Dhurmus-Suntali: Comedians with a causeThis is the second of the four profiles of the winners of Kantipur Icon 2018, awarded by Kantipur Foundation, the non-profit philanthropic arm of Kantipur Media Group. Dhurmus-Suntali Foundation, which is run by Sitaram Kattel and Kunjana Ghimire, is the winner in the Socio-Political category.
This is the second of the four profiles of the winners of Kantipur Icon 2018, awarded by Kantipur Foundation, the non-profit philanthropic arm of Kantipur Media Group. Dhurmus-Suntali Foundation, which is run by Sitaram Kattel and Kunjana Ghimire, is the winner in the Socio-Political category.
The devastating April 25, 2015 earthquake was a turning point in the lives of popular comedian duo Sitaram Kattel (Dhurmus) and his partner Kunjana Ghimire (Suntali).
The pair, who became a household name through a famous television serial ‘Meri Bassai’, weren’t in Nepal when the massive earthquake shook the country to its core. At that moment, they were asleep in a house of a Nepali family in Syracuse, New York— nearly 8,000 miles away from Kathmandu. They were in the US as a part of a month-long musical tour that featured nine performances. The day after the earthquake, the couple was slated to fly to St Louis before Ghimire learned about the earthquake from her sister who was living in Australia.
The duo watched the devastation unfold on the news like the rest of the world. Only a month ago, they had presented an episode of the series ‘Meri Bassai’ revolving around earthquakes. Ghimire became anxious and longed for her less-than-a-year-old daughter, Subihani, whom she had left in Nepal under the care of her older sister and brother-in-law. She remembers heaving a sigh of relief after knowing that her child and her family were safe.
Cancelling their plans, and before making their way home from the US, the duo had started appeals for donations on social media with the motive of helping earthquake victims back home. Soon after landing in Nepal, they started visiting the districts hit hardest by the earthquake, including Sindhupalchok, Nuwakot, Dhading, carrying relief items such as tarpaulins, mats, noodles and other necessities. Kattel, who was also named as the sanitation ambassador of the Nepal government, along with Ghimire, initially decided to build toilets in earthquake-hit areas with the donation they had managed to collect.
When they saw the plight of Pahari, a minority ethnic group in Dadagaun of Kavre district, they decided to build an entire settlement for the community. But they were worried about how they would acquire the funds required for the purpose. They had spent Rs1.7 million collected from their shows in the US for the construction of 10 toilets in Pipaldada of Sindhupalchok, 44 toilets in different households in Okharpauwa, Nuwakot, and a school building in Nuwakot. However, the lack of resources did not deter them. They started appealing for more donations, and meanwhile also formed a pool of volunteers. After two months of hard work, the duo built the first-ever post-quake integrated model settlement called ‘Namuna Pahari Basti’ with a budget of Rs6 million.
For most, that would be an epic end to their story; many would call it a day but Kattel and Ghimire weren’t done yet. They soon announced their plan to construct another model village in the Tamang-dominated Giranchaur of Sindhupalchok.They registered the ‘Dhurmus-Suntali Foundation’ in order to streamline the fundraising and expenditure process with systematic transparency at all levels. But not everybody they encountered in their journey were encouraging of the duo and their work; there were cynics who questioned their intentions and the authority with which they were progressing with their work. Ghimire recalls, “Sitaram and his aides were chased away, but he was determined to construct another integrated settlement for quake survivors.” Villagers, in turn, were worried if the settlements built by the duo were government-approved and whether there would be grants and loans for the projects to take off.
Despite the challenges, the foundation under the leadership of Dhurmus-Suntali successfully built 65 houses in 100 ropanis of land in Giranchaur. President Bidya Devi Bhandari was invited as the chief guest at the grand opening ceremony to hand over the model village on October 28, 2016. Each house in the settlement has a water supply tap, a garden, a toilet and a community building. Chairman of the settlement community Ram Bahadur Tamang said, “After a while, everyone realised that community-living is the appropriate way of living.” He says that this way of living has strengthened the bond between the members of the community, with people extending help to each other whenever necessary.
When Ghimire and Kattel started on this journey, they knew nothing about the construction sector—let alone building a well-equipped settlement. Their learning was a gradual process working under their Dhurmus-Suntali Foundation banner. They would set a completion deadline before the commencement of any project, and more often than not the projects would be completed before the deadline. The duo credits this achievement mostly to the volunteers who show up at the project site as early as six in the morning to get the day started. Kattel says, “All this has been possible because of the eagerness and discipline exhibited by our volunteers and their overall approach to the work. If the job is to build 50 houses, we form 10 different groups. Those who deliver before their set deadline are delegated more tasks which helps us fast-track the entire process.”
Most of the projects undertaken by the Dhurmus-Suntali Foundation are funded by money sent by Nepalis around the world. Kattel says that he is vigilant about each rupee spent on the projects. He shares, “Our projects are in the interest of the Nepali public and are tied to the sentiments of the Nepali people. I myself take charge of procurement of materials and push a hard bargain to get the best price so that the money is spent wisely.”
Kattel’s humble beginnings in a farming family was also a factor that drove him towards humanitarian work, he says. Born to a family of farmers in Nechabetghari of Solukhumbu, his family migrated to Gauradaha of Jhapa in 1991. An avid lover of drawing and painting since childhood, Kattel came to Kathmandu to pursue higher studies but fate had other plans for him—he became a comic artist. “I used to plough the fields while I was studying in the seventh grade,” says Kattel, reminiscing his childhood. His wife attributes his hardworking nature for his success, she says, “I like having fun now and then, but he’s this extravagant character only on screen. He’s a completely different person in real life.”
At the office of Dhurmus-Suntali Foundation in Purano Baneshwor, the duo sits discussing the memorandum of understanding signed a day earlier for the construction of a multi-purpose Gautam Buddha International Cricket Stadium in Bharatpur, Chitwan. They are sorting through their to-do task list from preparing the Detailed Project Report for the stadium—that is estimated to cost around Rs 3 billion—to opening a site office.
With their passion for humanitarian work and their altruistic initiatives, the couple has set an unforgettable example at a time when bigger infrastructure projects in the country lie bogged down by corruption and lethargic bureaucracy. In the same vein, many have voiced their opinions on how the state should take the responsibility to look after the welfare of the nation and its people rather than taking a back seat and having an individual do the heavy work. Kattel says, “There’s no doubt that it’s the state’s job to look after the welfare of the people, but we continue down this path with the hope that our initiatives will put pressure on the state to do its bit.”
He concludes, “When the state fails to deliver, we as citizens will be compelled to think about the kind of leaders we have elected over the years.”
The other winners of Kantipur Icon are:
— Mukunda Ranjit, the winner of Kantipur Icon in the Science & Technology category
— Kulman Ghising, the winner of Kantipur Icon in Business and Economy Category
— Sunil Pokharel, the winner of Kantipur Icon in Arts & Literature category