond the scope of the ArtWorks programme. Only a state-sponsored education system can deliver these ideas more broadly, but it is important to introduce such concepts to Nepal.

The following anecdote illustrates my intentions. My mother once wanted to take me to a Bhairav temple for a birthday ritual with a priest. I agreed, even though I am not religious. They made me sit on a straw mat. I waited while the priest laid out small saucers and my mother took out grains of rice and colourful powders. It was a pleasant morning. A huge tree stood in a corner. Men, women, boys, girls were scattered around, their faces marked by a certain kind of patience and focus, something I have noticed at several other religious sites.

My mother dipped a bunch of cotton threads in oil, lit the tip and placed it on a small copper bowl. The priest asked me to sprinkle the powder, one colour at a time, on a sacred spot while he chanted prayers. I found myself getting restless. A desire to confront this illogical practice rose inside me, but I worked with my frustration to find my centre. I reminded myself that, in general, I needed to be more patient in life.

Then, I was struck by the artistic display laid out by the priest and my mother: the small, colourful mounds and the flickering light were pleasant to look at. The whole setting – the tree, the morning air, the people praying – provided a serene ambience. Conflicting with this was my restive nature.

This model, this practice that is intricately tied to Nepal’s sociocultural life, illustrates my belief that art has the potential to enrich one’s life. I also reflected on my work with Jess Linton, trying to find concrete ways to connect art therapy more seamlessly with Nepali society.

Art therapy refers to two things that must happen simultaneously, I realised: practice and conversation. The temple ritual I participated in was largely practice-based, but it lacked conversation. I did not talk to my mother or the priest about what I was thinking or feeling. I can think of similar dynamics within families and communities, who merely follow traditional rituals because they are supposed to, without understanding it properly or engaging in a critical discussion of the practice. Even regarding traditional forms of artistic practice, there is a lack of vibrant mainstream discourse. Government institutions and art councils merely hold celebratory art openings, without engaging young students, teachers and artists in reflective conversations. As a result, people either have misconceptions or a limited understanding of what art exactly is. Just as I did not share my appreciation of the display at the temple with my mother, or the fact that I was experiencing conflicting thoughts and emotions, benefits that could arise from viewing artwork are not explicitly discussed in Nepali society. More importantly, practices around art and therapy have not been formalised within educational and professional institutions.

As these ideas are not openly embraced by society, and these practices not formalised within a professional setting, the chance for qualitative discussion has been lost, and misconceptions regarding artistic disciplines linger. Such patterns, fossilised over decades, have severely limited multidimensional investigation and learning around therapy, as well as art.

Clearly, Nepal’s education sector is one of several areas that needs a thorough overhaul. Even within education, curriculum is one among other aspects – teacher evaluation, teaching methodology, accountability – that requires improvement. But one must start somewhere. In this small pilot programme, I was fortunate to collaborate with educators and sponsors holding similar beliefs. We will continue with that belief – that art works.

~The ArtWorks programme is supported by the Shikshya Foundation.

~Niranjan Kunwar is a writer and educator based in Kathmandu. He can be reached at

~This article is a part of the web-exclusive series from our latest issue ‘Disaster Politics’. More from the print quarterly here.

This article was published in Himal Southasian Magazine 14 Aug, 2015