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Molding Expressions

I first met Gopal Das Shrestha-Kalapremi seven years ago at Centre for Art & Design KU, where he teaches sculpture and ceramics. Having heard a lot about him and his works, I was amazed by his modesty and he generously invited me to visit his studio. To reach his studio at Maharajgung, I had to drive through narrow winding gallies to reach a studio hidden away at the ground floor of his residence. A look at the studio can definitely reveal his dedication and love for clay and the fluid forms that can be created from it. Female forms, abstract forms, ceramic tiles, painted tiles, animal figurines, distorted masks, gods and goddesses, vases - it seemed like there is no limit to his experimentation and creativity.

Who are you and what do you do?
In the simplest sense, I am a human, a male by gender, born on this earth. And what I do is very much related to who I am. Every person is born with a curiosity, and I chose art as a medium to express myself. Thus, I have taken the title of ‘Kalapremi’- lover of art. I cannot call myself an artist yet, because one cannot make oneself an artist, artist are made by others. An artist’s duty is to create. I haven’t been able to completely call myself an artist yet because I remain dissatisfied with my work, one work leads to another, they are like different lives that I live. It is a continuous thinking process.

Why do you do what you do?
I cannot express why I am doing art, it’s something that operates from within me. I did not choose art, art chose me. If we were allowed the liberty to choose what we wanted to do, then everybody would choose the easiest possible way to earn money. Everybody is born with a talent and we pursue that talent. I do not mean to be proud by saying that art chose me, but that is the way it is. I sometimes wonder why I am playing with clay, why art chose me, why I am working so hard when the returns are much less than that put in. 

What is most integral in the works of an artist?
An artist’s study and research is the most important part of his work. In the words of Manoj Babu Mishra: “Just as we excrete what we eat, art is also the excretion of what we think and what we feel which is expressed through art. We cannot create anything without an inspiration, after the inspiration there is research, then to seek the target audience is another process.” Am I working just for myself or is it for art’s sake or am I feeling responsible to give a social message or is it only experimentation? It is of prime importance for an artist to be clear about these factors and to be honest about his works.

What role does an artist play in society?
Artists are not secluded from society, they are an integral part of society. Artists are born when something happens. After World War II, art changed its course from being only aesthetically beautiful to giving a social message. People realized that beauty has many facets. Themes changed, mediums changed and so did the ‘isms’. With changing times, situations and circumstances the artist takes inspirations from them to create, which in turn educates the society. There is a sequential process for any drastic changes to take place - it first comes through arts then moves to literature and then penetrates to other disciplines. Every person has an artistic sense, it’s only how that sense has been nurtured in him. 

What about Nepal?
In terms of Nepal, Chandra Man Maskey’s drawings created the initial revolution during the Rana Regime around 1940’s. However in Nepal there is a dividing line between the arts and the viewers mainly because of lack of education, which is also the reason why galleries are empty. Everybody’s primary requirement is fulfillment of basic needs and in Nepal where the basic needs are not fulfilled, art is a distant thought to many. It is only after our basic needs are fulfilled that we can think about entertainment. Even in the list of entertainments, music, movies and literature come ahead and art is too far away. The steps to reach art are still in the process of construction even in Kathmandu, not to mention the other places. Bangdel paved the way for modern art in Nepal only about 50 years ago... However, there are some artworks that have made groundbreaking changes, like Ashmina Ranjit’s performance in 2004, titled Happening: Present situation of Nepal, which was conceived being very disturbed by Maoist insurgency and the violence around her. Politicians, police, army, youth leaders, government officers, art students, lay people were all viewers of this performance. The sound of wailing people was broadcasted from all the radio stations giving a wider reach to the performance to indirect audiences as well.

In small ways art is affecting society. I myself have changed the outlook of ceramics, it has now risen in status. People appreciate ceramics and people in Thimi can make a good living from selling ceramics.

How has your practice changed over the years?
I entered fine arts when I was about 21. As I mentioned earlier art chose me. During my weaning or rice feeding ceremony, when we are given a choice of different objects to choose, I chose to hold a lump of clay and my family thought I would probably be a mason. During my college days I worked in various mediums, most of my friends were metal artists from Patan, so I worked extensively in metal during that time. At that time, I did not have much money, I couldn’t document my works because photography was very expensive. I was young and naïve, I lacked knowledge of technology although I knew how to sculpt. Around 2043 BS, I was regarded as a good sculptor and I was sent to Thimi to teach sculpture to potters, there I learned the techniques of pottery. My journey in ceramics began from there. And with time I have matured in forms, feelings, experimentation and expression to be where I am today.

What themes do you pursue? 
My themes are mostly organic forms. I respect the female form as a mother, daughter and I feel the clay is also feminine, from which I was born, I play with and where I will mingle with when I die. But the recent talks about the male and the female has made me realize that it is not only the women who are oppressed in society, the man is equally in the quagmire. There are so many happenings in society where men are oppressed. Earlier too I expressed pain in my artworks, but I focused more on love and time. A certain theme lasts only till an exhibition but its repercussions continue to the next series of work…and of course current issues definitely reflect in my works. In the series “Darker Days of My Country” my medium, theme all reflected the contemporary situation of the country during the time of insurgency and unrest.

Which is your best work till now?
It is difficult to categorize one’s work as such, but reflecting back I can say that my best work is the Key, which was the first work in this series. It is my favorite because I can identify myself with that form, which looked so monotonous, just like my life at that time. It was like a self revelation!  I cannot say for sure it is my favorite, but definitely one of my favorites.

Besides arts, what other jobs have you done?
From painting houses, masonry and electricity wiring to plumbing. Gardening, room service at Kathmandu Guest house and Hotel Ambassador… I did it all. At that time it was very difficult to survive just being an artist and besides that, being the eldest son in the family  I have many mouths to feed. But reflecting back, all these works were very good for me, they made me technically sound. However, none of these works diverted my attention from art. So I say proudly say art chose me.

What about the exhibition ‘Masculism’?
This is my 11th solo show, celebrating my 50th birth year. This exhibition thematically addresses the plight of the male, thus titled Masculism. People generally think it is only the female who are oppressed, but if you look deeply into society, it is the men too who are equally oppressed. My forms in this exhibition has expressed much more that what my initial thoughts were. However, at this point it still feels incomplete as man is never satisfied, he always wants more and as I mentioned earlier, one series of works leads to another.