INDRA B TAMANG CAME FROM A NEPALI VILLAGE that had a witch doctor but no electricity. In his 20s, he met an American poet who changed his life. For the past four decades, Tamang has lived in the iconic Dakota building in New York, and mingled with folks like Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams and John Lennon.
But that's the past. Let's flash forward to the present.
On a rainy day in April, a small room at the Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan was crammed with art lovers and well-wishers from the Nepali community, who were there to attend the opening day of Tamang's photography exhibition, titled Charles Henri Ford and Indra Tamang Collaborations.
They jostled for space while peering at the black-and-white photos that were accompanied by haikus written by his boss, Charles Henri Ford, who died in 2002 at the age of 89. Poet, writer, editor, filmmaker and photographer, Charles led many lives and mastered many arts. A routine provocateur, the famous Surrealist poet co-authored America's first experimental genderqueer novel, The Young and the Evil. The book, published in Paris in 1933, was banned in the US and UK until the 1960s.
"It's great to see how Indra has emerged from Charles' shadow," said Ashok Gurung, senior director at the India China Institute at The New School and a native of Nepal. "I think he has evolved from being a minor player into an artist."
In 1974, Tamang left for the US to work as a domestic help for Charles Henri Ford. In 2009, Charles' sister, Ruth Ford, a famous actress, died at the age of 98, leaving Tamang, now 58, a valuable Russian surrealist art collection and two apartments at the Dakota building, near Central Park, all of which he estimates are worth $6-8 million.
The news hit Nepal and New York like a bolt of electricity and Tamang was catapulted into the limelight. There was a good deal of drama as well since Ruth, who was married to the late Hollywood actor, Zachary Scott, had disinherited her daughter and grandchildren. The daughter challenged the will in court and the case was not settled until April last year. "The newspaper reported him as a lucky man who won a big lottery but with this exhibition, more of his art will come out and more people will know him for his work," said Mukta Tamang, who teaches anthropology at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.
Charles gave Tamang his first camera in the 1970s. He has since acquired many cameras that he's used to photograph widely in New York and around the world. Tamang's exhibition showed his photographs of people and places from Greece, Paris, New York, India and Nepal. The accompanying haikus, which were in French, offered both a philosophical and humorous commentary.
"Let the other people be homosexual/ As for him/ He's not that queer," is one of the hundreds Charles penned.
Instead of writing them by hand, Charles had cut the words for the haikus under Tamang's photos from French magazines. "The East at your feet/ Fragrance that gives/ Muscle and daring," read one poem under a photo of naked children jumping into a dark pool of water just outside Kathmandu.
Despite some tutorials, Tamang said that his French wasn't strong enough to understand what the haikus meant. For him, the photos are a record of the places he and Ford visited together and the people he met on their many excursions.
Asked whether he saw himself as an artist, Tamang grinned and said, "I'm not saying an artist myself but if somebody else says that I'll accept it."
SOJOURN IN NEPAL:
TAMANG WAS 18 OR 19 when he met Charles, who was staying at the Panorama Hotel, a low-star accommodation in Kathmandu where Tamang worked as a waiter. Tamang remembers hellos being exchanged over a breakfast of porridge and tea. The young man actually turned down Charles' first job offer of a caretaker because he didn't want to leave his hotel job, which offered stability.
Annoyed with the excessive car-honking in the capital city of Kathmandu, the poet left to explore greener pastures in Asia but soon returned to the same hotel. It was through an interpreter that Tamang received and accepted Charles' second offer to work in a house in Gyaneshwor, on the outskirts of the city. They first moved into a villa outside of Kathmandu where the boss wrote poetry and invited strangers for dinner. "I remember our first argument was over cleaning dishes," said Tamang, laughing and shaking his head. "I didn't want to clean the dirty utensils—but then I realised that cleaning some dishes doesn't lower me."
It was the early 1970s, and Charles hung out with a motley crew of characters from monks to scholars. Tamang's memories from that time are mostly about being happy with a new bicycle, bought for him to help get the household chores done. Nepal in the 1970s had its share of hippies, poets and artists—many of whom Charles befriended. Tamang wasn't a hippie or poet nor was he artistic, but Charles was keen to be friends. "He would always try and speak with me but my English was very limited," he said.
