Kashish Das Shrestha
Photos: Bibhas Maharjan Suwal
Kashish Das Shrestha is a widely published writer, photographer, independent policy analyst, communications consultant for social issues in Nepal and an entrepreneur. Saying he has a lot on his plate would be an understatement. Despite what seems like too much to handle for one man, he manages to excel at everything he does.
The number of young men and women migrating out of the country is escalating despite the disgruntled scrutiny expressed by the masses. However, it hasn’t all fallen on deaf ears. There are a lot of brilliant young minds that are shaping the future of Nepal, but they have their work cut out for them. Luckily, the prospects look good. There are many young men and women living in Nepal as well as abroad who are creating a positive stir in the country.
Kashish Das Shrestha is amongst these saving graces for the youth of our nation. He is a widely published writer, photographer, independent policy analyst, communications consultant for social issues in Nepal and an entrepreneur. Saying he has a lot on his plate would be an understatement. Despite what seems like too much to handle for one man, he manages to excel at everything he does.
His writing and work as a policy analyst revolve around sustainable development in Nepal, focusing mainly on environment and climate change, wildlife, energy, agriculture, and urban development. (You can look through his work at www. sustainablenepal.org ). The fact that he works closely with MP Gagan Thapa regarding these issues should help put the importance of his work into perspective.
Kashish comes from a long line of photographers. Dwarika Das Shrestha, Kashish’s grandfather, helped forge the photo studio and postcard industry in Nepal during the 1950s. His son, Gyanendra Das Shrestha continued the legacy and spent most of his time using his photography to promote tourism in Nepal. At one point, Das Colors Labs was one of the most sought after postcard producers in Kathmandu with over a dozen outlets. The legacy that began with Thakur Das Shrestha who established the first Das Studio in Darjeeling in 1927 is now being shouldered by Kashish Das Shrestha, the fourth generation of photographers in the Das Shrestha Family.
Kashish’s photographic works range from his photo journalism projects during the peak periods of Maoist rebellion to the exclusive opportunity of photographing the New York Fashion Week.
More recently, The City Museum Kathmandu (CMK) has been his entrepreneurial venture in Kathmandu and his prime point of focus. CMK is a museum exhibiting wonderful archival photos from the Das family and two other families that helped pioneer photography in Nepal. CMK also has a gallery hosting modern exhibits that showcase the country’s talents. The gallery also plays host to events, screenings and workshops. It is also slowly becoming a platform that promotes local contemporary art and artists. After all that we had heard about him, it was imperative that we know more about him. We were able to squeeze ourselves into his busy schedule and ask him a few questions:
You’re a writer, photographer, social worker, entrepreneur, policy maker and probably some other things we have missed out. Which role do you find yourself to be best at?
To me, all of it has always gone hand in hand. My photography work supports my policy research and other works. For several years I photographed the New York Fashion Week and used that to fund my independent research on environment and energy issues.
How did you get into writing?
I used to write a lot as a child too, or so suggest my old diaries and notebooks. But it was when I started writing about Music that I really got into it professionally. And it wasn’t long before I started on socio-political issues. To me, maybe my first important piece of writing was the proposal for reducing pollution in Katmandu.
It was for an inter-school World Environment Day contest in 1994, which I won. I had argued that not only do we need mass transit, but we need the kind of quality and efficient mass transit that would make it more attractive than using private vehicles on a day to day basis. Essentially, I guess I was saying people who could afford cars should want to instead use the mass transit. And I recall citing Tokyo and New York as examples based on what I had read about those places, as I’d not been to either at the time. In recent years, I have been working with Parliamentarian Gagan Thapa on reworking this idea for current times.
Tell us about your blog, Sustainable Nepal. How did that start?
Although I have written for print media for over a decade, I have never functioned as a reporter. I have always largely done features writing, and I don’t know when the transition happened but for most parts of the last 5 or more years I have been more interested in using my writing to explore and propose possible solutions to the issues I am writing about. We are at a point in modern history where Nepal does not re-invent the wheel, we just need to connect the global dots, and see what works best for our sustainable development, more of adapting and less of adopting. We still have time to correct some courses and ensure we choose the right tracks moving ahead. So I wanted to make sure that I do what I can as a writer for that process, and then find ways to directly work with policy makers to see if something tangible can come out of it. One of those ideas turned into a Policy Fellowship research with the Niti Foundation in 2012. Others have been included in MP Thapa’s Katmandu Manifesto, and some have made their way into policy discussions in the last Natural Resources and Means Parliamentary Committee. I had been regularly writing the Of This Earth column in Republica, and MP Gagan Thapa and I have been writing a World Environment Day Op-Ed every year in The Kathmandu Post since 2009. So last year I decided that I wanted to have an online platform for a wider audience reach, and also to consolidate my research and writings, both old and new. And it is in continuation of my efforts to keep my environment and sustainable development policy work as independent as possible. It is entirely funded by my work as a photographer and communications professional.
