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Panauti in retrospect

Gerard Toffin’s 1976 photograph of Panauti’s Chiba Dyo stupa is one of the most telling images of the city from that time. Taken during the French anthropologist’s trip to Panauti, the photo features an unflattering view of the iconic Chiba Dyo stupa on the left, an electricity pole on the centre-left and a temple protruding in the background, flagged by a couple of antique, dilapidated houses. A vintage Russian jeep lies still on the centre-right and beside it are women carrying dokos. But for photographer Prasant Shrestha, the most nostalgic subject of the photo is the sewage, pitch black, flowing just in the picture’s foreground.

“The place where this photo was taken has undergone a major facelift now,” says Shrestha. “The houses have been revamped and the place is clean now, the sewage no longer there. This was real sewage. When kids, we too used to defecate in there,” Shrestha says and bursts into laughter. “And the jeep is what would take my father to Kathmandu.”

It’s understandable that the photo touched a nerve inside Shrestha, who was born and raised in Panauti. Shrestha later moved to Kathmandu and started his career in photography in the late 90s. Now, he’s compiled a total of 50 photographs depicting Panauti from the late 70s to 2015. This collection, titled ‘Changes in Panauti’, is currently on show at the Nepal Tourism Board in Bhrikutimandap, and features works from Shrestha himself, along with Gerard Toffin, Vincent Barre, Patrick Berger and Laurence Feveile.

Once a tiny, circular city featuring a tightly-knit cluster of houses, Panauti has today expanded on two sides diagonally up towards the hills. What used to be a settlement where ‘every home looked like a temple’ has today turned into a city superimposed with tall, concrete houses. But not everything has been lost. The antique roofs might have been replaced with concrete ones but the mythical Bajrayani temple, one of Panauti’s crown jewels, is intact, awaiting the next iteration of the famous religious festival that takes place there once every 12 years. The Bajrayani temple is the meeting point of two rivers—Roshi and Punyamata—that flow through the city of Panauti. This temple, too, is one of the major subjects of the series on show.

Moreover, the exhibition also features photographs of the jatra proceedings and landscape shots, all poised to make the viewer imagine and reflect on times gone by.

But the exhibit doesn’t quite live up to its title of ‘Changes in Panauti’. Going by the name, the viewer would naturally expect to see images of Panauti from then and now. While the series has plenty of photographs from decades now, similar contemporary photographs are missing. But Shrestha promises that the next exhibition will feature more photographs displaying what Panauti looks like now.

Changes in Panauti is on show at the Nepal Tourism Board in Bhrikutimandap till January 10.


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