It hadn't been long since the young man had left his farming village, Phakhel, to fashion a better future for himself. At the time, his village had no electricity, running water or roads. There was a children's school but the teaching was in Nepalese. Tamang, who spoke only ethnic Tamang, would avoid going if he could. "My cousin and I would get near the school and then run away," he said.
When he was 16, his body mysteriously swelled up and a witch doctor was called. The witch doctor said that someone had put a spell on the lad and a rooster would have to be sacrificed. Shortly after the mantras had been chanted, Tamang began to deflate. "I don't know whether to believe it or not but that is what happened," he said.
His family was poor but life was peaceful. King Mahendra and then King Birendra were on the throne. The Maoists were a thing of the future. The farmers planted corn, buckwheat, millets and soybean. "Village life was the same every day," he said.
Before he was 20, Tamang had landed the hotel job. He had married and was slipping into domestic contentment when his life took the curious turn that landed him smack dab in the American upper crust.
MOVING TO THE DAKOTA AND LIFE WITH CHARLES AND RUTH:
"HE WAS ASKING ME TO GO TO AMERICA, but I had no idea how far America was," Tamang said. "But then I decided that adventure would be better than a life of hardship and I would be able to bring my family out of generations of poverty."
And that is how Charles brought Indra Tamang to New York, to the Dakota building, to be his caretaker.
The exclusive building, which dates back to 1884, has gas lamps at its entrance. Home to John Lennon for several years, the building is now primarily known to the world for being the spot where The Beatles singer was shot.
"Thanks to Ruth and Charles, I met many of the most interesting people in New York, many of whom I still know and count as friends," he said, in his eulogy for Ruth.
Charles, a celebrated editor and artist, had famous friends that spanned the 20th century.
In a cyclone of parties, plays and art exhibitions, Tamang met people like Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams and even a young Brooke Shields. Charles always introduced him as a friend or "Indra from Nepal" and then let him swim in a whirlpool of new faces. "Charles would point out many famous people but I didn't know who they were till later," he said.
Tamang sat in front of Lennon and Yoko Ono at a play but the memory that sticks is of an erotic scene that made him uncomfortable. "I still wasn't used to it," he laughed.
He would often exchange pleasantries with the celebrity couple in the elevator of the Dakota or at a party in the building. "He was always carrying his son Sean," he said of Lennon.
Late in the afternoon of 8 December 1980, Tamang left the building to go for his karate class. On his way out he recalled seeing a man in a grey trench coat, who he believes killed the singer. Later that night, he didn't hear the shot but only the commotion that followed.
"This is where I stood and looked out at the street," he said, standing in the courtyard behind the big entrance to the building. "I went back up and heard the news the next morning on the radio."
Yoko Ono still lives in the building and Tamang runs into her occasionally. "I saw her after Charles died and she told me to keep up my courage or something like that," he said.
Ten years after Charles died, Tamang is still sifting through decades of memories and art, which are stuffed in boxes and scattered in a small apartment on the ninth floor of the Dakota building.
Except for the view of the Strawberry Fields memorial to Lennon right across the road in Central Park and the Manhattan skyline in the distance, the place is plain. The Strawberry Fields is a stretch of land named after the Beatles' song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever'.
In the photo exhibition at the Woolworth Building that concluded 6 May, there was a telling black-and-white photograph of Pavel Tchelitchew, a Russian surrealist painter and Charles' lover until he died in Italy in 1957.
In a 1997 interview to the Journal of Contemporary Art, Charles speaks about his relationship with Tchelitchew.
"So many people thought he was half-mad—‘Oh, he's a mental case,' but he never gave me that impression. But there was this stock reaction, that he as a lunatic Russian, and morbid. Whatever morbidity I found became normal to me."
A village boy at heart, Tamang had a tough time accepting Charles' relationships with men and so, for a long time, he tried to block it out of his life. "It didn't seem right to me—it was a very strange feeling," he said. Tamang recalled that he would not react if Charles brought someone home with him. "It wasn't my business," he said.
