Jan Salter: The Artist and Social Worker

Features Issue 28 Aug, 2010
Text by Prerna Rai / Photo: Narendra Shrestha

I was looking forward to dinner with Jan Salter with a quest for a retreat from the daily hum drum of life. To most people, she needs no introduction. Jan Salter is synonymous with the “Faces of Nepal”, a collection of drawings depicting different ethnic groups of Nepal that have captured every line and wrinkle timelessly.

The restaurant Jan preferred to dine in was Ringmo at Lazimpat, established in 1973. It has a nostalgic appeal to it and within those walls the restaurant seems to have cheated time. An anamnesis by itself, Jan has patronized Ringmo since its inception; for her it was another homecoming. A witness to the changes in Kathmandu, she reveled in certitude that the restaurant lies cocooned in antiquity. Today, it stands as a memento of ageless character. I am sure to many others who have used its services, Ringmo must bring back memories of days that were. Simplicity personified, it is comfortable, homely, no frills attached. The ambience remains to this day. Over time, a prolonged bond has sustained between Jan and the owner, Dil Krishna Khadka. “We’ve grown old together”, she says. It was no wonder then that he knew her dietary likes and disciplines and ordered her favorites: “cashew nut chicken, vegetable spring rolls”, among others. Ad interim, with food being prepared by Chef Bhola Tamang, an employee since 1973, we got talking.

Born in Southhampton, England, Jan Salter came to Nepal in 1968 as a tourist but secured a job as a hairdresser in Boris Lissanevitch’s Royal Hotel, both equally steeped in the history of Kathmandu. This was a time when people were seeking their own identities, the era that prompted personal exploration of self; the hippie days, so to speak. Jan reflects “I was never one of them but I sympathized with some of their philosophies. They did not want anything to do with the material world and wanted to overcome problems to make it a better place. They were certainly not bad people”.

Jan had visited many countries but none interested her like Nepal did. Though her worldly travels continued, she came back to Nepal in 1975. Her first drawing was of a young Newar boy, Prem Lal, who lived near Basantapur. “Somehow, you connect with people when you draw them” says Jan, who later became his guardian. Prem lal now runs a motorbike business with his brother and visits Jan regularly with his family. She now supports two children from the little ethnic group Bote (ferrymen of Tanahun from Damauli area) whose father committed suicide.

Over time, Jan trekked extensively in Nepal and captured the different ethnic groups of Nepal in pencil drawing. Gradually it grew into a collection no one else had, and in 1996 it was compiled into a book titled “Faces of Nepal” with text by Dr. Harka Gurung. Drawing has always been her forte but later she moved onto oil painting, “It took a long time to work with oils. I learnt the art slowly. I took it easy: trekking and painting at the same time. I have never had deadlines, I worked when I felt inspired”, she explains.

Jan lived in Lazimpat when she returned to Nepal in 1975. At the time, Ringmo was the main restaurant in the area, thronged by Westerners and Nepalis.  Reflectively, she confirms, “Ringmo has changed very little; that is its charm.  Where else would you have the same staff for almost 30 years?” True to her word, the faces have never changed. You can expect to see the entire team: Dil Krishna (owner), Sher Bahadur Lama better known as “Maila”, Ram Bahadur Gurung, Chyangba Tamang, Kancha Tamang, Bhola Tamang and Uttar Bahadur Shrestha, going about their business in a quiet, caring fashion. “I seem to have aged, they haven’t!” she jokes.

The food looked nourishing and palatable. Fried Prawns, Sweet and Sour Pork and Jan’s first choices, wholesome quantities of healthy food added to the sweet-tempered flavor of the evening. A look at the crowd tells that Ringmo has been able to entice a large and heterogeneous mix of people who seemed to be savoring the food as much as we were. It whet our appetites and enhanced our conversation. I got a glimpse of her other interests in life like reading novels (“A Fine balance” by Rohinton Mistry, is one of her favorites) and listening to classical Indian music.

Jan Salter, in the mid-nineties committed herself to social work by associating herself with the organization “Maiti Nepal”. She painted girls who were victims of trafficking and AIDS.  The exhibition of these paintings called “All our Daughters” was organized in Kathmandu to create a platform of compassion, understanding and justice vis-a-vis prejudice. “Though they depict sorrow, I painted them in a way to make them feel good about themselves. I think they have suffered enough”, she said empathetically.

At present, Jan Salter is working on a project: Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT Center) near Budhanilkantha. Jan’s compassion for animals is indisputable. She lives with five rescued dogs and four cats in a small upstairs flat. During a visit to Jaipur in India, last year she met a lady who ran an organization to control the population of street dogs and found out that cases of rabies was rare now in Jaipur. With conviction, she stated, “I’d like to see Kathmandu become a rabies free, dog friendly city”.  This would entail spaying dogs for birth control leading to a humane management of street dogs.

To support her in this venture, Charlotte Uhlenbroek, the well known BBC TV animal behaviorist and writer is involved in the project. “In the west, dogs are an integral part of hospitals and Old Age Homes. People should realize how rewarding relationships with animals can be. The initiatives, ways and means to educate people about animals and how to behave towards them could only be beneficial for society as a whole”, says Jan. Currently, Jan’s paintings of “ Faces of Nepal” are on display at the Ethnographic Museum, Kathmandu. She remarked, “The ethnic people themselves put a tremendous effort into their fine display”.

 Satiated with wholesome food, we took in the surroundings of Ringmo. Our tête-à-tête could have continued but all good times must come to an end. A stimulating end to a very pleasant evening, we helped ourselves to some smooth Caramel Custard! If the proof of the pudding lies in the eating, there was none left to spare. AS we were preparing to leave, Jan commented, “Many of my friends, old and new, appreciate Ringmo for its congenial, unchanging nature of the people that run it”.