Our Songs from the Forest is a loving coming-of-age story that takes place in a cruel and unjust world. Set in Achham, a village in the far west region of Nepal, Uma Bista’s gentle ode to a group of young women that live there addresses the brutal practice of Chhaupadi. Each month, during their periods, they are subjected to a week-long ritual of isolation and oppression, where they are forced to stay in a shed, deemed ‘impure’ and untouchable.
Despite being outlawed in 2005 and criminalized in 2018, the practice endures, upheld by a deeply-rooted fear—of being ostracized by the community, of angering the gods, of change. Working intimately with the young girls of the village, Bista’s project created space to talk about the many traumatic consequences of this tradition whilst posing a truly emancipatory question: where can one find freedom?
The result is a series of collaborative images made in the soothing and open space of the forest. In this interview, Bista talks about the influence of her parallel work at a newspaper on her personal projects, the persistence of patriarchy and finding agency through photography.
LensCulture: Can you tell me about your first steps as a photographer?
Uma Bista: I was introduced to photography at high school. For my final year of my degree in Mass Communication we had a brief course. It was then that I found myself in photography. After that point I never turned back and my passion took me to where I am today.
Since I began, at the age of 19, I have been on a journey to find my own voice. Photography was part of my childhood like many of my generation but I did not know that it could be used as a means of art and activism until I began to explore the world of photography and engaged with other photographers. I found out that photographers don’t take only pictures; they produce the stories of people. They write novels using visual language, exploring the world through the lens. I became fascinated, and decided that I would pursue it even though none of my family and friends were practicing it.
From the very beginning, I worked at a newspaper and alongside, took workshops and did exchange programs. In 2016, I studied at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute which was another turning point on my journey. There I got to know more about myself which helped me to go further. I am lucky that I got a chance to meet good people in Nepal and outside, who always encouraged me.
LC: The experience, struggle and emancipation of women seem to be the evolving theme of your work. How would you describe these key concerns that drive you as a photographer? Why is photography your chosen way of exploring them?
UB: I find myself in a position where I had to tell the stories of women. I grew up in a society in which women are always counted as secondary; they are far from power. My own experience, and what I see around me, encouraged me to explore this through the camera’s lens. These are the issues closest to me; they affect me daily. They are stories from my own life, my mother’s, my sister’s. My society has so many rules and women have to bear their consequence.
As a photojournalist, I cover hard news on a daily basis but in my own time I also explore stories at the intersections of life as a single woman, religious and social boundaries, and gender inequality. I have begun to consciously looking for ways to explore stories about power. In a patriarchal society, man always uses power to rule his family, his community, the state and the world. They don’t want to give this kind of power to women. Everywhere, women are bound by four walls; they want to fly high and they have the qualities needed to rule the world. But these deeply rooted rules or whatever do not allow it. My main concern to use my visual language is to explore these unseen issues.
LC: You also work at a leading daily newspaper in Nepal, the Annapurna Post. I imagine some of the concerns you deal with in the news cycle strike a chord with your interests, yet the fast pace of news stories seems at odds with a slower, gentle photographic approach. Has this background shaped how you approach your personal work?
UB: Working as a full time photojournalist and having the passion to produce personal work is not easy. It’s difficult to balance both things. But I must say, my newspaper work allows me to think about the same subject in different way; using a slower process. I have to work on hard news every day, afterwards I start to think of different perspectives for my own work. In this newsroom environment, you see so many issues every day and also how we prioritize exposing these issues. The struggles and experiences of working in this field every day give me strength to work on personal projects.
LC: How did the project Our Songs from the Forest come about? Did it evolve out of any other projects or interests?
UB: I was born, and grew up, in Kathmandu. Still, I have to practice rules and regulations on my period every month. During my first menstruation, my parents sent me to the neighbor’s house for 12 days. I was not allowed to go out into sunlight or speak to and see any men. After 12 days in this dark room, I started to think about this taboo.
I discovered the practice of ‘Chhaupadi’, which is a Hindu custom that demands that women are temporarily exiled from their homes when they are on their period because they are considered impure during this time. Despite now being illegal, it is still practiced in certain areas of Nepal. I found this very complex; compared to the Chhaupadi, my experience was nothing. One day, I decided to go far west, to see the reality with my own eyes and do a project about it.
LC: Could you paint a little bit of a picture of Achham, where you made Our Songs from the Forest?
UB: Achham is one of the districts in the far west region of Nepal, where most people still practice Chhaupadi. It takes two whole days to get there from Kathmandu. I chose to work in the village of Oligaun which is an hour, on foot, from Mangalsen, the district headquarters of Achham. It is less remote than most of villages in Achham. The village is mixed—Chhetri families live in close quarters with lower caste families.
Oligaun is home to Mangala Nepal Rastriya Madhyamik Vidhyalaya, a high school that offers technical education. It is the only one of its kind in all of Achham. In most households in Oligaun, at least one or more members of the family—mostly the men—work in India, and many young people aspire to leave. It is quite common for girls to marry at an early age. Chhaupadi has been outlawed in Nepal since 2005, and criminalized since August 2018. Oligaun has been declared a Chhaupadi-free zone by local authorities, yet most households still enforce the tradition.