Tamang sort of always knew that Charles had deeper feelings for him but he insists that those desires went unrequited. "Maybe he had more expectations," he said. "If he said something, I must have brushed it off because I wasn't like that."
Since they were always together, people did suspect that the two men had an intimate relationship. "It did make me uncomfortable and if someone would ask I would say it's not true," he said.
After Charles died, Tamang found a manuscript in which the poet expressed his feelings for the Nepali man. "I don't think the word was there," he said, reflecting on whether "love" had made it into the manuscript.
But Tamang met Charles when he was already in his late 50s and the poet didn't have stable boyfriends. He recallsed that his boss, in his later years, had more girlfriends and may have considered marrying Djuna Barnes, an American playwright.
During our conversation, Tamang wanted to make clear that even if his boss was romantically inclined towards him in the early days of their acquaintance, their relationship evolved. As Charles aged, Tamang did everything for him. "I saw him as a father and he saw me as his son."
At the Dakota, Tamang played the roles of both Jeeves and Mary Poppins. He cooked, cleaned, did the groceries, sorted the bills and generally kept the domestic ship afloat.
He also served as a messenger between Charles and Ruth, who lived in a much more opulent space on the seventh floor. The Surrealist paintings by Tchelitchew, which once adorned the walls of Ruth's home, have been auctioned by Sotheby's. Tamang gets a portion of the money from the sale every month.
After Charles' death, Tamang found himself taking care of Ruth. He ran her house and devised clever ways for the ageing actress to take her medication.
Sitting on the edge of a chair in the living room of Ruth's apartment, Tamang recalled the scores of poets and artists who had passed through Ruth's house over the years. While the famous paintings have been auctioned, the antiques and furniture that remain are like the first pages of many stories that span a century.
In one photograph, Ruth is shown as Ophelia in a stage production of Hamlet performed at Kronborg Castle in Denmark.
In the interview with the Journal of Contemporary Art, Charles says that he always thought his sister made a big mistake by missing out on the role of Blanche DuBois—the volatile Southern belle in Tennessee Williams' play, A Streetcar Named Desire—"but there was some compensation because instead of accepting that, she accepted the role of Ophelia in a company that went to Denmark and played in Elsinore Castle, and there she met Isak Dinesen. And Isak Dinesen and I had already been in correspondence and later we became good friends."
While visitors soak in the romance of the surroundings, Tamang also remembers the day-to-day realities. He said, for instance, that the brother and sister had property but were not cash-rich. Ruth, therefore, maintained a tight budget.
Tamang said he wasn't paid regular wages until the 1990s, when he brought his family to America. "So many times I felt lost about what I was doing," he said. But many such uncertainties were subdued in the adrenaline rush of new beginnings.
SURREALISM IN THE SHADOWS:
DURING THEIR YEARS TOGETHER, Charles and Tamang collaborated on many photography and collage projects. Like his boss, Tamang developed a penchant for layers and shadows. The exhibition in downtown Manhattan had a set of photographs that focussed on this tradition. Tamang said he often set up the camera and lighting to capture cross-cutting dark silhouettes.
Avoid the obvious—that was the one piece of advice from his mentor that Tamang took to heart. "When I wanted to take a picture of a flower, he wouldn't like the idea," he said. "Instead, he would say to click people."
"Fate of the Orient/Constantly mobile/Inscrutability", said a haiku next to the image of a Nepali boy standing near a blurred image of a Hindu god.
While most of the images at the show were from the 1970s and the 1980s, Tamang easily remembered how and why they were clicked. After seeing a snake in their garden in Kathmandu in 1984, for instance, Charles wrote, "Indra called me to look at the snake/ Quite a long slim one—God he said."
Besides publishing 15 books of poetry, Charles was also the editor of two magazines. His first magazine called Blues was subtitled ‘A Bisexual Bimonthly'. It was launched in 1929 when he was 16 and still living with his parents in Mississippi.
In the Journal of Contemporary Art interview, he said, "During Blues days, in the neighbourhood there was a counter cafe—so, fresh from Texas, editing Blues, I would say to the counter boys, ‘I'll give you a dollar if you let me kiss you.'"
