Jan Salter: The Compassionate Artist

Features Issue 199 Jun, 2018
Text by Dinesh Rai

I was to personally meet Jan Salter only when she established Kathmandu Animal Treatment (KAT) Centre near Budanilkantha in May 2004. But, within minutes, it seemed like I had known her all my life. There was a reassuring feeling of closeness, and her sincerity shone through when she spoke. Having joined ECS as Editor only months earlier, I was invited for the official opening, which was marked by the remarkable support her new organization received from famous personalities like HariBansha, Madan Krishna, AniChoying, and Kunda Dixit. Generally, official launching programs are dull affairs, but this one turned into an amazingly entertaining event, as HariBansha had everyone bent over with his remarkable dog sounds, while AniChoying gave us goose bumps with her mesmerizing spiritual chants. Jan’s compassion for animals, especially for dogs, had driven her to open the center, inspired by a similar project she had visited in Jaipur. Since the opening, she was to devote most of her time to rescuing street dogs and nursing the sick ones back to health at KAT. She found little time for sketching or painting, and became known as the ‘Dog Lady’ for her selfless dedication.

I had heard of Jan back in the late 70s and seen her about town when Kathmandu was so small you were likely to bump into acquaintances and known faces all the time. It was hard to miss her in a crowd, because she towered over most of us. She had gained fame for her portraits of various ethnic groups of Nepal, which she collectively called ‘Faces of Nepal”. It was a unique collection of portraits, and she took it a step further when, in collaboration with another famous personality, the scholar HarkaGurung, she published a book also entitled “Faces of Nepal” with his writings and her portraits in1996. Self-taught, her skills as an artist were to improve over the years and she took to oil painting, inspired by an Indonesian artist named Affandi she had met in Jakarta during her travels through Asia. Still focusing on portraits, her new venture was to lead her to a social cause. She painted the faces of women rescued by Maiti Nepal and donated a large number of her works entitled “All our Daughters” to the organization. Some of her sketches and paintings can be seen on permanent display at the Nepal Tourism Board.

Born Janette Sonia Salter in Southhampton, England, in 1936, Jan arrived in Nepal as a tourist in 1968 and spent a considerable amount of time trekking around the country. She traveled to many other countries, as well in Africa and East Asia, and also visited Australia, but none attracted her more than Nepal. She came back in 1975 and decided to stay. Traveling to all corners of the country, she began sketching faces of people in the rural areas of Nepal, which turned into a passion, and her collection of portraits became something of a novelty. Nobody had such a collection of ethnic faces, Nepal being a country of more than seventy diverse ethnicities. She later worked with Maiti Nepal, which rescues Nepali girls trafficked mostly to India. It was then that she produced her series of paintings, “All Our Daughters". In 2014, ‘A Retrospective Exhibition’ showcasing 206 of her paintings and sketches (produced from 1968 to 2014) were displayed at the Nepal Art Council gallery.

Since childhood, Jan had wanted to become an artist, but on her father’s insistence, took up hair-dressing instead, as he believed art couldn’t give her sustenance. But she had no regrets later in life, as she could find work as a hairdresser wherever she traveled, which helped her travel constantly, until she decided to settle down in Kathmandu. Here she was to find employment as a hairdresser in one of the most exciting places, the Royal Hotel, which was run by the flamboyant Russian entrepreneur Boris Liassanevitch. Boris attracted a large number of tourists, mountaineers, expatriates, and Nepali bigwigs with his colorful stories of his personal adventures, complemented by his charisma and good food.

After living a quiet life as an artist for decades in Kathmandu, Jan realized she could do something about the miserable state of street dogs in the city. There were just too many stray dogs in the valley, and the municipality was poisoning them to keep their population in check; something had to be done. Jan invested her savings into KAT and sought government help to run the organization, but none were forthcoming. So she turned to well-wishers and relied on the support of a string of volunteers. Many street dogs were rescued, while others were sterilized so as to bring the dog population under control. Their success was apparent years later, when a census showed that the population of community dogs went down from around 31,000 to 22,500. Many sickly dogs found a home at KAT, and Jan herself lived with five rescued dogs and four cats. The KAT Centre's goals are to humanely produce a healthy, stable street dog population, and to eliminate rabies in Kathmandu. Salter’s humane approach has produced remarkable results, as Kathmandu has seen not only a reduction in the number of stray dogs, but also improved health, and changed attitudes among local people towards them. One of KAT’s programs aims to change the way people treat animals by conducting classes for school children and pet owners.

In 1997, Jan was awarded the GorkhaDakshinBahu medal by King Birendra. For her unshakeable dedication to animal welfare, Jan also received several other decorations, among which, the MBE she received in 2013 from Queen Elizabeth II stands out. In 2010, she received the prestigious "Extraordinary Commitment and Achievement Award", which was conferred on her by Humane Society International.

When her health began deteriorating, Jan opted to return to England, where she would get proper care. Like Liz Hawley, she had remained unmarried. In 2016, she received an emotional farewell from Maiti Nepal before she left her adopted home, Nepal. Two years later, at the age of 82, she passed away in Lyme Regis, U.K. on April 29, 2018. Jan’s sketches have captured for posterity the typical jewelry and clothes worn by various ethnic people of rural Nepal that are vanishing with time and modernization. Many original pieces from her collection will be available for sale on-line soon. The proceeds from the sale of her artwork will be donated to KAT in keeping with her wishes.

It is interesting to note how Jan’s art and social cause have come together after her departure; one supporting the other. We will always remember the tall Englishwoman who came to stay, as the artist who sketched the “Faces of Nepal”, and the compassionate lady who took care of the street dogs of Kathmandu.

A small selection of some 20 original pencil sketches and oil paintings by Salter will be displayed at the Nepal National Ethnographic Museum on the second floor of Nepal Tourism Board. Her website www.jansalter.org was officially launched on May 15 at NTB.

You can also read “Jan Salter: The Artist and Social Worker” at ecs.com.np/features/jan-salter-the-artist-and-social-worker