In Aldershot, a town in Hampshire, England, there is an old 1930s Art Deco theatre called the Empire. Since its renovation several years ago, it operates mainly as a Nepalese community centre. On the top floor there is a restaurant and a temple; downstairs is a function room, where groups of Nepalese men meet up every so often to play xbox, table tennis and traditional Asian games like carrom.
Aldershot is home to the largest Nepali community in the UK and, because of its close proximity to an army base, Gurkha families make up a large proportion of the population. The Gurkhas are Nepalese soldiers who were recruited into the British Army following the Anglo-Nepalese war in the early 19th century. Over 200,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in both world wars, but they were unable to settle in the UK until 2004. Since then, after a campaign famously championed by the actress Joanna Lumley, the population of Nepalis in the UK has increased from 6,000 to an estimated 100-150,000.
British-Nepali photographer Nina Manandhar’s most recent project, Gurkha Sons, questions the challenges and benefits of coming from a Gurkha family in the UK. The group she photographed calls themselves the k-BOYZ – the “k” standing for Kaprukka, the Nepali word for “frozen stiff” as that’s how they feel when they go out on their motorbikes in cold British weather. Manandhar asks how living in the UK informs their sense of identity, and most importantly, where home now lies for them.
The series is a collaboration between Manandhar and her uncle, Shreedhar Manandhar, who is a well-known photographer in Nepal, famous for documenting Nepalese culture. The photographs are currently on show as part of an exhibition about Black and Asian heritage in London, but also in a much larger exhibition called Brotherhood at Kathmandu Photo Festival.
The exhibition relates to the idea of family and brotherhood across continents in form as well as content – after all, Manandhar’s father sent her uncle his first camera from the UK. Several decades later, Shreedhar Manandhar gave his niece a camera on her first visit to Kathmandu when she was 16. Shreedhar’s photographs provide a broader framework for Gurkha Sons, and the importance of this idea of brotherhood and belonging for young people from a diaspora.
Youth identity, and the use of style as a means of cementing a group, have always been key themes in Manandhar’s work. She has co-founded a youth magazine called The Cut, regularly runs workshops for young people based around photography and representation, and has published a book on UK fashion since the 1950s, What We Wore: A People’s History of British Style. What interested her about the k-BOYZ was how hybrids of style, and different elements of their upbringing, manifest in the way they dress.
“Because they come from army families there is this real sense of pride,” says Manandhar. Manandhar’s portraits are accompanied by interviews, which include asking her subjects whether they felt British or Nepali. Many said Nepali, because it was in their blood.
“But identity is such a complex thing,” says Manandhar. “We are increasingly living in a globalised world where identity is less defined by ethnicity. On one level you have people looking to retreat into that, and then there are other people who embrace the cultural difference.”
ninamanandhar.com Gurkha Son’s is currently on show in the UK as part of Human Stories, Another England at the NOW Gallery in Greenwich, London until 11 November https://nowgallery.co.uk/exhibitions/another-england/ and in Nepal at Kathmandu Photo 2018 till 16 November www.photoktm.com