Bimala Shrestha: The Temptress of Rangamunch

November 15, 2013 , by Supriya Rai, Leave your thoughts
Bimala Shrestha: The Temptress of Rangamunch » My Dreams Mag


A figure veiled in barko ran barefoot towards a waiting van. As soon as the doors shut, the vehicle sped off taking its passenger through the streets of Kathmandu to her obligated destination. Travelling in the van was the lead star of Himkanya, the acclaimed dancer Bimala Shrestha who was running late on the first day of the show. The vehicle came to a halt, the star dashed out and onto the stage to wild applause.

Little did her audience know that on that day Shrestha had slinked away quietly, unnoticed among the din of mourners at her home. Burying her grief under a curtain of barko, she had steeled her heart to walk away from her father’s lifeless body in the hallway and audaciously reported to duty on her employer’s special request.

One can only imagine how the artist might have been received by her kin once she returned home that night. How she coped with her pain on stage is incomprehensible entirely.

Shrestha simply says, “No other performer could have replaced me on that day. And it was a matter of national pride that the show went on without a hitch. We had a royal audience, plus foreign dignitaries were present… I couldn’t let the team down.”

A few days after the show, an employee of the Royal court showed up at her door and handed her Rs.50000 as per King Mahendra’s instruction. That was on top of the Rs.5000 that the academy had rewarded her with. A smile spreads through Bimala’s face as she lets in, that the sum was enough to do the funeral rites and customary rituals of her deceased father for an entire year. A little comfort perhaps in the form of poetic justice.

One of her earliest memories is that of being transfixed by the Gai Jatra and Indra Jatra performances in her tole as a six year old. Fascinated and completely smitten, she found her body swaying along to the graceful male-dancers clad in female attire. Blissfully unaware of the norm of female-ostracization from the art/performance scene, it was an inspired moment that bore one of the greatest dancers of Nepal.

Bimala Shrestha

First time in Germany for performance.

In the beginning however, it was all child’s play. Leaning back on her sofa, Bimala ji reminisces those times, when she used to walk to Singha Durbar on foot with her group of friends.The six rupee per song compensation for singing on Radio Nepal’s Children’s programme was motivation enough. And of course by virtue of the programme, the time spent with friends and exemplary influences around the station.

By the time she was 14, the rising star had risen to the position of a contracted singer on a monthly wage of Rs.150. Her true passion though was still dance, which she continued to pursue in secret, under the guidance of the maestro Bhairav Bahadur Thapa.

When King Mahendra embarked on his All India Tour, Shrestha was chosen to be part of the entourage of artists and performers that accompanied the monarch. It was a defining experience that solidified her devotion and intensified her zeal for her craft. In the following years she travelled to a staggering number of destinations around the world from North Korea to the Soviet Union among others with her cultural troupe, impressing and amassing a new legion of fans.

Bimala Shrestha

Among fans in North Korea

Her kohl lined eyes crinkle at the corners as she talks of those times. A particular incident she recounts fondly. On one such occasion, Shrestha had travelled to Bulgaria with her troupe and had just finished performing a Maruni dance for the audience. During the performance, the heavy ghungroos around her ankles had cut into her skin which started bleeding. So taken by her dance was a Bulgarian woman in the audience, that she had gift baskets sent to the dancer’s hotel, had transportation arranged for the drop off at the airport, had jewellery made to be given as gift to the dancer on parting.

Tyesto sathi banauna payeko ma pani khusi lagcha. Aru pani dherai thiye nachne haru, tyeti dherai ma mero nritya maan parai dinu, yeti maya dinu, bhasa najani, nachini pani mitrata gasnu mero lagi thulo kura ho.”

I feel happy that I made friends like her through my craft. There were several other people in the troupe, but for her to single me out, to be able to establish a friendship without knowing each other’s language, each other’s background just on the basis of her appreciation of my craft is a huge thing for me.”

