While returning home from school (Nepal Adarsha School) the young boy used to stop at the cobbler’s and would watch how a shoe was made. One day he tried his hand at cutting leather and discovered it was much easier than he thought. After days of observation, he tried and finally succeeded in making a shoe all by himself. He was delighted at his success.
It was an additional feather in his cap as he had already earned his diploma in tailoring from the Sunita Sewing Training Centre (which was, by the way, the first of its kind in Kathmandu). The boy was just sixteen years old. Next he tried his hand at knitting, first by hand and later, using a machine. But that wasn’t the end of it. The young boy also learnt to make nylon shopping bags. But was he satisfied? No. He went on to learn carpentry, upholstery, wall painting, music (guitar), song writing and dancing (Kathak and Bharatnatyam).
In fact such was the abundance of talent in this young boy that he not only learnt, but also became quite proficient in all that interested his fertile mind. Thus, he sewed his own clothes for six years, made and sold woolen pullovers for two seasons, sold nylon shopping bags, formed a musical group and gave professional dance performances in reputed establishments like the Shanker Hotel.
The Beauty Pageant 2004
The extravaganza of the 10th Miss Nepal Beauty Contest is in full swing. Nubile girls, one more beautiful than the other, parade their beauty on the floodlit stage to the appreciation of thousands of spectators. As a part of the proceedings, the emcee announces, ‘We would like to welcome on stage the official photographer of the Miss Nepal Beauty Contest, Mr. Raj Bhai Suwal.’
A sturdily built man of medium height with dark twinkling eyes makes his way across the stage. He joins his hands together and salutes the audience. There is thunderous applause. Everyone knows who he is. He is the foremost commercial photographer of Nepal, easily identifiable by his clean-shaven head. He is the same boy who tried and succeeded in making a shoe all on his own, twenty-two years ago.
‘Our forefathers used to say that if one were to learn some skills, one will never go hungry,’ Raj Bhai Suwal (Maharjan) says. The only question is, of course, did they say ‘some’ or ‘many’?
After his forays into numerous trades, he took to video filming.
‘I started to take video films at friends’ weddings and many started to appreciate the fact that I had a knack for taking good shots,’ he reminisces. Since then he has shot for almost two dozen tele-serials and video films, including “Kalakar”, “I Love You”, “Mayajaal”, “Nhila Nhila Hoon”, “Charitra” and “Rajinama”. But video filming was not what he was destined to be great at.
Finding his niche
He took to still photography in 1980 and was photojournalist for Nepal Samacharpatra at the time of its inception. The other publications he worked for are Mahanagar, Sadhana, Biswabhumi and Sandhya Times. He also did photo features for travel magazines like Adventure Nepal. Today he is the cover photographer for ECS Magazine.
“I was involved in the making of this magazine, ‘ he remembers, ‘ Sunil (Managing Director of ECS) used to have long discussions with me on how to bring out a magazine that was superior and different from others. My advice was that photographs with character were essential for this venture to succeed.”
Raj Bhai Suwal decided to specialize in commercial photography ten years ago and says, “Only top professionals with sound technique can do commercial photography. There is a lot of money and responsibility riding on their shoulders.”
Today one can see his work everywhere; in magazines, TV, and on billboards across town displaying everything from biscuits and confectionary to instant noodles and snack foods, beer and whisky to cosmetics and washing powders, motorbikes, cars and mobiles to carpet, pashmina and handicrafts. In fact a majority of the billboards in Kathmandu bear his signature. He has also photographed for calendars for a large number of organizations.
Raj Bhai Suwal (Maharjan) was born on Jan 15th 1966 in Khechapaukhu Sadak, Khichapokhari, Kathmandu, to Pancha Ratna and Bekha Maya Maharjan. Pancha Ratna was actively involved in theatre acting(‘Dabbu Pyakha’ in Newari) and has played the role of the hero in many. Today, he and his wife, both in their mid sixties, are in good health and live with the youngest son, Vijay, in Maitidevi, while Raj Bhai and his elder brother, Rajendra along with their families live in Khechapukhu.
“We got married on 11th Falgun, 2048 BS (1991),” Raj Bhai’s pretty and ever smiling wife, Kamala, remembers very clearly. A friendly person, she has done her I.E, and worked as a draftsperson for almost nine years in consulting firms like East Consults, Inner Road project as well as the Hyatt project. Their 11 year old son, Bibhas is in class five at Galaxy School and has modeled in some of his father’s advertisements.
How is Raj Bhai as a husband?
