Michal Thoma – Traveller, photographer, writer – Part 2

Michal Thoma

Michal Thoma – like his father Zdeněk – is a well-known Czech photographer, traveller, and author focussing on countries in Asia, including India and Nepal. In Part 2 of this special Panorama, we focus on Manang – a village in the Himalayas which was unchanged for centuries when Zdeněk Thoma visited and photographed there in 1979. Thirty years later, his son Michal followed in his father’s footsteps and has since put together a joint-exhibition about Manang which you can see at The House at the Stone Bell in Prague.

Photo: Michal Thoma
“I was thinking ‘It has been 30 years, this is something special’ and it occurred to me to document changes that had taken place to combine them with my father’s existing exhibition, which had been exhibited in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I took about 100 small-format photographs in Manang and when I first arrived at the village my first thought was ‘How to start?’. I came to a place where three old men were sitting and praying and I showed them some of my father’s original photographs and within minutes it felt like half of the village surrounded us!

“Everybody was looking at the photographs and yelling, they were very happy and I realised there was more to all of this: because the locals hardly had any photographs of their own from 30 years ago – so we really brought back part of the history of the village and their personal history.”

That sounds fascinating and is something you can see in the show: the inhabitants reacting to the original photos. There was an example, I understand, of a famous photograph by your father called “Little Devils” showing children playing between the houses – one of them has a mask on – and they also recognised themselves, right?

'Little Devils',  photo: Zdeněk Thoma
“Yes and this was very interesting. One of those in the photo was a small girl on top of a ladder and she, now an adult, owns the restaurant where I used to have dinner and meet with people. And while she had seen the original photo, she did not recognise herself. It was only after a few days that a neighbour recognised her: she couldn’t believe it at first. And there were many similar moments: people recognised themselves or now-deceased family members they themselves had no photographs of. So it was interesting.”

Can they get copies, it occurs to me: if they wanted could they get a copy of a photograph from the show?

“At the time it wasn’t possible but at the time I left photographs with a local NGO which will provide that service but I don’t know if they have already done so. What we did do after I came back was agree with my father to produce a brand-new exhibition ‘set’ to bring back to the village itself, to exhibit permanently in the village museum.”

Regarding the form, did you decide to recreate many of the photographs from the same angles your father used?

“I did at first but it didn’t prove hugely successful, at least regarding changes in architecture. Some areas – what is now the new tourist area of Manang – changed beyond recognition. Now there are two or three-storey hotels there or fields or grass in other places... so it was difficult to do that. As for old parts of the village, they did change but the architectural style did not, so it would be hard to spot differences. Small differences are there, but the new buildings are still built in the traditional style.”

Manang,  photo: Michal Thoma
If we are talking about ‘change’, this is a village which is around 3,500 metres above sea level where the local economy was based on the salt trade. Is that different now? Is it all about trekkers?

“Yes, I think that the trekking business is now probably the most important. Some people still do agriculture and have small fields but they aren’t enough to produce food for the entire year. So a lot of people are involved in tourism in any way they can be. Still others spend only part of the year in Manang but have their businesses in Kathmandu or elsewhere.”

What is something that really hasn’t changed very much: would it be something to do with local rituals or local beliefs? Are there things that have resisted?

“Well what is happening is the kind of thing that often happens when communities get modernised: the people who live in town, who had already lost contact with the traditional way of life of their parents. They begin to get interested in how their original culture was and now want to maintain it. The result is that many come back to the village and try to learn from their elders and this kind of thing has also happened in Manang. The local NGO decided to revive the Badhe festival my father photographed in 1979 but which was discontinued for around 25 years. The festival was always held every three years and the villagers and their descendents were very happy to be able to see it held again.”

In a nutshell, what is the focus of the festival?

Photo: Zdeněk Thoma
“It’s a Tibetan Buddhist festival so it always includes dances which recreate heroic acts of famous saints who introduced Buddhism to the Himalayas. Mostly it is a dance of the guru Padmasambava from the 8th century who came and subdued the demons who had been ruling in the valleys into followers of Tibetan Buddhism. He turned the evil demons into protectors of the people and protectors of the dharma.

“Also, there is also a political meaning to the festival because the Manang used to be a kingdom probably in the Medieval Age – the 15th or 16 centuries – and it was subdued by neighbouring kings who themselves were subdued by the unifier of Nepal. At that time the Manangi people did support the unifier Prithivi Naryan Shah in order to be granted business privileges which were very important for the economy of this otherwise poor village. So in the ritual they recreate and commemorate the famous battle and these events.”

Back in the Czech Republic you write, publish articles and photographs... I’ve read that it has really become a family business. There’s work by your father, your mum is involved on a managerial and editorial level... It must be interesting to work on such intense projects – how does it all come together?

“Of course sometimes it can be difficult. If you work in an office it’s eight hours a day and that’s it, but here we often discuss things and it can be never-ending. Sometimes things get heated and one of us says ‘I’ve had enough – I’m quitting!’. But we are a family and we always find a way!”

Photo: Zdeněk Thoma
On my bookshelf I have Cesta na východ (Journey to the East) by Ivan Brezina and Iva Heřmanská, a kind of handbook that was published in the 1990s on how to travel cheaply and ‘properly’ (if we use that term) in Asia, not as a tourist but as someone who wants to throw off Western habits, food, clothes and wants to get to know the local culture. That’s something that a lot of people first try in their 20s or early 30s: if you’re older than that can you still try and jump in ‘feet first’?

“Well I would say it’s never too late. Ivan Brezina’s book is really stunning; in it he describes how to get all the way to India on just 100 dollars in the 1990s, something that is probably not be possible (although still not expensive) today. But changing your clothes alone will not do really: it’s all about the mindset and your openness and I believe that these things are not that different whether you are 18 or 40. Maybe it is better when you are more mature because you will better appreciate your own country’s values and understand that values that focus on family, on children, are universal around the globe.”

Find out more in both English and Czech at http://manang.thoma.cz