Mukunda Bahadur Shrestha-Nepal’s forgotten photographer
Mukunda Bahadur Shrestha has never used a digital camera in his entire life. His first camera was a Pentax box camera that belonged to his maternal uncle.
The idea that he could capture and freeze a certain scene and then be able to look at it whenever he wanted to enthralled Shrestha, and he used to fiddle with the huge metal box whenever he could lay his hands on it.
Having dropped out of school before appearing for his SLC exams, Shrestha started his photography journey at an early age. But it was only after he joined the Department of Tourism as a non-gazetted officer that his photography career finally took off.
“Photography was an expensive hobby back then. It took a lot of money to develop a single image. I used to borrow money from my father,” says Shrestha, reminiscing about those days in the 1940’s when a box camera cost just Rs 25 and even that was a huge sum of money.
Photography has now become a career choice for many and is evolving at breakneck speed. But when Shrestha started off, there were only a handful of photographers, as it was not considered a suitable career option for men who would one day have to get married and provide for their families.
Hence, his willingness to work at the Department of Tourism, where he served for seventeen long years, stemmed from the insecurity and fear that he would not be able to feed his family if he chose to continue doing only what he was most passionate about – traveling while taking pictures. But fate had bigger plans for this man, as his job provided him with opportunities to do just that.
“I traveled all over the country taking pictures of people, mountains and anything and everything that caught my fancy for promotional projects for the Department of Tourism,” he says, pulling out several books where his images have been published in bulk.
As one starts leafing through the glossy pages of the hardbound books that have works of other photographers as well, several images captivate you, and those particularly magnificent pictures of the Himalaya or portraits of people from various ethnic backgrounds will most definitely be Shrestha’s masterpieces.
This fact goes a long way to show that work done with passion and zest surpasses the quality of work that’s done merely for the sake of fulfilling a requirement or completing a task.
“A good photograph holds the power to lift up your spirits and make you happy. That’s what I have always tried to do in my images,” says Shrestha whose favorite images are mostly those of happy and smiling babies, kids and women though he has been an ardent lover of nature and wildlife photography.
Shrestha takes pride and revels in the fact that he was the only photographer who was granted access during the coronation of the late King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and the 3rd SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu.
“I also got the opportunity to photograph Queen Elizabeth II when she was on her official visit to Nepal,” he says, adding that to get a glimpse of the queen from that close had been something he had never even imagined in his wildest dreams.
There’s never been a moment when he has regretted his decision of becoming a photographer and pursuing it as a career. But there have been instances in the course of his journey that still make him shudder.
Take for instance the time when the Department of Tourism sent him to Langtang, a region north of Kathmandu bordering Tibet and he had to clamber across a five-meter-long stone cliff that fell on his way.
“There was a river gushing below and I had to hold on to spiky rocks and make the cross. My legs were trembling but to return without pictures would’ve been a disappointment and a complete waste of time. So I mustered up enough guts not to look down and cross the cliff,” says Shrestha, mentioning that he gets goose bumps even when he thinks about it now.
But even incidents like these, and there have been quite a few scary moments, didn’t dissuade Shrestha from traveling across the country, taking pictures. The satisfaction of getting a perfect image far outweighed the risks and challenges.
As he runs his hands over the framed pictures that adorn the walls of his lobby, Shrestha gets nostalgic, thinking about all the places he has had visited.
Age has taken its toll, and at 86, even his daily walks to the Krishna Mandir at Mangal Bazaar in Patan, a less than five-minute distance from his residence, tires him out. But his enthusiasm for photography remains unchanged and he wishes he could still travel and take more pictures.
“The last time I took a picture was some ten years ago in Pokhara. After that, I’ve been living the life of a recluse,” he says, referring to his lifestyle now where the highlight of his day is his daily walks around his neighborhood.
Contrast that to the nearly bohemian lifestyle he led till his retirement almost two decades back, and one can see why he misses photography which Shrestha agrees gave him the freedom to live life on his own terms. The best part was that he was able to take care of a family of seven whilst also pursuing his dreams.
The only complaint Shrestha has is that during his time, photography was not very developed and the process of bringing his images to life was a tedious task.
“Now the whole concept of photography has changed. It’s all digitalized and hence much easier. During my time, everything was manual and took a lot of time and effort,” says Shrestha, adding that he had to send film rolls to India to have them developed and that he had to carry separate cameras for taking black and white and color pictures.
When Shrestha comes across photographers these days, he can’t help feeling a tad bit jealous of the fact that they have all these facilities and resources at their disposal where images can fixed and altered with a simple keystroke. He recalls an incident where he was severely reprimanded for taking pictures that were not up to the mark.
However, Shrestha is delighted that finally more people will get to see his images during the upcoming exhibition “Postcards and Beyond” by photo circle scheduled from August 10 to 20.
“I’ll get some exposure and a platform to showcase my years of hard work. I’m very excited by the prospect of it. After two years of talking about an exhibition, it’s finally happening,” says a visibly thrilled Shrestha.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Shrestha’s pictures transcend storytelling. Each image takes the viewer back in time and keeps him captivated enough to get lost in the faces and the scenic beauty.
Shrestha tells the story of his life and of Nepal as it was years ago through his lens, and it’s a series of stories that stays on your mind long after it’s all over.