Priya Gurung knows at least ten people who left her village to work overseas. Today, the young are no longer happy living traditional lifestyles, instead they dream of the success the modern world promises. In the rural mountain villages of Nepal, very few people remain. What were once thriving, autonomous villages only 30 years ago, are now filled with abandoned houses and uncultivated fields. The tragedy is that the traditions that helped these communities survive and flourish for centuries are at risk of vanishing, taking with them the vast archive of knowledge, expertise and imagination that make up the complexity and diversity of their culture.
Until the end of the 18th century, stateless people (those who are autonomous and not governed by a political power) occupied the greater portion of the world’s landmass — wild forests, steppes, deserts, rugged mountains and other inaccessible remote areas. With the advent of the industrial revolution, state powers needed a large supply of laborers to produce and maintain the products necessary for amassing state revenues. Thus began a large enclosure movement that would eventually enroll the stateless people on the periphery of state control. In Southeast Asia, including Nepal and India, this enclosure movement took place in the late 20th century. The state powers’ strategies were more about “soft power” than coercion, inveigling stateless people (including subsistence agriculturalists) with distance-demolishing technologies — all-weather roads, railroads, airplanes, electricity, telephones and now modern information technologies. The oldest state-building strategy has been establishing permanent settlements that pay tribute or taxes to the political center, usually under the guise of “civilizing” the nomadic barbarians. It would appear that in our modern era this activity has ended, yet if we substitute other words for it, like “development,” “progress” or “globalization,” then it’s apparent that the political agenda of the past is still alive today.
My photographic interests are centered on the diversity of people and how they express their unique cultural identities. This project is important to me because it shows some of the hidden costs of modern industrialization and its accompanying lifestyle. It demonstrates that there’s a price for progress, not only of the waste it generates, but also its impact on cultural traditions and identity — in particular, the loss of diverse artistic, intellectual and spiritual expression that collectively defines the human experience as lived until now.