Another big highlight from the 15th Edition of Angkor photo festival was the solo exhibition “Our Songs from the Forest” by Nepali photographer Uma Bista. The work talks about the religious myths of women menstruation and how that still have an impact on the 21st century even though criminalisation was made.
17-year-old Nita Mijar from Mangalsen Municipality-10, Jupu has just finished her Grade 10 exams. She is responsible for a lot of work at home, in the kitchen and the fields. Her parents work and live in India while Nita, her grandmother and her younger brother live at home. Her older brother lives in Birgunj and is studying to be an engineer. Nita does not want to go the cattle shed. But if she does not go to the cattle shed for a month or two, her family and the villagers start asking questions like “Why aren’t you menstruating? What has happened? Did you have physical relations with some man? Are you pregnant?” These questions keep her going to the cattle shed. She enjoys going to the forest for walks and goes with her friends whenever she’s free. In the forest, she pours her sorrows out in songs.
© Uma Bista, from the series ‘Our Songs from the Forest’ ; Source @ Lensculture
Into the hills of Achham, women are considered impure during menstruation and are banished to cattle shed for 7 whole days every month. They are required to remain isolated from their family, and are forbidden from entering homes, kitchens, schools, and temples. They are deemed to be untouchable as it is believed that the gods would be in rage if they are to break the rules of Chhaupadi. In this belief system, it is thought that if a menstruating woman touches a tree, it will never again bear fruit; if she consumes milk, the cow will not give any more milk. They are responsible for the possible ills that might befall the family – especially with male family members e.g. accidents, deaths, illnesses, poor harvest, failures in exams etc.
Even though Chhaupadi has been criminalised and in 2017, Nepal passed a law punishing people who force women into exile during menstruating with up to three months in jail or a fine of 3,000 Nepalese rupees. However, in the five months since the new law went into effect (in August 2018), no cases have been filed against those enforcing the practice. The fear of change still runs deep and every year women and girls die from performing Chhaupadi.
Uma’s photographs take us to the young girls from Achham, into the forests around Oligaun, where they are free to sing, dance and laugh. These soft tendered portraits of the girls show their release and relief of oppression from Chhaupadi, and also a sense of power within them that they own. At the same time, there are doubts with how the future beholds for them, sharing their struggles in how to push the boundaries.
The exhibition in Angkor was held by the Riverside, which is the perfect outdoor location for this particular series. Sari, an everyday clothing for girls in Nepal and is sometimes used as a pad for mensuration, are hung onto trees symbolising a sense of freedom for these girls. They are free to flow with the wind as it blows. The work is either hung onto trees or on canvas nailed to bamboo sticks, reiterating the concepts behind the series – rural village, forest, freedom. Catch the exhibition before it ends on 18th December 2019!
© Michelle Chan, series ‘Our Songs from the Forest’ by Uma Bista at 15th Edition Angkor Photo Festival 2019