Bimala Shrestha

Bulgarian fan printed and sent the picture as a gift.

The acclaim wasn’t just international. Natya Shiromani Shree Baal Krishna Sama, compared her to Russian ballet dancers and Indian superstar Vaijayanti Mala in front of a packed audience. Her play Muna-Madan ran houseful for 6 months at the Naachghar theatre and celebrated a golden jubilee, an unprecedented landmark in Nepal’s cultural history.

By the end of her remarkable career, the Senior Dance Coordinator of Naach Ghar had been decorated with a Gorkha Dakshin Bahu 4th and 5th, Tri shakti patta, Indra Rajya Laxmi Puraskar and numerous felicitations for her excellence and untiring dedication to dance. The veteran had also been granted cash rewards at choice moments in her career, the second most significant of which was the lump sum of Rs.500000 which she used to put her son through Pilot training.

The sun streaks in through the open curtains, resting on the retiree. On being egged, she declares conspiratorially that her marriage was a love match, to a rugged pilot. One imagines what spunk this petite woman must have had to do so in those times. But on reflection, Bimala Shrestha was never someone who backed down from challenges or cowered from adversity.

Borne of a society that strived to produce asal chhoris, who would go on to become asal grihinis in their married homes, Shrestha faced intense pressure within her family to forgo her dreams. She bore the brunt of acute stigmatization from the society who considered women in art loose and immoral. Between bursts of laughter she recalls incidences like her father chasing Nuchhe Daju, her mentor, away with a stick and being locked up in a room when she won first prize in a country wide dance competition. She confesses she could never return home during daylight without being verbally abused. “Rati bhaye pachi shawl le mukh chopera ghar aauthe”

Bimala Shrestha - Muna Madan

On Stage of Muna Madan

If the financial imbursement was peanuts, the social stigma so absolute, then the question comes to mind why did she hard-headedly pursue this profession? What about the gig was so great?

Paisa thiyena. Tara ijjat thiyo. Naam thiyo. Samaj ma nabhayeni, Kala-parakhi haru bich samman payinthyo. Tara aile paisa cha, ijjat chaina, maan chaina. Dukha lagdo kura tyo cha.”

Yes, there was no money in this profession. But one was respected by the peers and art enthusiasts. There was dignity in being an artist. Now, things have changed, there’s money but little respect. That is regrettable.”

Some days, one can still find the spirited rebel, teaching some foreigner a cultural dance of Nepal in her living room. Ideally Shrestha would have preferred to pass on her knowledge gained from her body of work to young children in a traditional dance school. A lot of the cultural, ritualistic dances like the Charya Dance, the Maruni Dance etc she red flags, have already lost their authenticity due to the subjected interpretations by new dancers. It is paramount, she presses, that the young generation take an interest in one’s culture and strive to conserve our traditions while it is not too late.

Ma ta kasailai pani yo chetra ma aaunu chai bhandina. Pachass barsa pachi samaj pheriyela, tara tyo bhanda agadi thik chaina.”

I do not encourage anyone to pursue a career in entertainment. Maybe in 50 years’ time, the society might change but not before that.”

It’s grounding to hear a veteran like Shrestha say something like this about a career path that she herself devoted an entire lifetime to. The supreme dancer, unparalleled and unmatched by any – neither before nor after her – was not only the reigning queen of Naach Ghar but also of the public’s heart. It is eye-opening to say the least, why a star so revered and idolised by many who want to follow on in her footsteps, should prescribe such a pessimistic view of the future.

As she introduces her pilot son and daughter-in-law to us and talks of her married daughter who has settled in China it is hard not to forget that she hasn’t always led a charmed life. However the defined bunions under her brown socks, the lines on her forehead and the pain underlying each anecdote gives away the fact that her stardom didn’t come without a price.


Text by: Supriya Rai
Photographer: Mohan Duwal
Vintage Images Courtesy: Bimala Shrestha

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