“He’s a gentleman to the core,” she states in a matter of fact voice, “And believes in perfection in everything he does. Previously he used to give a lot of time to the family but nowadays he’s too busy. Of course I understand he has to give priority to his work.”
Any plans for more children?
“No, we do not plan on having another child,” both Raj Bhai and Kamala answer at the same time, “We are happy with one.” They look at each other and exchange fond smiles.
“Giving birth to a body is like entrapping a liberated soul to life’s sufferings once again,” is Raj Bhai’s philosophy.
Oh yes, he is of a philosophical nature and has attended Vipasana meditation camps a couple of times. In fact the camps made such an impression on him that he started shaving his hair and turned vegetarian.
“He says he likes the aroma of meat dishes but has decided to refrain from partaking of it,” Kamala says, glancing at her beaming husband, no doubt proud of his tremendous will power. She herself is a non-vegetarian.
Raj Bhai holds various offices. He is the MD of Creative Photo Session Studio, member of Photographic Society of Nepal, founder and active member of National Forum of Photo Journalists, member of Photographic Society of India and member of Rotary Club of Bagmati. He is also a former Secretary and founder of Khichapokhari Youth Club and former Vice President of Nepal Photo Journalists Association.
Among the scores of appreciations and awards he has received, Raj Bhai Suwal is most proud of the one given by the ‘Shree Bhadrakali Sana Guthi’ in 2003. Showing me the framed letter of appreciation, written in Newari, he translates it into Nepali word for word. One can see that this token of appreciation by the peers and elders of his community, recognizing and lauding his achievements, holds a lot of meaning for him.
After ten years of doing photography, the ace photographer felt the need for more of theoretical knowledge in his chosen field, and, in 1999, went to Mumbai to take training in glamour, flash, night, digital, product, tabletop and still life photography. While there, he also trained in computer software including Photoshop, Coral draw and Flash.
Among his eminent teachers were Ashok Mehta, Girish Mistry and Hari Manidhar. In 1997, Raj Bhai had also attended a Photography Trainer’s Training course conducted by Daniel Meadows of the University of Wales, (Cardiff UK), jointly organized by Drik Gallery and The British Council, Bangladesh.
Raj Bhai himself has been a trainer in numerous photography courses including Basic Photography Training organized by The Reiukai Nepal as well as those organized by Center for Women and Development, Media Point and RAMP (professional model institute) besides others.
Raj Bhai mentions that his clients are spread all over the world, including India, Australia, France, Germany and USA, and that his ambition is to make a world class, well equipped studio for advertising photography in Nepal. His favorite piece of equipment is his Mamiya RBN 6/7 camera and says that it is an expensive camera, the full set costing him almost Rs.8 Lakhs.
Yes, indeed, Raj Bhai Suwal has come a long way in life and is at the pinnacle of his profession today. Appointments now have to be taken a week in advance even though he works from 10 to 14 hours a day. However, his rise to fame hasn’t been easy and according to Kamala, it is only since the last four years that his career has really taken off.
He remembers the time when he had to work seventy-two hours at a stretch while shooting a tele-serial, “That was the most memorable time of my career.” No doubt he had been driven by the need to prove himself, besides his natural quest for perfection.
Aspiring photographers can learn a lot from Raj Bhai’s modus operandi. “I usually like to meet my models three or four times before starting to shoot. This gives me the opportunity to study their faces and thereby allow me to have a concept ready before clicking away.” He is meticulous in his planning, although occasionally he has to work fast. “For the cover of the last issue of ECS, I met the model only on the day of shooting,” he says, “But, I made her comfortable by cracking a lot of jokes. This way I had a chance to study her facial expressions while she was in a relaxed mood. I told her to sit on a chair, toss her hair and lean to the side.
‘Like this?’ she asked me. I said, ‘tilt your head a bit more’. And, click, click, click. It was done! You can see the results for yourself.”
Raj Bhai claims to have the largest private collection of photography books in Nepal and advises enthusiastic new photographers to choose their field of specialization first before venturing further, “Different people are suited for different kinds of photography.”
Among photographers in the country, he holds Sridhar Lal Manadhar in high esteem, “He was actually the one to set the trend in professional photography. He is a pioneer in this field.”
He is of the view that there are fewer women in this field because of the physical hardships associated with professional photography. And yes, he has never participated in a photographic competition although he aims to hold an exhibition five years down the line to celebrate his twenty-five years in the profession—something to look forward to for sure.
“He loves to listen to Gazals and Jagjit Singh is his favorite,” Kamala reveals. To my query, “Does he also sing?” she replies, “Just wait a while longer and he might well start!’
In a bygone era, there was no such thing as a hotel in Nepal. Travelers would stay in a home...