Reaching Greater Heights in Stone

On reaching sculptor Chandra Shyam Dangol’s studio in Khokana on a Friday morning, I feel that it is located in the perfect neighborhood. Not so crowded, peaceful, plenty of fresh air; exactly the kind of ambience where art and artists likely thrive.

As you enter the tin-roofed studio, the first section is a spacious office-like room, where there is a showcase displaying small stone sculptures of deities like Ganesh, Bishnu, Laxmi, and Buddha, among others, for sale. Certificates honoring the sculptor’s excellence are hung at one corner, and on the floor below are some more sculptures of bigger sizes—more deities, guardian lions (singhas) seen at temples’ entrances, and panas (traditional oil lamps). There is also a desk, on which is a stack of brochures about the sculptor’s recent solo exhibition, ‘Inheritance’. Alongside are a couple of couches where visitors can sit. A door at the next corner leads you to another area that is more open-spaced, which gives you a clearer picture of what the sculptor is up to—statues of Shivalinga, stupas, and still more deities. There are also unfinished sculptures, uneven stones, and machines needed for cutting stones and smoothing their surface. And, a handful of sculptors doing what they love most; making statues.

Dangol has just returned after taking a class on sculpture at Sirjana College of Fine Arts, located in Uttardhoka, Kathmandu, of which he is also a founder member. He has been teaching there for over eight years now. High school-level students are encouraged to become comfortable with sketching and drawing first, and then they get to work on clay, so that when they make statues, they can rework as many times as they want, since clay is moldable. Once they get better and get used to doing it, they work on stones, wood, and metal, which is taught during their bachelor’s. In his college, five students on average decide to take sculpture classes in their bachelor level, he observes. “Many students don’t prefer taking sculpture classes, and I assume it’s because the work looks very messy. You have to work with stones and get your clothes dirty, and lifting heavy weights is not everyone’s cup of tea,” he says, adding that maybe another reason is that people aren’t much aware about the importance and charm of this art form.

Also, since contemporary artists have the liberty to explore different genres, he hopes that Nepali contemporary sculptors will make it a point to love making traditional sculptures reflecting Nepal’s history. He stresses, “Traditional sculpture is our identity, and it gives us a uniqueness that the rest of the world adores. So, even if young sculptors want to try international imageries, they should not hesitate to work on Nepali styles, too.” He has seven sculptors working in his studio, who have been trained by him.

It was his father, Krishna Dangol, who influenced him to get into sculpting. His father was passionate about metal sculptures, so he had joined the profession in Patan. But, being a resident of Khokana, where almost everyone was involved in agriculture, he was also required in the fields, so he had to quit the sculpture business after five years. However, he wanted his son to pursue fine art in high school, and Dangol agreed, but without any interest in the beginning. But, studying about sculpture made him so interested that he now feels he wouldn’t be able to love any other profession like he loves stone carving. He completed his bachelor’s and master’s in fine arts, specializing in stone sculptures, from Tribhuvan University.

The stones Dangol uses are brought in from Hattiban, which is a very complicated task. Firstly, geography makes it difficult. He observes, “Taking excavation equipment to the sites and transporting stones become a challenge because of the narrow and unpaved roads. Additionally, there is no proper policy for the excavation.” They have to take permission from the community forest authority as well as the local people, along with other bodies of the government. And, since the government keeps changing, they are required to convince new officials every time they want stones for sculpture. This makes the process lengthy, and so it takes over five months to get 300 tons of stones. “And, since we don’t have advanced tools, we excavate rocks in the traditional way, because of which they do not come out in blocks, but uneven shapes, which need further trimming,” he adds.

Once these stones are brought to the studio, they are cut into blocks as per the required sizes. They then smooth the surfaces, and images are roughly sketched onto them. According to these images, the blocks are trimmed into perfect shapes. The stones he uses are called “black ballast”. While some people like their statues naturally colored, some order them oil-polished, and some even prefer them painted. For making a one-foot- tall sculpture, Dangol charges ten thousand rupees, and it requires a week’s time. If he is to spend a month on the same sized statue with more details, the price goes up to sixty thousand rupees. People buy statues from his studio for worship or decoration purposes.

Having made around one thousand gem statues (quartz, lapis lazuli, and other stones) and two thousand stone carvings in his more than two decades of sculpting, Dangol has received many awards and participated in numerous national and international exhibitions. He has been honored with awards such as National Best Entrepreneur (2006) and National Best Entrepreneur Runner-up (2007 and 2014) by Small Scale Cottage Industry (Government of Nepal), Achievement Award (2008) by Oita Asian Sculpture Exhibition, Japan, Fine Arts Special Award (2011 and 2012) by Nepal Academy of Fine Arts, Best Artist of The Year (2017) by Federation of Handicraft Associations of Nepal, and Jyapu Kala Prativa (2017) by Jyapu Culture Development Trust.

His ten-and-half-feet-tall Bodhisattva Buddha, a six-foot Bodhisattva Buddha, a five-foot Shakyamuni Buddha, and a pair of three-feet-tall singhas were exhibited at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 in China. He was also honored as a distinguished professor at Suzhou Art & Design Technology Institute in Suzhou, China, in 2014, for two years. Also, he gets invitations to facilitate and judge art competitions organized by schools and other institutions.

Speaking on why sculpture-making means so much to him, Dangol says that, through this profession, he gets to help preserve Nepal’s rich tradition. “We see chaityas, statues of deities, and other traditional carvings the moment we step outside our homes. There are monuments and temples all around that reflect our ancestors’ creativity and are very inspirational. I feel proud that I have been taking the legacy forward,” he shares. His works that recently made a buzz in the country is a pair of singhas, five-and-half-feet each, installed in Nepal Vajrayana Mahavihar in Lumbini. Also, since there aren’t many traditional sculptures of big sizes in Nepal, except for a few, that too dating back to seventh or eighth century, he wants to make as many as possible. His eighteen-feet-tall Maitreya Buddha, one of the tallest sculptures in Nepal, was installed in Bara district in 2012. Another one, a thirty-three-feet-tall Manjushree statue, which was started over five years ago, has reached the final stage and is located in Chobhar. The artist has compiled over twelve pieces to complete this one, each weighing two tons at the lowest, while the biggest piece weighs ten tons.

As I’m almost done with the interview and preparing to leave, I ask him my last question: what is his favorite sculpture that he has worked on till date. He walks across the office, opens an old tin cupboard, and takes out a rectangular sculpture. Explaining that it is Buddhacharita, an image that depicts Buddha’s life from birth to death, he informs that the sculpture is 12 years old, and it took him over three years to finish it. “Many people wanted to buy it, but I couldn’t give it away at any cost. I don’t really know why, but it’s very dear to me,” he says. Certain things in life are unexplainable, indeed!