Architecture

Wending our way back

May 27, 2015 |

WHAT THERE IS TO SEE AT THE TARAGAON MUSEUM IS AS MUCH ABOUT THE MUSEUM COMPLEX AS IT IS ABOUT THE MUSEUM COLLECTION, A DOCUMENTATION OF NEPAL’S CULTURAL, ANTHROPOLOGICAL, ARCHITECTURAL AND ARTISTIC HISTORY AS MADE BY FOREIGN SCHOLARS AND RESEARCHERS. THE DISTINCT, BARREL-VAULTED ROOMS MUSEUMGOERS NEED TO NAVIGATE AS THEY WALK THROUGH THE PERMANENT EXHIBITS WERE ORIGINALLY BUILT BY CARL PRUSCHA TO HOUSE TEMPORARY VISITORS WHO CAME TO NEPAL SEEKING ENCOUNTERS WITH THE ITS LANDSCAPE, ITS CULTURE AND ITS PEOPLE.

 

Documentation is central to Taragaon Museum’s goal and existence. The photographs, drawings, sketches and other pieces of crucial visual information that are in its collection record Nepal’s recent history and showcase it to a people who are fast-forgetting the city Kathmandu used to be.

In the 1950s, when the decision to open Nepal to the larger world was made and implemented, it was not just a Hindu kingdom on the Himalayan foothills that was introduced to the 20th century but also the century–rapidly changing with technology as it was and drastically affected by the two world wars–that was introduced to this country. As foreign visitors who came here in the 50s and increasingly in the 60s and the 70s, took in the sights and sounds of the country– specifi cally the capital Kathmandu, and breathed in heavy bits of it, Nepal too took its few first steps into the modern era.

To the foreigners who came here–some seeking research and documentation, others exploits and experiences; all of them adventure and understanding in one form of another–the country must have seemed a romantic idyll of the oriental sort. Nepal’s forests were pristine then, its villages as if trapped in time warps. Up until 1957, when the Tribhuvan Highway was built, there weren’t even motorable roads that lead to Kathmandu, just paths on which it was not cars that ferried men but men in their hundreds who carried cars on their backs to the Capital. Documentation is central to Taragaon Museum’s goal and existence. The photographs, drawings, sketches and other pieces of crucial visual information that are in its collection record Nepal’s recent history and showcase it to a people who are fast-forgetting the city Kathmandu used to be

 

 

 

 


To those entering it for the first time, Kathmandu Valley must have seemed a city left untouched since the middle ages. Indeed, the architecture of the Valley was still largely dominated by elements from the Malla Era at the time. The white plaster, classical columns and Venetian windows that the Ranas brought into Kathmandu were largely limited to their own homes and palaces.

Brick-walled and often more than two storied–their tiled roofs double-pitched saddles, and their structures supported by brick and timbre–the typical homes and residences of Kathmandu still retained the typical Malla-era Newar house characteristics.

 

These houses were joined together and built around a central courtyard, and community–the very fabric of Newar culture–was manifested in the architecture.Kathmandu was a walking city full of old routes back then, and its water was still largely supplied by stone spouts. To those who laid eyes on it for the first time, the Capital must have been an exotic land, a place unlike any other in the world. It was these eyes, foreign eyes that recognised the wonder of what must have been a beautiful and exceptionally unique city, which presented the first documentations of Kathmandu and its periphery. The foreigners who came here at the time studied the Valley’s culture and recorded it for posterity.

And this documentation is what we get to see at the Taragaon Museum, Bouddha (the Hyatt Regency compound), an exhibition space that houses permanent collections– photographs, sketches and architectural drawings, mostly–inside premises built by Carl Pruscha, the Austrian architect extensively involved in Kathmandu’s urban planning in the 1970s, and revered not just for the brilliance of his regional designs but also the instrumental role he played in getting Nepal’s cultural heritage on the world map.