Out of the all the photographs he's clicked, Tamang speaks most fondly of the pictures he took of Charles' famous friends at discos and parties through the 1970s and the 1980s. The images are snapshots of a time before digital cameras and security checks at celebrity hangouts. "They are not very artistic but most of those people are dead now so I'm glad I've [got] these."
The Nepali photographer also revealed that having a camera at the scores of social gatherings made him feel less of an intruder in a sea of strangers in a foreign land. "It kept me company because I wasn't very conversational," he said.
"This work will eventually get noticed by photography curators at MOMA or the MET," said Jonathan Rabinowitz from the Turtle Point Press, which published Charles' only nonfiction book in 2001.
Valery Oisteanu, a famous Romanian-American poet who posed for Charles and featured in a couple of photographs at the exhibition, said, "I think Indra understood what Charles stands for and is keeping his art and name alive."
Tamang, the protégé, however, never shot nudes. "I was too shy but I did setup the camera for Charles," he said.
One curious piece, which is a play of light and shadow, had a naked image of performance artist Penny Arcade superimposed over a still of Phoolan Devi.
"Penny had gone to see Phoolan in India," Tamang explained. "So when Charles asked her to pose with a slide, she brought Phoolan's."
A NEW CHAPTER:
ONE YEAR AFTER THE MEDIA FRENZY over his inheritance, Tamang has decided against moving into the Dakota building. He continues to live quietly in Woodside, Queens, with his wife and three daughters. "I still don't feel that property is mine," he said.
Ruth's apartment, which Tamang put on the market for $4.5 million soon after he inherited it, has been sold. His wife, Radhika Tamang, continues with her babysitting job. "Whatever the media say, I feel the same," she said. "Maybe, I'll feel more in the future."
The media attention was hard to cope with, Tamang said, but he decided go with the flow of it instead of shunning it completely.
Tamang still visits the Dakota regularly since he drops off his 11-year-old daughter at a Manhattan school and then waits for her classes to end. He plans to hold onto the smaller apartment for a while longer.
Meanwhile, he is trying to arrange more exhibitions of the poetry and art that are gathering dust in the apartment. "I don't want Charles' legacy to fade," he said. Tamang also wants to develop old reels, which were never developed. Since many of Charles' friends have died, the images could become a 'who's who' of the Surrealist movement or an anthology of the movers and shakers of the art and literary world from that period.
But sitting on a chequered divan in his living room in Queens, Tamang speaks of the great many things that have happened in his life besides the Ford family.
His father and first wife passed away in Nepal and he married a second time. His three daughters now live in the US and he spends a great deal of time with the youngest. "The day begins with taking her to school," he said.
Many changes have come to Phakhel village since Tamang left almost 40 years ago. It has roads and some electricity. With some help from Charles, he built his family a new house there and he plans to build a better one.
Like many immigrants, Tamang dealt with the guilt of leaving his family behind. "I used to think. ‘What am I doing so far away from my parents?' But that's a cross of mine," he said. "That is why I saw Charles so much as a father."
Tamang also credits Charles with the English and French he picked up along the way, because he never had any formal education. Since he used to run away from his village school, Tamang also picked up Nepali later in Kathmandu.
With some time on his hands, he is now considering enrolling in a General Education Development programme, which is the equivalent of getting a high school diploma. Instead of studying at home, Tamang said that he would prefer to enroll in classes. "It will be more of a challenge."
Soon, it will be time to make a decision about keeping the old house in Kathmandu or tearing it down. The maintenance costs are high but the place is filled with memories. "I can be sentimental but I also have to be practical," he said.
Since Ruth's passing, Tamang seems to have been caught between bidding farewell and holding on. Someone will soon buy her house and its last possessions will be sold. Tamang confided that a part of him would be relieved to see it all go. In the next breath, he admitted to the heartache of letting go.
"When I first met Ruth Ford in 1974, the year that I came to work with her brother Charles Henri Ford, many doors were opened to me into a world that I could have never imagined," he said in her eulogy. While the ghosts of that world loom large, the future beckons. "I've had enough experience living at a famous address," he said. "It's time to move on."