"The plan is to have 75 murals by September," said Abhishek with a bright smile. It was the first time I had met him, by pure happenstance, at Kathmandu's new Irish Pub. After spending more than a decade in the United States I was rediscovering my city, visiting new bars and restaurants and, in the process, meeting people like Abhishek.
"The project is called Kolor Kathmandu," he said and took out a square brochure from his pocket that showcased a few of the paintings.
"He is the man behind the project," someone in the group said, "the coordinator."
"Ya, I have to run around the city and talk to landlords and business owners so that we can use their blank walls for the murals," explained Abhishek. "We want to cover boring public spaces with art. HeraKut did a mural for us," Abhishek went on, pointing to a photo in the brochure that featured children writing on a wall: "Ma Bhinna Chhu," (I am different) was one phrase and the other, "Ma pani" (me too). Apparently Herakut were world-famous street artists.
Between bites and sips, tangential topics and anecdotes, I learned a few more details about Kolor Kathmandu during that smoky July night inside Irish Pub: It was conceptualized and developed by a team of young artists at Sattya Media Arts Collective and led by Yuki Poudyal, the project manager.
A couple of weeks passed before I noticed a group of artists in my Kupondole neighborhood, squatting near a wall that was half-covered in color, paintbrushes and rollers in hand. "That must be one of the murals," I thought, slowing down. I could hear a mixture of Nepali and foreign sounds drifting from the group as I kept walking, trying not to be late for an appointment.
A few days later, I was walking down the same road. And I was instantly struck by the mural which was now complete. Deep shades of red and blue dominated the wall. There was even a gate in the middle of the mural, the entrance to a residential compound, that splitted an image of a large fish into two parts. Somewhere in the middle of the mural was a tiger embedded in an intricate web of squiggles and waves and a woman with a doko on her back. Then I noticed something even more interesting: the words Doti Jillako Cheeno (Doti district's symbol). Why Doti district? I wondered. Maybe the artist is from Doti...
On August 22, Kolor Kathmandu celebrated the end of the project with a closing ceremony at the busy Moksh bar. I shook hands with Abhishek, congratulating his team's accomplishment, but couldn't stay back for the documentary about the project and the book release that Sattya had organized. That evening, I somehow missed the chance to view their story.
But I made up for it recently. I popped into Sattya's office and bought the Kolor Kathmandu book. As I flipped through the pages, I was finally able to connect the dots. The concept and magnitude of the project left me speechless. The number 75 had escaped me at the Irish Pub but it all made sense. One mural for each of the 75 districts of Nepal! Each work of art carried a unique symbol of the district it represented. I imagined the murals, messengers on Kathmandu's walls, conveying stories from all over the country.
The Doti mural told a tale of the district's hardworking farming women, the fishes from its Karnali River and its jungles' tigers. Sunsari portrayed two of its endangered species, the tortoise and the lizard. Kapilvastu paid homage to the birthplace of Lord Buddha, by featuring his calm face and the mantra, "Buddham Saranam Gachhami." I was enchanted.
Dailekh had a red portrait of Dekendra Thapa, its local hero who used to be a correspondent of Radio Nepal and Nepal Samacharpatra, allegedly murdered during the Maoist insurgency. Natalie Wohlstadter, the artist who painted Bhojpur, reminded us of one single event in 1941, the mass suicide of Yogamaya Neupane and 68 of her followers, in order to draw attention to women's rights and gender equality. The mural featured beautiful twisting bodies behind one central figure.
Natalie is not the only artist who interested me. Herakut travel to different cities, leaving one mural from their Giant Storybook series on a blank wall. Kathmandu's Bhotahity neighborhood received the tenth one.This mural doesn't represent any district: It added to the Kolor Kathmandu project by being one of the few supplemental ones. "We believe that nothing needs to be perfect in order to be beautiful," say Herakut in an essay that is included in the Kolor Kathmandu book.
Sneha Shrestha, whose style is a mixture of Boston graffiti, Turkish calligraphy and Nepali script, signs her name as, "Imagine." This is the style she used to inscribe Tanahun with red and yellow spray paint on a Gairidhara wall. Shraddha Shrestha is a graduate of Kathmandu University Center for Art and Design. In Bajura, Shraddha gave robotic limbs to two village dwellers, reminding us that people make up for the lack of industrial development in the district.
Then there's Sramdip Purakoti and Kabina Shrestha who have no training in fine arts. Sramdip pays tribute to Tehrathum with a beautiful painting of a large cat in Dhaka patterns. Tehrathum is the second largest producer of Dhaka textile and the cat comes from a famous local folktale. Kabina depicts her talent in her Dhanusa mural by using the district's famous Mithila art form.
Daichi Matsusaki has a fun story. He came to Nepal as a tourist and just happened to stumble upon the project. His mural is a wonderful, postmodern Mandala that represents Makwanpur's bees. But Dustin Spagnola, who painted a snow-leopard for Darchula and a tiger for Kanchanpur, created a Kickstarter appeal so that he could come to Nepal for the project. A total of 32 artists, local and international, range from neighboring Japan and Singapore to far-flung Spain and Canada. Their styles are as varied as their backgrounds. Some used straight shapes and geometric designs in their murals whereas others used a myriad of free-flowing lines. In some cases the messages are clear and in-your-face and in others you need a written description in order to unearth the artist's interpretation of the Nepali district.
I can't recall a similar project in Nepal's recent history that was coordinated so successfully and with such palpable enthusiasm and love. The Kolor Kathmandu team and the artists have taken a massive step in changing the way we usually think of Kathmandu: a crowded city that has very little to offer other than noise and dust. The murals inject much-needed splashes of color into the Nepali consciousness: They compel you to reimagine your national identity and redesign your idea of hope and possibility.
One foreign blogger wrote that following Kolor Kathmandu's Google map is a completely new and adventurous way to rediscover the old "gallis" and new neighborhoods of a city that is evolving with breakneck speed. Someone else mentioned that he now thinks of Kathmandu not only as a city of temples but also as a city of murals.
Kolor Kathmandu is a bold and courageous statement from a new generation. It's a call to Nepalis in Nepal and those scattered all over the world: "Here we are. Here are our stories. Come meet us, come see the murals."