And when my research involves information from trips affiliated to any third party, I like to make sure that’s disclosed. In March we were happy to be a co-host for a policy meeting organized by the Office of MP Gagan Thapa for elected MPs of Kathmandu on sustainable urban development issues. Last year I was also asked by Rato Jhilko, the journal published by former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai (UCP-Maoist), to write the main feature on alternative energy, which I was happy to.
Photography has been a major part of your career and family, when did you first lay hands on a camera? How did you get into it? How much of a role did your family history play in igniting your passion for photography?
I grew up with photography around me. My sisters and I would spent a lot of our holidays in our father’s photo shop and studio, and our house would be full of fresh postcards and posters shipped from the printers in Bangkok several times a year. But I only took it up seriously when I started using my grandfather’s old Pentax Spotmatic Asahi to photograph Kathmandu and its music scene in 1999-2000.
You were amidst the armed Maoist rebellion during the peak periods of the unsettlement. What would you say stuck with you from the experience?
The first time I spent time with the Maoists was in Rolpa in 2002. I was amazed at how hostile the Army was to civilians entering and leaving that area and how empty the villages there were of men and boys. Another time, in eastern Nepal, near the Gufa Pokhari area, we spent about a week with the rebel’s 118th Battalion. It was an orgy of weapons – there were guns of every kind everywhere, and explosives too. Boys wearing bullets as pendents, school bags bulging with grenades. In Achham, I met an amazing young singer whose melancholic voice and melodies took you to a different state of mind. She was trying to escape the Maoists who wanted to recruit her for their Cultural wing. I recall meeting one particular young man in his late teens in Bardiya. Not long before I met him he was at a crossroad in his life: if he joined the government security forces, he knew he could support his family financially, and that if he lived long enough even get a pension. But if he joined the Maoists he knew he would be making a decision based on his principles, on what he felt he believed in. He joined the Maoists. The disconnect, or the disparity, of realities between Kathmandu that Kathmandu lived in couldn’t have seemed clearer to me. And I was often shocked by how aloof, or simply misguided, a lot of the so called “privileged” “educated” youth of Kathmandu were. Maybe it is fine to not know, but to have prejudiced opinions against people’s circumstances and actions without any interest to actually understand their reality is off-putting. I recall an argument in 2004 with a friend who was convinced the Nepal’s security forces never violated human rights.
We understand that one of the prior concerns of the City Museum is to promote local artists and craftsmen. How did you think of starting something like the City Museum? What did you have in mind and what inspired you to do it?
The idea for CMK really came after hours and hours of conversation with my grandfather before he passed away in 2004. After two years of relentless nudging, he had finally agreed to let me have his archives and do what I want with it. He passed away within two weeks after that conversation. So I spent most nights of 2004 and 2005 cataloging everything that remained of his works in a small hand-carry sized luggage. To him, it was an era he had stopped caring for. To me, it was a treasure trove. In 2007, I finally hosted an exhibition with my grandfather’s works along with father’s and mine. We got some press coverage and schools started bringing students by the busloads, people of all ages walked to the gallery even in Nepal bandh. It was during that exhibition that I was certain something like this needed a permanent space, that these images needed to accessible to the public as much as possible. Then with my work on sustainable development policies and interest in environment issues, these images also just became a great medium to tell the visual story of Nepal’s urbanization process. And what we gain and lose in that process. So the idea had been brewing and taking shape in my mind for almost 10 years now, but with the help of a few friends it has come to this stage today.
What else do you have planned for City Museum?
Movies at The Museum, which is generally movies every weekend in the evening. We have already started this with various screenings and even discussions. In May we hosted members of the production team that worked on the Everest documentary for Discovery/ NBC America and screened the documentary itself. One of our first events at the Gallery was a filmmaking workshop with Oscar nominee and Emmy as well as the Peabody winner Irene Taylor Brodsky as part of the American Film Showcase for a weeklong filmmaking workshop that the US Embassy had organized. And we were equally thrilled to kick off our Music at the Museum series with the Khumbila event, which was a fundraiser for the Pasang Lhamu Foundation, and also a celebration of Kutumba’s 10th anniversary. Grammy nominated Jamie Cato guest performed that evening with Kutumba.