What there is to see at the Taragaon Museum is as much about the museum complex as it is about the museum collection. The exhibition space is scattered across the roughly 16 rooms that were originally built by Pruscha as temporary residences for foreigners visiting Kathmandu and boarding at the Taragaon Hostel. The hostel itself was planned as part of the larger Tara Gaon Village, a tourist complex envisioned by Angur Baba Joshi, a woman born in Kathmandu’s Dillibazaar in 1932 and educated at Oxford in the 1960s, a time at which few women in the country even got a chance at receiving an education. It was Joshi’s wish to “propagate Nepali culture” and “promote Nepaliness in the tourism industry”, that planted the seed, as it were, of Taragaon in the late 60s, and the museum that we see today is a reflection of that wish in many ways.

The architecture of the complex will seem immediately familiar to anyone who has walked into the superlatively designed and appallingly maintained CEDA building at Tribhuvan University.

 

The drumroofed structures that repeat throughout the complex are based on barrel-vaulted structures that sheltered pilgrims–“a kind of Pati” as Pruscha calls them–which the architect came across at temple complexes in Kathmandu while conducting research here in the 1970s

 

 

  
Individual drumroofed structures, the actual exhibition rooms at the Taragaon Museum, lead to common courtyards where art performances, book launches and social gatherings take sometimes place.

Here,Pruscha’s modern Chinese kiln-fired red bricks–a material he chose to work with for the aesthetic and structural affinities it shares with Kathmandu’s traditional Dachi brick structures–bring the sort of Nepaliness Joshi was aiming for in her Tara Gaon complex to a very modern design. A letter dated May 13, 2010– portions of which have been transcribed and blown up for display at the Taragaon Museum–provides insight into the actual designing of the complex. In passages readable at the museum, Pruscha talks about how the centre and focus of his design for the Taragaon Hostel, the drumroofed structures that repeat throughout the complex and give it a structural harmony that has an almost classical underpinning to it, were based on barrelvaulted structures–“a kind of Pati” as he calls them–he came across at temple complexes in Kathmandu in the 70s, serving as shelter for pilgrims.If form does follow function, then the basic form of the Taragaon Museum, what Pruscha calls the “prototype” for his design, can be seen as following the same sheltering purpose that these Patis provided religious devotees.

The pilgrims' at the Taragaon Hostel came here seeking encounters with the Nepali landscape, its culture and its people, and for Pruscha it was extremely important that he give these temporary residents the kind of space that would serve their needs–for contemplation as much as interaction, perhaps, and privacy as much as society.

Hence the individual drum-roofed structures, the actual exhibition rooms at the Taragaon Museum, today lead to a community building–the Museum cafe, as well as common courtyards where art performances, book launches and social gatherings sometimes take place. The function of the complex has been revised with the deliberate purpose of documenting an era and a way of life that is gradually slipping from living memory. The Saraf Foundation–which endeavours to support the preservation, restoration and documentation of the arts and heritage of Kathmandu–turned a beautiful and culturally-historically significant complex that had fallen into disuse and subsequent disrepair into a documentation centre.

 

Images from as far back as the 19th century are currently in the museum collection, the two oldest being an 1853 etching and a 1863 photograph of Kathmandu.

The Museum today houses and displays to the public a significant body of work that the artists, photographers, architects, anthropologists and Sanskritists who travelled to Nepal in the second half of the 20th century have left behind.“Those foreign scholars and professionals who worked and lived in Nepal these past couple of decades are leaving, and their work is often leaving with them,” explains Roshan Mishra, museum manager at Taragaon as he talks about the documentation that is central to Taragaon Museum’s goal and existence. These photographs, drawings, sketches and other pieces of crucial visual information record our recent history, and it is this history that the museum showcases brilliantly as well. “The pictures we have in our collection might have ended up in garages in different parts of the world,” Mishra continues. The Taragaon Museum saves these works, the museum director points out, and enables visual documentation in a manner never before been attempted in Nepal.

 

 

Images from as far back as the 19th century are currently in the museum collection, the two oldest being an 1853 etching and a 1863 photograph of Kathmandu. The architect, photographer and author Niels Gutschow (who is also involved in a curatorial role with the Museum), photographer Kevin Bubriski (who has been documenting the Nepali landscape and its people in haunting black-and-white images that stick to you since the 1970s), photographer and theoretical physicist Jaroslav Poncar, photo activist Thomas L Keely, architectural photographer Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, and photographer, journalist and author Tiziano Terzani are amongst the expatriate documentarians whose work the Taragaon Museum has in its permanent collection.

 


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