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Story of Sugata - Nepal

THE STORY OF SUGATA: Chhairo and Kathmandu

Like moments frozen in time, what Sugata captured on films almost half a century ago offer glimpse into our history unlike anything else. They show the images of a bygone era, when life, as we now know it, was much simpler and when it was inseparably intertwined with religion and spiritualism. And of a period, when being a Nepali meant inheriting hundreds of years’ worth of culture and traditions. All seem like distant memories now, brought alive, once more, by the photographs taken by an unlikely individual, whose own personal story is inextricably linked with those in his picture.

Remarkable and surprising stories, like that of the not so famous Aghori Baba, Ramnath, who Sugata photographed after meeting him in the plane bringing late King Tribhuvan’s body back from Switzerland before its cremation at Pashupatinath in 1954. His hunger strike had inspired the king to found the Tribhuvan University, the first institution of such kind in Kathmandu. It is only now that we can start to appreciate the contribution of this one single individual, whose name and identity, if it hadn’t been for Sugata, could have easily been lost for ever in time.

Sugata’s never before seen collection also includes scenes from the actual funeral of King Tribhuvan at the Pashupatinath crematorium. Showing people in their hundreds and thousands, these unique photographs radiate a vive of love and respect that the people then must have had for their monarch. And then there are the pictures from the Rato Machchindranath Jatra, where the massive chariot is shown being pulled aside a beautiful large pond, instead of where is now the office of the Lalitpur Sub-metropolis. Of course, with the surroundings landmarks to guide you, it isn’t too difficult to identity most of these anomalies, but you would at least have to be 60 years old or a brilliant genius to recognize clear waters of Bagmati and the rickety wooden bridge at Shankhamul.

But for many people, the discoveries in the photographs have been more personal. In its debut exhibition at the Patan Museum, the Thakali community turned out in full force, eager to see again their landscape of origin in the Kaligandaki region, and remember those vibrant days that have forever shaped who they will be. Many had an unexpected boom: daughters and grandsons finding photographs of their fathers, sisters, brothers and uncles. The sons and grandsons of the followers of the Shivapuri Baba were happy to meet the person who had taken, what could be the very first photographs of the Baba, and once more talk to him about the Shivapuri Baba. Indeed, it may even seem that personal story being discovered in each of the photographs if finally adding colors to these otherwise black and white portraits.

And equally extraordinary is how expert thanks frescos artist lama Sashi Dhoj Tulachan was able to recognize himself and his father working on a painting, in a photograph that was taken in Tukuche in 1960. it was taken during Sugata’s second trip to Nepal, after he had already converted into Buddhism at Swoyambhu with Amritnanda in 1954. As a monk with three Leica cameras around his neck, Sugata was commissioned to photograph the ‘Devil Dances’ in Tukuche by Samsher Sherchan who, ahead of his time, imaginatively anticipated a potential tourist interest in them.

But Sugata, not only captured the masked dances on film, he also ventured further up the Kali Gandaki Valley to the then resplendent Chhairo Gompa. A revered place of worship that has existed since the early 1800 or before, the original murals and frescos on the walls of the Gompa was painted by the illustrious Tibetian painter Lama Chhiway Thilen.

In fact, it could even be summarized that it was one of the last vestiges of Tibetan art and culture unaffected by mainstream Nepalese influences. However, at the time, the Tukuche Lamas did not wish to commercialize their shrine and see their sacred rituals promoted, so hundreds of priceless photographs were put away in boxes.

Revisiting Chhairo in 2001, to celebrate his 90th birthday, Sugata saw the 200 years old Buddhist center ravaged by time, nature and human hands. Through meeting the aforementioned Sashi Dhoj Tulachan, whose father had painted in Chhairo, Sugata offered the photographs to the Gompa as the first step to raise funds for its restoration and rehabilitation. Sashi Dhoj, who plans to live up in Chhairo and teach his thanka art was delighted and remarked to Sugata, ‘You are our bridge to Chhairo. Now soon the Gompa will come alive with the Devil Dance: the triumph of good over evil, the destruction of all obstacles on our path’.

But for the 93 years old Sugata, coming back to Nepal has also been a bridge between his past and his present. He had once come to Nepal in search of meaning as well as freedom and had become a Buddhist monk. Returning to his adopted country, Norway, he lectured on Buddhism and began the slow but fulfilling process of unraveling and dealing with the suffering of his past life for many years. Now preparing for ‘nirvana’ Sugata is divesting himself of his material life and closing up old circles.

In fact, he has even coauthored his own remarkable story with writer Rachel Kellett called the ‘Bird of Passage’ that was released last week by Mandala Publication, Kathmandu. It recounts the entire story of Sugata along with some of last centuries’ darkest periods. Born in 1911 in Germany, Sugata’s protest against his time and pace culminated in his war time betrayal of the Nazi Germany and effectively ensured his rootlessness. It was several years later, here in the lap of the Himalayas that he found a new meaning of life, and in a sense, his return symbolizes the whole idea of life as a cycle!

The exhibition and sale of over 400 photographs continues for one year at the Godavari Alumni Association (GAA) in Thamel. All benefits from the sales will go for the restoration of the Chhairo Gompa. The previous exhibition of some selected photographs at the Patan museum raised Rs. 85,000. This foundation is the start of the 10% the Chhairo Gompa Restoration Project must raise locally to secure more substantial funding from the CRTP (Cultural Restoration Tourism Project), based in the US, who enterprisingly uses tourists to provide a model for alternative funding for restoration projects.

Source: The Kathmandu Post, 2005


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