In the last 15 years of events management, this was definitely a personal high for me, just to have such amazing local talents come together for a good cause in such short notice, and for the public and media to support all of it the way they did. Music at The Museum is another series that we plan to have regularly. During the year we will also host special exhibits that will sometimes use the entire happening all year long, not just in the Gallery but sometimes using the entire third floor as one large exhibition experience. Visitors of the Museum should also expect to see regular updates and additions in that space. There will also be lots of impromptu events, and our Facebook (fb.com/ citymuseumkathmandu) and Twitter (@theCityMuseum) are the best ways to know what the latest is, and what’s coming up.
Is there any other ventures you’re looking to set your hands on?
The one that I have been working on for several years to put together is a project called KTM (Kathmandu Transit Management). It’s essentially a modern electric mass transit service in Kathmandu. Part of that service is also designed to help the tourism sector by offering a route which connects Katmandu’s World Heritage Sites so that visitors could see them all in a two-day package. But The Museum project is my priority at the moment. I have also been recently selected as one of the 6 International Collaborators of Stanford University’s Office of International Affairs. This was based on the proposal submitted by Professor Elizabeth Hadly; she heads the Hadly Lab and is also the professor of biology and of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University. And these are not ventures in the business sense, but I will be continuing to work on sustainable development ideas and testing them out for policy and implementation.
What would you call yourself as a professional now?
Not sure if I can bracket myself into anything. I’ve been writing professionally for almost 15 years, and doing photography for almost the same number of years. And I’ve been working on sustainable development policy issues for the last five. I also do Communications Consultancy for organizations here in Nepal.
What would you do or do differently to uplift a sector or the entire nation?
Serious diversification of the country’s energy sector to beyond hydro-power and a real shift of the country’s mobility out of its current fossil fuel based model to electric and hybrid based. These are directly related to issues of public health, economic development, and social justice and intergenerational equity.
How do you balance work and play? What do you do to unwind?
Since December, my work days usually begin around 7AM and go on till when I crash. I actually try and get work done before 10AM, which is to say before people arrive at the Museum and meetings happen etc. Then again after 7PM when I am by myself. Almost all of our designs are done in New York by Sarahana Shrestha and Sahara Shrestha (disclosure: my older and younger sisters, respectively), so my second work shift usually begins at night when I’m coordinating with them.
As far as unwinding goes, on a day to day basis, its at least one indulgent meal a day, often dinner, and catching up on world news. Movies always transport me to a different world, however it also helps my mind process a lot of work stuff simultaneously. For example, I’d spent a month trying to come up with the layout for the Museum. Then somewhere over Central Asia, while I was totally engrossed in an in-flight movie while going to Kyrgyzstan, I suddenly needed a piece of paper and a pen to sketch out the Museum’s layout.
And that is what the Museum’s layout is based on today. And I’m lucky to live where I do, so even spending 5 minutes on the balcony and looking out at Kathmandu with Sawayambhu in the western horizon, Dharahara and Ghatantaghar in the south, and the hills and mountains in the north is a great escape. If nothing else, Narayanhitti Palace Museum is an amazing green space. Unfortunately, the Army seems to see no value in that and have been happily building gigantic structures and chopping off bamboos in there. When I am really lucky, I get to share a great meal and conversation with a friend. Those are precious. For now, traveling has been out of the question but what I am at heart I am a wanderer, wonderer. I like traveling in its most literal sense. Spending 10 days over Christmas in Afghanistan with my friend Subel was surreal and amazing.
But I also love traveling between worlds; between the one around me and in me, between friends and lovers sometimes one and the same, between Nepal and New York, between my loner tendencies and social professional obligations and indulgences, between New York Fashion Week and environment research in Nepal, and whatever other worlds I may be fortunate enough to discover.
How has the transition of returning to Nepal from the States been? What do you miss the most? How does your life compare between these two corners of the world?
I think it’s unfair for New York to be compared to Kathmandu, or vice versa. But I have been living and working in New York since 2003, and I have always made sure I came back to Nepal at least once if not twice a year, for extended periods of time. So switching between the two worlds has not felt like a transition in a long time. Having said that, this is the first time I have been away from New York, or rather my family there, for over a year. And so that transition – of not going back and forth and being only in one place – has not been easy. I would use Thanksgiving and Christmas as excuses to host family dinners,and mom would host her regular Saturday lunches for my sisters and me. And there would be lots of delicious food, natural dys functional family dynamics, extended sessions of Risk and Monopoly, the long drive from my parents place to mine, and just little nuances of life with family, which I do miss.