The Keeper of Records: The Royal Photographer

Features Issue 111 Jan, 2011
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: Memory Concern (New Road),ECS Media

He lets slip famous names and not-so-famous names of the high  and the mighty of Nepal’s politics with ease and familiarity. As expected, he talks mostly about  royalty. An interesting excerpt:
“King Mahendra was very rarely accompanied by Queen Ratna during his travels. She was frail, and in those days, one had to do a lot of walking. So, he was less dominated by his wife.”

Here, the Bhattas (priests) are more powerful than the gods,” says Mangal Mohan Shrestha. He speaks from more than 33 years of experience (1961 – 1994) as an employee of the government of Nepal. And, not just any other employee, mind you. At the time of his retirement, his card read ‘Chief Photographer, HMG Dept of Information’.  He declares, “It was a one-man-show for almost 25 years! I was not just an ordinary photographer. I dictated the terms. Even today, I am invited to photograph various embassy functions and I direct the Ambassadors and their guests on where each person should sit or stand when posing to be photographed. It should be according to protocol.”

Shrestha’s services are also frequently called upon by the erstwhile royal family to record their special occasions in his camera. He was the official photographer for all royal occasions for three decades and says he has travelled to all 75 districts of the country with the royal retinue during both King Mahendra and King Birendra’s visits. “I have walked to Jumla and Humla, as also to other places including Sunsari, as part of royal entourages,” he says. His long association with royalty has been a rich experience. He shows us a scar on his chest, “You see this? I had a bypass surgery done 12 years ago, courtesy of the king.” To a question of how much he has been able to exploit his royal connections, he says, “I could have done a lot but didn’t. I never misused the influence I had.” As an afterthought, he opines, “You know, in Nepal, no government employee, from a peon to a secretary, can build a home if he is honest. If someone does, you have to suspect something.”

He did have substantial authority there is no doubt about that. He relates an incident in which he had to send a roll of film to Kathmandu from Dhankuta where he was accompanying King Mahendra. “I requested the Anchaladhish (governor) to do the needful, but he refused saying that he wasn’t there to do my work.” I relayed this to the king and the next thing you know, the Anchaladhish is on the carpet being soundly rebuked by the king. Well, of course he had to do as told. There have been other such instances too. I had the king’s ear.”

Shrestha’s official place of business is Memory Concern in New Road, Kathmandu. The tiny front office is located below a stairway. It, however, leads on into another bigger room and an adequate sized studio next to it. “This is one of the oldest shops in this so called New Road,” he says. It was established in 1951 (2007 BS) by his father Narayan Bhakta Shrestha. He discloses, “Actually this is not New Road, it is Juddha Sadak. Most people don’t know this.” He opens a diary and asks me to read a few pages of his writing. He explains, “I am writing about my experiences. You can see there’s something about this road too.”

As I listen to his tales about his life as a ‘royal photographer’ I notice that he lets slip famous names and not-so-famous names of the high and the mighty of Nepal’s politics with ease and familiarity. As expected, he talks mostly about royalty. Some interesting excerpts: “King Mahendra was very rarely accompanied by Queen Ratna during his travels. She was frail, and in those days, one had to do a lot of walking. So, he was less dominated by his wife.” Another: “King Birendra was totally dominated by Queen Aishwarya. Once, he even confided to me that he had no money. Not even the proceeds realized from the recent sale of a car!” As for King Gyanendra’s status quo in this regard, Shrestha says, “He is not dominated by Queen Komal.”

Shrestha is also of the opinion that as far as politics was concerned, the kings could not really be faulted for their decisions. However, about the late Prime Minister Girija Koirala, he says, “He was not a good administrator. He declared large scale employee cuts on a Friday which was the wrong time to do so. Besides, I think he was later dominated by his daughter.” It is obvious that Shrestha, like most of his countrymen today, does not have much faith in politicians. “They have not been able to provide the right direction.” It is also clear that Shrestha has a healthy self respect as is evident from these accounts: “Once I was asked by the then Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai to take photographs of a party function at the Congress Party office premises. I refused saying that I was an employee of the government and would do any work concerning the government, but I was not a party photographer. Similarly, once I was asked by another prime minister, Nagendra Prasad Rijal, to take photographs of his son’s wedding. Of course I refused to do so on the same grounds.”

Shrestha declares, “I was someone in my time!” He certainly was, one must agree. He was the first photographer of the grand old lady of Nepali dailies, Gorkhapatra, as was he the first official photographer of the police and army institutions. And, lest anybody have any more doubt about his stature then, here’s something that will put it to the rest: “I started the tradition of the Queen standing to the left of the King in all photographs. Once, I was photographing King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya who were both dressed in all their royal paraphernalia (peacock feathered crown, long trailing gowns, et al). The queen stood to the right of the king. I humbly requested that she stand to the left as it was the customary protocol for royalty. She did so, and since then, this has become a standing custom.” Shrestha chuckles while relating this, and adds, “Later on, the principal royal secretary was livid with me. He wanted to know why I couldn’t have suggested it to him so that he could have put forth the suggestion as his own!”

Well, Mangal Mohan Shrestha certainly called the shots during his time as a ‘royal photographer’, but then, a question begs for an answer. I ask him, “With your background, why did you not expand your business? Or, at least the premises?” His answer is expectedly simple and straightforward, “I believe that sometimes earning Rs. 1000 is the same as earning Rs.100.” He is of course referring to earnings as a proportion to costs.  He says, “I would have to hire more people and, in my experience, I have seen that those who have learnt from me have moved on to begin their own businesses. It makes me sad that not one of them has credited me for their knowledge and skills.” Not related to this, but an interesting aside nevertheless, is that D. B. Thapa, owner of the famous Photo Concern Studio, once used to rent a camera from Mangal Mohan at the rate of five rupees per day!