The Greater GoodKavre, Paanchkhaal, was our first destination. The people there expected us to only mend and reconstruct the houses—bringing them back into their previous shapes—that were destroyed. But we had something else envisioned. We wanted to build an integrated model settlement; a settlement wherein every family in the community would come together to share a space where all the resources would be distributed equally to all the families.
One grim day in May, 2015, the acting duo of Sitaram Kattel (Dhurmus) and Kunjana Ghimire (Suntali) was in Paanchkhaal, in Kavre, and caught up in a quandary. Reconstruction works led by the duo was in full swing but the couple was running out of funds, having exhausted the money—1.65 million (Sitaram prefers to be precise)—collected from their shows in the US prior to the quake. Kunjana had an idea—“Let’s sell our house in Kathmandu”—to start for the Dhurmus-Suntali Foundation, an organisation that has so far constructed three ‘integrated model settlements’ in three districts—Pahari Namuna Basti, in Kavre; Giran Chaur Namuna Basti, in Sindhupalchowk; and the recently-handed over Musahar community settlement in Mahottari, which is now home to 53 marginalised Musahar families. For the second anniversary of the Gorkha Earthquake, Anup Ojha and Timothy Aryal caught up with the duo to talk about the Foundation, its work, and what keeps the duo going. Excerpts:
How did you come up with the idea of constructing the integrated model settlements?
Sitaram: On the day the quake, we were busy performing at our shows in America. We had already made nine appearances, and there were eighteen more to go, as promised to the organisers. Then when the news of the quake arrived, we felt morally obligated to return to Nepal and help out with whatever resources we had, in whatever way we could.
So we took a flight back home, after some differences with the organisers who were against the idea of us returning. Once back, we were first shocked; so many people including those in our family had been injured. Then we began reaching out to people in the quake-affected areas. It started with involvement in immediate relief distributions, followed by building homes with whatever means we had at hand.
Kavre, Paanchkhaal, was our first destination. The people there expected us to only mend and reconstruct the houses—bringing them back into their previous shapes—that were destroyed. But we had something else envisioned. We wanted to build an integrated model settlement; a settlement wherein every family in the community would come together to share a space where all the resources would be distributed equally to all the families. We banked on the model because there were only so many sustainable and viable options available.
In due course, the settlement in Giraunchaur, which includes a total of 66 sustainable houses, drinking water taps, seven parks, toilets and child-friendly playgrounds, came together. That’s how it all started.
But it certainly wasn’t easy. What were the challenges you faced along the way?
Sitaram: You realise that things that you didn’t know existed start appearing once you hit the grounds and start working out there, in the field. There were many factors that hindered our work, or tried to. But, there were two major hurdles that arose.
The first was convincing two kinds of locals: those who just wanted their homes back in their own land, and then those who deemed us as agents of some political party, out there with an agenda.
Of course, we were there with an agenda, but it was not political.
When we floated the idea of integrated settlements, they were as suspicious, as they were skeptical, and they would not give us the permission to use the land.
Once we finally had the locals on board, we just didn’t know how we would procure the funds to accomplish such a large-scale project.
But we were determined in our mission and many helping hands joined in along the way.
Kunjana: I was going through a personal shock; my mother was injured in the quake and someone had to take care of her. But I was also going through a moral dilemma; I couldn’t decide if I should stay back or go reach out to thousands of others who were suffering with no help at their disposal.
Once I made my call to go out there and began the actual work, there were still so many obstacles to overcome. We have been threatened by random strangers demanding that we stop the work. We have also come across Gundas ready to attack us. And of course, we have faced a lot of skepticism in the very communities we tried to help. But none of it counts anymore. We have accomplished what we wanted to do.
Even before the quakes, you were involved in constructing toilets along the highways. So the instinct to engage in something of societal benefit was already there.
Kunjana: That’s right. In fact, we travelled to the US to gather funds for the same project. But that was a small-scale project which we knew would come to an end in due time, and we had no idea what would follow. Once the quakes struck, it occurred to us that every disaster is a blessing in disguise; the quakes brought an entirely new kind of energy.
It was a big leap, surely. You are actors first. And now, you are social activists. Tell us about the transition and what do you think should be the role of artists in the times of crisis?
Kunjana: By definition, an actor’s role is to entertain the public. And our profession has helped us connect to people. We would come across locals who said, “Now that you two have arrived, we believe the earthquakes will not come.” And it was all so heartening.
Being actors first, in some measure, also helped in bringing our projects to fruition, because most people would not hesitate to trust us.
Sure, we could have showcased some of skits to the public, and that might have inspired a sense of resilience in them and in us. But we wanted and needed to do more.
Before we are actors, we are human beings. Hence, we took it as our responsibility to internalise the pain of others as our own and turn into something constructive. We prioritised the need of the public above our personal benefit. Anyway shouldn’t that be the bottom line in anything one does? The greater common good.
Sitaram: While we were working, we weren’t celebrities, we were common citizens, like everyone else. We were one with the locals.
You two come from two different backgrounds. You met through acting, and now are working together for a cause. What was the meeting point; how did you find a common ground?
Kunjana: Not only in terms of backgrounds, we differ in so many other ways. We also have very different temperaments. For example, he is a very calm person, me not so much. I would at times burst out in fits of anger when I couldn’t make sense of anything, and in those times he would help me keep my cool and ask me to not lose my patience. The common ground where we come together is this shared compassion and goodwill that drives us to work for the greater good.
Now, the three model settlements you envisioned have come to fruition. What is the Dhurmus Suntali Foundation up to these days? Any new projects in the pipeline?
Sitaram: Currently, we are looking for land elsewhere to construct more model settlements in other quake-affected areas. We also are planning an ambitious national-level project, which we will announce soon.
We wish you all the best. It is obvious, of course, that you are not motivated by any political agenda. But are there any prospects of you making the transition to politics in due time?
Kunjana: We are not currently concerned about making that transition, but as we all know, politics is what makes and breaks things in the end. If the public demands our participation in development through politics, we won’t back out.