Dwarika Das Shrestha: Pioneer Photographer of Nepal

Features Issue 74 Jul, 2010
Text by Kashish Das Shrestha / Photo: Dwarika Das

When ECS asked me to write about my grand-father, late Dwarika Das Shrestha,  I did not realize how difficult it would be. For most of my childhood, Dashain and other occasional family gatherings were the only times we would meet. In fact, it wasn’t until my adolescence, when I started working for KATH 97.9 FM (now IMAGE) in Pako, New Road, that I found myself visiting him regularly at our family home in Khichapokhari.

Now, three years after his death, I continue to find out who he was. My grand- father was born to Thakur Das Shrestha and Hari Devi Shrestha in 1932 and was raised and educated in Darjeeling. He spent much of his youth there working with his father in the family shop, Das Studio (established 1927) before moving to Kathmandu in the early 1960s. Since then, he never really went back to Darjeeling. Instead, he established the Das Photo Stores in Kathmandu, offering everything that a photo shop could at that time, including video and photography classes.

It was during those years that he also helped pioneer the picture postcard industry in Nepal. The last several conversations I had with my grandfather in 2003, before I left for school in the USA, and when I returned in March 2004, were about exhibiting photographs he had taken over the years. In hindsight, I am surprised at my insistence to exhibit his photos, especially since at that point I had never seen them myself. Perhaps I was sure that they were worthy of exhibiting;

or maybe it was just a way in which I was trying to see his works; or perhaps it was just an excuse for us to work together on something. But, unfortunately, he died in April 2004, hardly two weeks after finally agreeing to let me have the photos and select them for an exhibition. The old leather suitcase covered with dust and full of slides, negatives and prints came home with me that day. It had been under his bed for almost a quarter century. Later that night, I spent hours shuffling through them and realized that in his death, I would find out more about his life.

He lost his wife to cancer in his ’40s and had himself fought alcoholism for a while during those years. When he retired he handed over the photo shop to my father who moved it to Kantipath/Jamal. By the time I started visiting my grandfather, he had become reclusive, often reluctant to talk about his past. But sometimes, he would give in to his inquisitive grandson. He talked about the time he took photos of Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Nepal in 1961, and also about being invited to take photos of the Royal families. But this year, I found out that he had even taken a photo of B.P. Koirala and secretly distributed it during the Panchayat era (1960s and ’70s).

He told me of his passion for mountaineering and how he was supposed to embark on an Everest expedition in the late 1950s, though he never told me that he and Tenzing Norgay (who climbed Everest with Hillary in 1953) had been friends. He was present during the inauguration of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling in 1954, and was an active member of the institution, taking part in many of its trainings, including expeditions in January 1955, August 1955 and November 1956.

“Had it not been for my mom’s insistence, I would have gone on that Everest expedition,” he told me more than once. I recall my grand- father cautioning me against traditions that don’t make sense, and he didn’t seem to like the idea of living with regrets or dwelling in the past. During his last days, his afternoon naps and evening walks kept him content. But, in his younger days, he enjoyed his large circle of friends and outings; costume parties, drives, picnics and travels. I could never understand how he just stopped taking photos, but “now its your time,” he once said, “I have lived my moment.”

For the past three years, I have spent countless hours sifting through my grandfather’s works in an attempt to archive them coherently.It seems that every time I go through them, I realize something I had missed before, either about him or the moments in which he lived.

The dream of holding the exhibition was finally realized in August 2007, when ASMAN and Photo Concern of Kathmandu came together in collaboration with a few other partners, just in time to commemorate his 75th birth anniversary. It was pure coincidence that the British Ambassador, who was invited to inaugurate the event, had himself gotten some photos taken and processed at my  grandfather’s shop in the early ’60s.

Several of the visitors who came had known him longer and perhaps better than I did. They remembered him as an old friend, and the city they loved, and recalled the days when they had photographed or walked through Kathmandu together many decades ago. Some were his classmates, some were fellow Rotarians and many others just remembered the shop in Darjeeling and in Kathmandu. Or, they simply knew my grandfather and had fond memories.