Art that Moves You: Meeting Paubha Master Artist Udaya Charan Shrestha

Text by Eliz Manandhar

When he sold his first painting to a curio-shop at Basantapur at the age of 13, Udaya Charan Shrestha’s happiness knew no bounds. It was a painting of a Vajrayogini and he sold it for 15 rupees – a huge sum of money at the time. He had never done anything like that before; he had never really accomplished anything before.

Times were difficult for artists in the 60s in a country like Nepal, and jobs were hard to find. So, when it came to an aspiring five-year-old child, the world of art was non-existent. Painting materials were expensive and hard to find.  So, when Bal Mandir, an NGO dedicated to improving the lives of children in Nepal, organized an after-school program in which painting was an option, Shrestha struck the iron and proceeded to go on to paint everything from landscapes and still-lifes to portraits of Indian actors and actresses. He made friends there who aroused strong artistic interests in him through their own paintings which were influenced by the paintings of their artistically-inclined parents. Shrestha’s own father was a businessman and his mother, a housewife. He remembers his grandmother and sisters sewing and knitting extensively. His two brothers are also in the painting profession and he suspects that his siblings and he inherited artistic qualities from their parents. Shrestha continued his art sessions at Bal Mandir till the 10 th grade. He hasn’t stopped painting since.

Shrestha is, by occupation, a paubha artist. A paubha is an ancient Newari scroll writing (paubhas, according to experts, are written, not painted) also popularly known as thangka. Note that where thangka is a Tibetan term, paubha is Newar. Paubhas have been commissioned to be made by Newar Buddhists for many many years now, and are popularly displayed at festivals. A paubha is written on a canvas made of animal-skin and white clay. The paint is made from minerals and plants and very often, gold and silver are used.

Shrestha’s resume is endless; he has won so many prizes, it would take up the next two pages if I were to go on to mention them! However, he fondly remembers the time when as a child of 14, he struck gold by winning 1st prize at one of the aforementioned Bal Mandir competitions. Shrestha’s masterpiece is a version of the Mahalaxmi done in oil and an antique coin on canvas and measures 119 by 84 centimeters. It took him more than seven years to finish this painting; when he finally finished it, it  sold for $13,000 and is currently on display at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan. The painting depicts the Mahalaxmi at the center with a lion by her side and seven other Goddesses (the Saptamatika) at the bottom with an old Laxmi coin also embedded in the painting.

Shrestha is dedicated to the iconography method when writing his paubhas, which means he mostly adheres to the rules passed on by the Iconography School of Writing, which prescribes a specific set of images and visuals. While adhering to the rules, he also uses a tiny amount of artistic freedom in his paintings, which, we believe, is due him after having dedicated himself to paubha art for a lifetime. An essential part of his work is the way he depicts the animals which the respective deities use for travel. While other artists depict these animals in a lifeless fashion, Shrestha makes them come alive in vibrant forms and expressions; at times, even more alive than the deity herself! Shrestha’s works portray fire in a very poetic way. Another of his trademarks is the way in which he makes the jewels and ornaments of his subjects’ clothing radiate in a three-dimensional manner. Shrestha’s paintings are immensely likable at first glance and visually and aesthetically appealing without seeming too experimental.  His goddesses are stunning in appearance and often evoke a feel of ‘60s Bollywood stars; possibly a deep-rooted subconscious expression of his own childhood-infatuation with Bollywood actresses. He adorns his goddesses’ crowns with an exaggerated mesh of intricate gold-weaving, which are visually very striking.

Shrestha cites the late Ananda Muni Shakya as an inspiration and credits him for a huge influence on his own style. On budding paubha artists, Shrestha believes that dedication, creativity and originality are very necessary elements to succeed in the field. Having devoted a lifetime to paubha art, success didn’t come overnight to Shrestha; it took him a  long time to gain recognition from critics and public alike. He advises youngsters to be patient while continuing to work hard at the same time.

While continuing the interview with Shrestha, a message pops up on his cellphone; it’s an admirer from The Netherlands who says he came across his work at an exhibition in Europe and bought it instantly! Shrestha says that it is moments like these that elate him and bring him a level of happiness that is difficult to describe.

Fresh off an exhibition in China—Intangible Heritage—where six of his paubhas were displayed to an international audience, Shrestha is eager to meet his artist friends who are keen to know how the exhibition went and are also eager to discuss his current projects. Our interview has gone on for a lengthy amount of time but Shrestha plays the accommodating host and continues to discuss paubha art with me.  An artist friend shows up and Shrestha brings out a work-in-progress. They discuss colors, brushes and art and I can see that Shrestha is very animated as he converses with his friend—it is clear what this means to him.

As I take my leave, I enter his drawing-room to get one more look at his masterpiece—the Mahalaxmi painting. I remark that there seems to be a lot of anger in his paintings because of the vivid presence of fire in most of them. He looks at me with an amicable smile and tells me that to a novice who knows nothing about art, that would be the general interpretation of the symbolisms in his paintings. I am not the least bit offended: the man certainly knew what he was talking about.