A Wrathful Glare and a Nascent Smile

Features Issue 157 Dec, 2014

Why Raj Kumar Shakya’s work has been drawing parallels to that of the legendary Arniko.

Late King Birendra’s first question to him was how he had managed to smuggle the Swet Bhairav out of Hanuman Dhoka. An eerie silence followed.

So enthralled was the royal entourage by the 12 foot replica of the fiery idol that it left them utterly lost for words.  Art of such magnitude and of such deft had not been seen for at least a generation. It would earn him, a Gorkha Dakshin Bahu— the highest civilian honor, and set in motion a career that has since then chartered dizzying heights. 

 14 odd years later I sit in his bustling workshop while he describes, with a whiff of nostalgia, “that nadir” of his artistic exploits. Raj Kumar Shakya has in the last decade worked on gargantuan projects that dwarf the Swet Bhariav, yet the wrathful deity remains undisputedly his favorite. “It was the first ‘big’ project that I did,” he recounts, “and at the time it seemed wishfully ambitious. But it was magical how it all came together. Besides, it is not every day that you stop a king in his tracks.” 

Today, the two Bhairav replicas that he recreated continue to turn heads in Bolzano, Italy and Sanya, China. His art has reached and touched millions. Encomiums of a modern-day-Arniko have been thrown about. 

Like the legendary Anige, Raj Kumar Shakya was born in Patan into a family of artisans. His grandfather Kuber Narsingh Shakya and his father Rudra Raj Shakya were both sought after repoussé artists locally and in Tibet. It feels like he’d been born hammering sheet metal. “I would watch, through the windows of our family workshop, the other children of the neighborhood play,” he says, “so from a young age, embossing, became both work and play for me.” And it was an art he picked up quickly. By his early teens he was already being entrusted with important projects. His first solo-project, at 15, was the restoration of the ceiling inside Swayambhu’s Basundhara Temple.  It paid Rs 500. 

The list of notable local work since then has grown long. He has worked on the Harati Temple in Swayambhu, the kalash at Gujeshwori, Buddha statues in Boudha and Tokha, the Gumba in Kapan, the Vasuki Temple and, under tight police supervision, the pure-gold serpent that still encircles Pashupatinath. By any standard that is a stellar résumé.
At the turn of the millennium, he was approached about building a replica of the Swet Bhairab for the World Expo 2000 in Hanover. He built two. One for himself. The other for the King and many other Heads-of-State to double-take over. 

The Bhairav eventually found its way to the much-acclaimed Nepali Pavilion at the 2010 Shangai Expo, where he also worked on the replica of Swayambhu which formed the crowning center piece. Binayak Shah, the Director of the Pavilion, still beams in fond memory. “It was a roaring success,” he says and he is being humble. The Nepal Pavilion in Shanghai, over the course of six months, drew well over 7.7 million visitors. “There were days when we would get 50,000 visitors, it was literally overwhelming.” Planes full of national dignitaries and politicians also made it to the Expo. The splendor of the Nepali Pavilion, standing proud in a mêlée of post-modern ambiguities, reduced many of them to tears.

The other replica that Shakya made stood at his Gwarko workshop, where it caught Khenpo Karpo Rimpoche’s eye. The venerable Lama was in Kathmandu in mind of commissioning a 115 ft Padmasambhava statue in Bhutan. When he saw the 12 footed wrathful Bhairav, he knew he had to look no further. “True, I had already worked on many important religious sites in the country,” says Shakya, “but I had always dreamt of working on that scale.” Many of his friends and even family tried to dissuade him from committing to such a large and time-consuming project, but Shakya grabbed at it with eager hands. 

In June 2010, he along with a team of 19 artisans travelled to the remote Takele, Bhutan to undertake a four-year project to build the massive repoussé statue of Guru Rimpoche. Just like his grandfather had done in Tibet, Shakya spent all but the month of Mohni and Sonti (Dashain and Tihar) abroad on a commissioned project. “I would like to paint it as this epic artistic journey, of endurance and teamwork, and maybe in hindsight it was but the four years there were a real pain,” he says with a smile. Their site for the build was so off the beaten road, that most of their equipment and basic essentials had to be Jeeped up from the Indian border, three days away. “A lot of the team-members got terribly homesick,” he recalls, “apart from gambling and maybe a little improvised football there was very little to do for recreation. So we just worked overtime from dawn till dusk to fast track the project.” The hardest part though, he says in jest, was keeping peace between the Bhutanese and Indian laymen. “I played the referee at many a shouting match.”

When finally completed, however, the statue was a sight to behold. Standing at a whopping 154 ft the Padmasambava used 70,000 kgs of copper and weighs an approximate 255 metric tons. It is easily the largest Guru Rimpoche statue in the world, and is going to take some outdoing. 

There are those who consider it Nepal’s most significant artistic export since the White Stupa was built in Beijing in 1288 C.E.  Encomiums of a modern-day-Arniko have been thrown about.
Today the legendary Anige’s 1294 C.E. portrait of Kublai Khan hangs in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, his Thangka of the Green Tara has found home at the Cleveland Museum of Art. His exploits at the sunny domes of Xanadu have inspired songs and tomes.   

Quietly, Raj Kumar Shakya has been carving a space for himself in the same annals of Nepali art. His Bhairav’s wrathful glare and his Padmasambhava’s nascent smile look set, as well, to stand the grueling test of time.