I chose Oligaun because, before I landed there, I thought it was a Chhaupadi-free village and that I would be able to produce work from a different perspective. But I soon found out that the scenario is the same as the stories I used to hear back in Kathmandu; a situation that only continues to get more complex the more I find out for myself. Slowly, I am trying to understand these issues through making work.
LC: In your images, you use the practice of Chhaupadi to address the patriarchal society that the women you photograph belong to. Can you tell me a bit more about the consequences of this tradition?
UB: Chhaupadi is a traditional practice where women and girls who are on their periods are considered ‘impure’, and are sent to cowsheds and stopped from getting on with their normal life. They are faced with restrictions on food, milk, fruit. They aren’t allowed to use regular water sources, to cross the river, to sit under Peepal trees, to touch leaves—even ones that have fallen—and to go to the regular water source to bathe and wash their clothes. Water is given to them in a way that ensures they do not “pollute” their family. The villagers isolate them; the water source they have to visit is minimum 30 minutes away. They are not allowed to touch elders, male friends. Going to the temple and worship is strictly prohibited. There are numerous restrictions they suffer through during their periods, which have life-long effects.
Though Chhaupadi was outlawed over a decade ago, the tradition is still very much in practice. In 2017, Nepal passed a law punishing people who force exile onto those menstruating with up to three months in jail or a fine of 3000 Nepalese Rupees. However, people don’t care about the law; they believe in their ancestral practice. Younger generations are taking the initiative to provoke change and, slowly, they are trying to change the minds of their parents.
LC: How did your approach to the situation develop once you actually started working in the village?
UB: Before going there, my mindframe was different. Somehow, my thoughts were that in this period of time since the legal change, viewpoints on this taboo must have changed. I set my mind to work from this more progressive perspective. Change in the sense that women would have now been allowed to sleep in their homes or in good sheds. That they would have been able to eat hygienic food. But after reaching the village and getting to know the inhabitants, I realized that things were the same as before—even in a place so close to the district’s headquarters.
LC: Tell me about the young women you met and photographed.
UB: I went to Oligaun with an open mind. I met so many people and heard many of their interesting stories. I remember my teenage years, the way I used to think and took a small step to start change on these taboos. I met and befriended some young souls who shared a strong desire to change views on this taboo. I collaborated with teenage girls, most of them between 14 and 20. They want to study. Still, even today, parents arrange their daughter’s marriage against their wish. The girls who I met want to fulfill their goals and stand on their own feet.
LC: Looking at your previous projects, there seems to be a shift from you observing the lives of those in front of you to you collaborating intimately with the people before your lens. How did this work in Our Songs from the Forest, where the young women are all aware of the camera and have made choices of where they would like to be photographed? What was the shooting process like?
UB: I always love to work from a very personal and intimate level. My practice is about understanding my subjects: I portray them as they’d like to be seen. Spending time with the young souls of Oligaun and sharing my own experience with them helped me produce this work.
I spent a lot of my time getting to know the girls and sharing stories, rather than just going and photographing them. They opened up and became my friends. They welcomed me into their homes, offer me food, showed me their notebooks and diaries, showed me their family photo album—just like a friend, which was crucial to me considering the subject and the context that we were in.
They opened up a lot after we spent time together, and I shared my own story too. In all of my projects, it really helps me to spend time and become friends with the people I am working with. Just going and taking pictures never works. I spend more time with them than I do photographing. Their simplicity, welcoming nature, and strong desire to create change also shaped how I took the pictures.
LC: You’ve mentioned that the main question driving the images is: where can freedom be found in this patriarchal society? And more specifically in relation to the repressive practice of Chhaupadi, where can these women find freedom and autonomies over their bodies. Can you tell me about the importance and role of the landscape in relation to this search?
UB: In the village, there isn’t that much space for these girls to go and spend time with friends and people with whom they feel free to share their happiness and sorrows. They are bound: by family, community and endless rules and regulations that created by humankind in the name of patriarchy.
The forest is a sanctuary to women, young and old in the village—a space that accepts them without prejudice. In the village, there is no other place where they can relax and be free. This is how bound they are by social norms. Patriarchy has alienated them from and made them afraid of their own sons. All of the girls I met in Oligaun felt this way about the forest.
LC: For me, one of the striking elements in Our Songs from the Forest is the balance between raising awareness of the oppression your protagonists face and finding a way to liberate them from this context through the photographs. Can you tell me a bit about how you found a way to address this tension?
UB: It all comes down to my own experience and the strong desire to understand these girls and know their reality. Working in the daily newspaper, I used to see very raw news about Chhaupadi. Hard news only, only about the sheds. I always thought to myself, is Chhaupadi only the sheds or are there other stories lying underneath? I decided to go beyond the shed as the main feature of this taboo. I want to know more about other layers. How are the lives of these girls affected because of this practice? How do they feel? What is their everyday life like four days into isolation?
The taboo doesn’t only have physical consequences. These women have many fears—psychological and social too. They are fearful of their families, of their religion and of the rules put in place by ancestors in the name of gods. The feeling of loneliness does not only last for the duration of when they are on their period; it’s a feeling that remains for months throughout their whole lives. They are born with this deep-rooted stigma and it takes so long to eradicate it from their hearts. It really takes a slower process to come up with this.