10 Feb 2017
12 min read
1735 words
Kishor Kayastha talks to VMAG about his early days, what Kathmandu Valley means to him and how his unique vision is sometimes misunderstood

One word to define your work.
Documentation is the word that defines my work. I have always revered photography for its ability to document a moment in time. Regardless of what subject I’m working on—fashion, aerial photography, festivals, architecture, etc—I’m documenting people, places and events. This visual representing of stories and histories has always fascinated me. My parents owned Neelkamal Photo Studio, named after my mother, in Bhaktapur, and every Saturday when it was closed, I would be allowed to take a camera and click sculptures in the Durbar Square.

Photography began at home.
My father used to take portraits, and I would like to believe that I inherited his deft editing skills. My mom’s portrait photography was quite good, and she was my magician of the dark room—her wizardry in producing images on plain paper fascinated and inspired me. By the time I was nine years old, I had already learned the basics of working in a dark room. My parents were aware of my fascination with photography, but they did not exactly encourage me to pursue it; I think their reluctance was in part due to the struggles they had faced.

Photo Courtesy: Kishor Kayastha

So their struggles didn’t deter you?
I remember my parents toiling away in the tiny dark room just to earn Rs 20 per photo. My mom used to spend hours at wedding ceremonies taking photos, just so her family could lead a comfortable life. A small photo studio in the sleepy outskirts of Kathmandu in the 70s and 80s was by no means a lucrative business. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of the hardships that my parents endured, but also of the joy on their faces when they took photos; I chose to focus on the latter.

As a kid, what was your favourite subject to click?
Kathmandu Valley had this mystical aura about it—the narrow dark alleys, temples wrapped in misty plumes of fog. It was magical. I was drawn towards sculptures in Bhaktapur Durbar Square. These fine detailed stone work that have stood the test of time were admired by thousands of people, but nobody really knew who made it. For me, the people who made it were the unsung heroes, the real artists who were not seeking name or fame but doing it for the love of it. When I was clicking photos of these masterpieces, I also started noticing the subtle nuances that set apart the works from Licchavi and Malla periods; the former had sculptures with fine details but fewer jewellery, whereas Malla period sculptures had more elaborate ornamentation. Appreciating the finer details through my lens helped me later when I decided to embrace photography as my identity.

So Bhaktapur facilitated you in exploring your nascent talent.
No other place has had a more direct impact in the evolution of my portfolio than Bhaktapur. It not only helped me polish my skills, it’s the place I go to recalibrate myself—whenever I need to ideate or purify myself. You can see the remnants of my childhood memory of Bhaktapur in most of my photos—whether it’s the subtle layers of textures that are as gentle as the lattice work of an ankhijhyaal or the brooding quality of light inspired from the narrow dark alleys.

When did you have that ah-ha moment—where you knew you wanted to be a photographer, period?
Back in the day, photography was regarded as an expensive hobby, and not a means for earning your daily bread. I think my mom used to dread that I might follow in my parents’ footsteps; she used to like it when I would help out in the studio, but whenever I expressed my desire to become a photographer, she would lose her calm. But it all changed during my parents’ trip to Manakamana; in their absence, an aunt had come to our studio for an urgent portrait, and as I was the only one around, I clicked her photo and developed it. Later, when my mother found out, she said, “A lion’s cub will always be a lion!”. From the glint of admiration in her eyes, I knew then and there that I wanted to be in this profession.

“A lion’s cub will always be a lion!”. “From the glint of admiration in her eyes, I knew then and there that I wanted to be in this profession”

Before you became a household name, what were the challenges you faced?
One of the challenges I faced initially was to get accepted by my peers and contemporaries. I guess, most of them viewed my vision and ambition as an attitude problem. I always wanted to be different from the rest of the pack, and when I expressed that vision, most of them thought I was being boastful. Also, we didn’t have books on photography back then, and I would lap up every photo that would come my way. The Russian Culture Centre’s yearly calendar—Soviet Bhumi—was always an eye-opening experience. I got my big break when I had a solo exhibition at Park Gallery in 2000. I was so happy when I saw my photos with price tags. I’m lucky in the sense that my work was both appreciated and glorified by the media. I still remember my first interview in The Kathmandu Post by Srijana Yonjan. Being on the media’s radar got me good exposure, and since then I have never looked back.

Photo: Nirnit Tandukar

How do you deal with moments of self-doubt?
These issues are inevitable. At some point in your life, you are going to sit down and have that sneaky little voice in your head say ‘What if?’. I could have chosen to get frustrated by looking at my friends who were doing well in the US, but then you need to assess for yourself regarding what makes you happy. Plus, I don’t know anything else other than photography, so I had no option but to discipline myself, silence my doubts and focus on bettering myself. There was a time when I had to sell all my equipments due to financial crunch, but that didn’t rob me of my desire to photograph. If I had not faced that tough phase, I would not appreciate what it feels like to be successful. Hard times will always reveal your inner strength and true friends.

How do you deal with criticism? Has it changed over the years?
Even when I do a fashion spread, it is not to portray the beauty that everyone else sees but in accordance with my own perspective. My images are not representations of reality but an analysis of a state of mind. When I photographed the glamorous Shristi Shrestha in slum areas, for example, a lot of people were scandalised. Some thought it was nonsense, some thought I was being insensitive; but my aim was to produce a case study of class and struggle encapsulated within a fashion spread. Apart for my commercial projects, where a client’s need and his ideas take precedence, most of my work is my personal expression, and so I really don’t let somebody else’s opinion affect my mood or knock me off from my course. As for dealing with criticism, yes, with age it has gotten easier to brush off the negativity that comes my way—only life teaches you that.

“I could have chosen to get frustrated by looking at my friends who were doing well in the US, but then you need to assess for yourself regarding what makes you happy”

Do you have any projects going on at the moment?
Shifting Valley, a short film, is very close to my heart. It depicts the Kathmandu Valley before and after the 2015 earthquake. I had been extensively documenting festivals in the Valley, and since I’m very obsessive about my frames, I was also taking videos, so I had this huge repository of all these majestic festivals in all their technicolour wonder. And it just so happened that I ended up taking lots of footage of various locales before and after the earthquake but taken from the same angle. I juxtaposed the footages, and in doing so the frames began to highlight the ability of humans to transcend life’s adversities.

There’s a lot of struggle in the world, and when you see people coming together to celebrate life, it’s a sobering experience. The movie was recently screened at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, and when I saw the reaction it evoked, I thought to myself, it’s time we screened this in Kathmandu. I want to screen it at every major Durbar Square in the Valley. I think we have this habit of forgetting and taking what we’ve suffered for granted, so if my film works as a catalyst to nudging people into action, that would be my biggest personal achievement.