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Exhibition at International Photography Festival: Patis in Patan – Nodal Points of Ageing in Urban Nepal

Exhibition at Cyasal Pati (photo: C.Brosius)

Cluster Professor Christiane Brosius contributed to the first international photography festival Photo Kathmanduwith the exhibition Patis in Patan, in collaboration with local artists and co-curators Rajendra Shakya and Sujan Chitrakar, and in alliance with SAI HelpNepal and the research project “Ageing in a transcultural context”.

The pati (public arcaded platform, called ‘phalcha’ in Newari language) is a unique – and yet often overseen – spatial and social ‘institution’ of the Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), revealing silently the interstices of Nepal’s rich intangible and tangible heritage that has gained so much attention elsewhere, for instance, in the context of the many UNESCO world heritage sites in the valley. It is a site of the everyday, speaking of the social and cultural changes that impact the lives of those people engaging with it. Belonging to the locality and the community, positions in rituals, but also encroachment and dilapidation, demolition and reconstruction, shape the ‘language’ and presence of the web of patis that covers the cities of the Kathmandu Valley. 

Women's pati at opening day (photo: C.Brosius)

“Patis in Patan” featured a curated walk that took visitors through alleys and courtyards of Patan, connecting four main patis and eight smaller interstitial patis and their respective communities and users (see map). Audio and visual installations on each site presented the manifold facets of these unique public spaces. Be it as places for shelter and business, leisure and rituals, as places for the elderly to rest and meet, or for children and adults to play games, the different aspects of Patan’s patis were exhibited in the light of the city’s ‘biography’.

In post-earthquake Nepal, the patis prove to be as significant as, or maybe even more important than ever. Not just as vernacular sites of intangible and tangible heritage, but also as supportive institutions, especially for less ‘visible’ and more vulnerable groups like the elderly, women, or homeless – for whom they are a much-needed island of momentary relief and solidarity.

The project was based on several months of research on the pati, mapping the remarkable varieties and histories thereof. It is part of a larger initiative of Heidelberg University (partly in conjunction with Kathmandu University’s Art and Design Department and with the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust) that seeks to ‘map’ the urban fabric of Patan with respect to its past, present and possible future. We were able to draw on the previous documentation work by architecture historian Niels Gutschow and the ‘thick’ local knowledge of architect Rohit Ranjitkar and researcher Rajendra Shakya. Interviews with members of the elderly population were conducted in Newari language and are in the process of being translated. The material will be further used and analysed in the context of a planned publication.

(photo: C.Brosius)

For the Cluster project “Ageing in a Transcultural Context”, two of the key patis were particularly relevant.

A pati in the vibrant neighbourhood of Cyasal concentrated on the women using it for all kinds of purposes. The pati here is an extension of their ‘private’ space, since it is often more open, sunny, and engaging than many of the very small, often dark and cold houses in which people live around the squares. The core area of Cyasal might well have the largest density of patis, some of which are solely used for religious purposes. Our selection fell on the pati “Ataḥ Phalcā” (Pāṭī no 22 on the map) because it is mostly used by elderly women, who spend their early mornings and afternoons here for a few hours of talks and rejuvenation from a stressful working day. It is a space for the women – most of them traditionally belonging to the farmer’s community - to share among each other their stories of joy and sorrow, and also to reflect upon their life. The lives are often coined by familial tensions, economic challenges and include experiences of transnational migration of family members, loneliness, and a nostalgic vision of the past. Inside the pati, portraits of several women were hung who agreed to to have their pictures taken. In its direct surrounding, we chose three women to whom the researchers Dikshya Karki, Shreeti Prajapati and Rajendra Shakyacould develop a relationship by interviewing them, and even being invited into their homes. This proved to be a fruitful approach for what Hans-Werner Wahl, professor of Psychological Ageing Research at Heidelberg University, has called a “person-environmental view of ageing”, where he argues that the place-dimension of ageing, the “geography of ageing” or “aging in place” are still largely unrecognised in their complexity and relevance in the fields of psychology or gerontology  (e.g., Golant, Ageing in the Right Place, 2015; Rowles, & Bernard (Eds.), Environmental Gerontology, 2013).  

Bhajan pati (photo: R.Shakya)

The second pati that is strongly engaging with “elderscapes” is associated with devotional music and placed next to the remains of one of the oldest monasteries of the Chabahal area destroyed by the earthquake. In fact, two days before the festival opening, the monastery Jyābahābahī was almost completely dismantled by members of the community in an attempt to secure government funding for its reconstruction. Allegedly, a trigger for the demolition was the earthquake in Afghanistan a week before that yielded fears of another such catastrophe in Nepal. The site we chose actually included two patis: one predominantly used by the Tamrakar (coppersmith) community of the locality, the other one used by the Maharjans (farmers). Both patis were used intensely for devotional chanting and music until the earthquake of 2015 struck. The so-called “bhajans” are largely performed by elderly men, many of which, have been singing together at those sites since their childhood. They are now witnessing the decline of this intangible heritage and have raised the issue in many conversations: young people are not willing to join the bhajan groups any more, and one member of the Maharjan community alleged to the existence of two different “worlds” and “languages” spoken by the generations. For them, the exhibition was a ray of hope to regain recognition and status, and they were filled with pride about the attention given in the context of the festival. Since the earthquake, the pati of the Tamrakar community has been completely destroyed, while the Maharjanpati has still been standing, but is not safe to be used. The communities want to save money and seek donations in order to reconstruct the patis since they want to return to their meetings, and the practice of bhajans. They feel ‘out of balance’ and ‘out of time’ since they cannot continue what is so meaningful as structure and purpose in their individual and collective lives.

Bhajan performance in front of demolished monastery (photo: R.Shakya)

During the festival, two bhajan events were organized in the evenings – for the first time after the earthquake, next to the rubble of the demolished monastery and the dysfunctional patis. 12-14 members of the Maharjan and the Tamrakar communities joined.

The project will be documented in the festival catalogue, as well as in an independent book that is currently in preparation.


For further information, see:

The Patis-in-Patan-exhibition project:

Interview with Christiane Brosius on the exhibition: