A Lull in the Gallery

Features Issue 130 Sep, 2012
Text by Pranab Man Singh / Photo: ECS Media

Wednesday mornings, Simrik Atelier is a hive of activity. Students of the fine arts fill the studio and sample a painting style developed and adapted over centuries in the Kathmandu Valley. They are here to learn this ancient painting technique from one of its few masters, Lok Chitrakar. Paubha as this style is called by the Newars, has a documented history from the 7th century onwards and is seeing a miniature revival after two centuries of gradual decline. There are fewer than a hundred masters of the Paubha style, but a rekindling of interest in the style and a realization of its historical value has invigorated a new generation of artists to take it up again.

Lok Chitrakar sees himself playing out a modest role in the revival of the Paubha style. He says, “change is brought about by a ceaseless and spreading ocean of causation. The individual as a causal link has a role to play but to think that he alone can turn the tide, requires a healthy dose of egotism.” This sense of karmic philosophy interwoven with individual dharma is part of Nepal’s cultural fabric. It speaks of a Nepali sensibility that has often been misunderstood for fatalism and resignation. Chitrakar holds no illusions as to why he paints. His painting are his life blood, they are his sole source of income. As a teenager, Chitrakar already had some experience with painting and in 1974 started replicating older Paubha paintings for Rs. 350 a month. Taught how to draw and paint since a child, it was the easiest way for him to make money during financially difficult times.

Chitrakar’s first composition was of Ganesh, the god of auspicious beginnings and remover of hurdles. He still keeps this painting with him. Compared to his current work, the crudeness of its lines serves as a reminder of what he once was. When shown the Ganesh, the years in between start to weave a narrative together. Over a freshly brewed coffee, he told me, “I started painting because I had to, the money made me realize I could make a living doing this. It was something I could do, I needed the money, so I dropped out of school and painted. But I didn’t know what I was painting and even though I wanted to learn about it, there was no one I could really learn from. I did not have the chance to apprentice under anyone and the older painters where I worked knew little. After four years of work, I went back to school, rejoining in the 9th grade passed my SLC and went on to join a bachelors program at Patan Campus, but I dropped out in the second year. By then I had moved to Patan, and in the early 1980s, I enrolled in a year long course conducted by the Nagarjuna Institute on Buddhism. Min Bahadur Shakya who ran the course was, in many ways, my first teacher - through the course, I began to understand what I was painting. I was also pointed me towards books and reference materials I could use.”

It took Chitrakar a decade of self study, research and immersion in his work before he gained the confidence to start translating classical scriptures into his own visual imagery. In the early 1990s, Chitrakar made his first trip abroad to Japan, through a fellowship with a Japanese gallery, the Ueda Bijutsu-Ten. For two years, he studied their painting styles and techniques while working on Paubha paintings for the gallery. He eventually returned to the euphoria of Nepal’s early days of democracy and eventually set up his studio, Simrik Atelier, in Patan Dhoka in 1998. “The Japanese have their own style of religious painting that is a derivative of Paubha,” Chitrakar says, “It was what really made me realize the importance of increasing awareness on our Paubha style, after all this was the style our forefathers had started and had spread throughout Asia.”

When quizzed on whether there was a difference between Paubha and Thangka, Chitrakar suggested the distinction was very subtle. Historically, from the 7th century reign of the Tibetan king Sron Tsan Gampo, Newars used to be hired to paint religious paintings and were predominantly prepared in the Paubha style of the Kathmandu Valley. It was only from the 16th century onwards that Thangka paintings came under the influence of Chinese aesthetic styles, an influence that has come into Paubha as well. Aside from history, the major difference between the two exists in thematic focus and style. Thematically, Thangkas delve into the iconographic and narrative traditions of Buddhist and the older Bon religions where as Paubhas are based on the Hindu-Buddhist synergy of the Kathmandu Valley. Stylistically, Thangkas are heavily influenced by Chinese aesthetics where as Paubha retains most of its classical aesthetic styles.

Chitrakar is quick to point out that the Thangka is by no means an exclusively Tibetan style: the Tamang communities in Nepal also make Thangkas. Predominantly, most of the traditional artworks sold in the curio shops of the city are Thangkas. When I asked Chitrakar whether this made them more product than art, he was hesitant to brush them away, “I don’t like to engage in this art/not-art debate. But I do think that many of them would take the opportunity to become artists, but it is not so easy. You do the work that pays your bills.” He paused and a long silence engulfed the room as he gathered his thoughts and I sipped on my coffee, watching the sunlight creep towards an unfinished sketch. Half a Manjushree waited to be brought to life. He continued, “The Thamel market is a double edged sword. The flourishing of tourism really saved the traditional arts from extinction. But the shop keepers are very dishonest, exploit artists and have little regard for the art works. I’ve seen replicas of my Paubhas along with paintings I’ve never made pawned as Thangkas - a simultaneously amusing and upsetting experience.”

The confusion between Thangka and Paubha will persist for some time, but what exactly is Paubha painting? Is it a style or a painting that conforms to a theme and style? Why is it called traditional and denied contemporaneity? Chitrakar explains that the word itself, Paubha, is a Newari word derived from Sanskrit that means a painting done on a cloth or scroll. I suggested that perhaps this recent drive to define and classify Paubha was an attempt to distinguish a separate class of work from what is found in Thamel. He didn’t quite agree, “Not entirely, it is a question of identity and being able to claim it. There is a historical basis for this distinction, an important one if we are to study the historical development of painting in the region.” Just painting? “No, the history of Paubha offers a window to a society and time that we will probably never see again. But it does tell us something of who we are and what this present is about.” And does Paubha today speak of the present? “Yes, what Paubha does is represent that which has no material representation in the world. For instance, compassion cannot be found in the world, but it can be represented through Paubha with a rich narrative that goes along with it.”

It is natural for a nation and people to take pride in their history, but it is equally important to not eulogize it. For all the freedom that women from the Newar community supposedly had, there are still precious few female artists and the traditional caste based nature of occupation meant the artistic occupation remained limited to a certain segment of society. Chitrakar offered his view on this, “The lack of women in the profession might have been because of the need to travel around based on commissions received. It could also be partly influenced by the Brahmanic belief of a male hand in creation. This however, will change as more women start picking up the brush and painting.” He continued, “As for caste, the Chitrakars were lower castes within the general hierarchy, which possibly explains the lack of importance placed on the arts once patronage died out.”

In the past, Paubha paintings were closely tied to the religious practices and rituals that interwove Newar society and formed one of the cultural strands of the region. Paubha did not develop in isolation in Nepal, but flourished here because it was appreciated and patronized throughout the region. Its popularity supported the artists and its sacred status preserved its quality. Modern times have not been so kind to these age old cultural milieus. Their historical patronage networks have gradually disappeared and have been replaced by the modern market economy.

A 1966 painting, A Tribute to My Forefathers, by one of Nepal’s first modern era artists, Tej Bahadur Chitrakar, captures the slow but dramatic shift that was occurring within the Newar community since the fall of the Malla Kings. The oil on canvas painting, done towards the end of Tej Bahadur’s career, depicts an old Chitrakar laboriously painting in the Paubha style. The painting appears to be Tej Bahadur’s attempt at acknowledging the impending end of the Paubha style. It shows the ability of the new material (oil and canvas) to replicate the stone pigments used in Paubha and create a visual narrative that speaks of the present, no longer bound by the scriptural restrains of Paubha.

I suggested to Lok Chitrakar that the narratives that were once able to captivate people are no longer known to the public. Perhaps this was why Paubha was classified as traditional - that it could only speak of a time gone by. Chitrakar brooded over this for a while before speaking. “Yes, Paubha is a religious painting technique, but it can also be used in a secular way. Its birth and origination lie in the religious. To understand it, knowing its religious usage and purpose is necessary. I think Paubha can be used to speak of the present, but perhaps no one has really explores its possibilities yet.”

In Nepal, tradition lives alongside the modern - this perhaps confuses how we see art. Many debates persist between what is craftsmanship and handicraft versus artistry and art, or what are the traditional arts versus the contemporary. Paubha has often been derided as an exulted form of mimicry - that all Paubha paintings are replications of the same painting and that there is limited space for artistic originality. Chitrakar is clear on where he stands on this, “There is a particular religious tradition to Paubha that demands it to remain true to the symbolisms, motifs, figures and positions that give it meaning, else they lose their representational value. However, the scriptures are broad and there it is largely the interpretation of this that the artist is engaged in. Originality is the contention here - but perhaps the gaze should be finer than the broad brushstrokes of our modern narrative? On the other hand, one could use the Paubha style to create a secular image - how does one judge originality in such a case? Would it be original to paint the Mona Lisa in Paubha style?”

Paubha and the traditional art forms have an archaic history in modern Nepal. They have largely been followed and understood as relics of a past, perhaps reinforced by their appearance in western museums amidst the plunder of dead civilizations. It has not helped that most contemporary artists have shown little interest in the indigenous art practices and traditions. I once mentioned to Lok Chitrakar that I found it remarkable that he has dedicated so much of his time to teaching, instead of spending all his time on his work. He laughs, but explains, “I think that it is important for the younger generation to at least experience the Paubha style. If they ever find it necessary, they can then come back to learn it. It gives me glimmer of hope that the younger generation will see Paubha as I see it and use it to speak to their generation.”

Chitrakar showed me preliminary sketches of his work for the Kathmandu International Art Festival to be held in November this year. It was a secular painting - he called it an attempt to show what could be done with the Paubha style. But his emphasis remained with working out the intricacies of Nepal’s religious painting. “Dissatisfaction is in many ways a boon for a painter. It prods me on. It makes me curious, makes me want to improve. Till now, I have not been satisfied by any of my paintings yet. Perhaps, if ever I gain satisfaction, I will paint more secular themes and utilize some of those techniques I learnt in Japan.”