Art Half Way Round the World : Aidan Warlow

Features Issue 41 Aug, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai

They came, they saw, they stayed on. Since the 1950s, countless foreigners have arrived, liked what they saw, and decided to stay. The scores of Mercedes buses on the streets of Kathmandu remind us of the many adventurous Europeans who drove overland to Nepal. They drove through much of Europe, then Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan before entering a little known kingdom in the Himalayas. They arrived here weary, but worldly wise. Among them was an Englishman, named Aidan Warlow.

Aidan drove his Land Rover into Asia at the worst possible time, in the dead of winter. It was 1969 when he arrived in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan. He was instantly offered the job of Professor of English at Peshawar University (‘Please start next Monday’) and stayed for five months. There he came to know the tribal areas intimately and soon fell in love with the mountains. When he finally drove into Nepal, a country that had remained closed to foreigners until 1950, he could hardly believe his eyes. He witnessed a kind of life and living standards that were beyond his wildest imaginations. There were few cars in the valley and even fewer paved roads. A vast majority of the people wore the traditional daura suruwal, the air was refreshingly clean although the roads were not, and in the midst of this unreal world, he found crazy hippies enjoying a blissful life.

He then moved on to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Cambodia. It was a time when few tourists visited Cambodia. Many years later, Aidan came to realize that the Khmer Rouge was on the verge of taking over the country while he was visiting there. However, he and the other tourists with him were innocently unaware of their menacing presence. “But they were there. Only we did not see them,” says Aidan. Looking back, he remembers how wonderful it was riding a bicycle around the temples in Angkor Wat.

Born on 25th May 1938, Aidan Warlow grew up in a small village in Sussex, England, where his father was the vicar. He received a traditional private education and at age eighteen he was enlisted to do his National Service in the military and served as an artillery officer. However, there was no war and little to do in the army.  Then in the years that followed, between 1959 and 1962, he attended Oxford University to study History and History of Art. By a remarkable chance he was introduced to King Mahendra who was on a private visit to Oxford – Aidan’s first encounter with a Nepali but an important spark to his interest in Nepal.

He became a teacher and labored for the next five years in unruly government schools in South London. “It was a period of unpleasant racial tensions in schools and I learnt a great deal about the dreadful problems of immigrant families coming to Britain.”

His next stop was London University, where he did research on early literacy and children’s literature. He was then appointed Deputy Director of the Centre for Language in Primary Education, running programs for teachers, arranging exhibitions and publishing curriculum guidelines. It was at this stage that he became involved in writing and editing school books. Before long he was appointed the principal of Ibstock Place School, Demonstration School of the Froebel Institute. In 1985 he started his own independent school, Hunter Hall, in the beautiful Lake District in the north of England.

Tourism in Nepal is sustained by tourists who make multiple visits to the country. Aidan is no exception. Along with his wife, Caroline, he made his second visit in 1976. Again as a tourist, he trekked in the Annapurna region. Back in Britain, he was now doing the lecture circuit, besides editing books. He had by then set his sights on raising the standard of text books in Britain and this developed into a major interest in his life. He went on to produce many very successful books including the series entitled Reasons for writing, which he compiled and which was published by GINN. Some of the other books are Who was Julius Ceasar? and The Cool Web, the Pattern of Children’s Literature.

In 1998, Aidan was back in Nepal once again on a holiday and trekking as usual. But this time, fate had something special in store for this English tourist. By sheer chance, according to Aidan, he happened to stay in Dhulikhel. There, one day he found himself talking to Bel Prasad Shrestha, the mayor of Dhulikhel. Their conversation naturally veered towards education in this developing country. Aidan asked, “How can the standard of education in Nepal be raised?” The mayor replied promptly, “Create one very good model school.” Before Aidan could ruminate on the idea, Shrestha suggested, “You should do it.” Those four simple words were to have a profound impact on Aidan’s life. He decided to stay and build that ‘One Very Good Model School’. It was to be in Dhulikhel, and the Vice Chancellor of Kathmandu University (KU) insisted that it be an integral part of KU. Thus began Aidan’s new life in a country far from home.

Soon a new school building was constructed a mile outside Dhulikhel. Recalling the initial years in Dhulikhel, Aidan says with pleasure in his voice, “There I spent the happiest five years of my life creating that school. I had full freedom in setting it up. I also had an outstanding team of teachers and wonderful, bright students.” He was able to develop Drama, Art, Music and field studies not as extra curricular activities but as a central part of the main curriculum. The only negative aspect he can speak of today is, “The dreadful SLC syllabus. The only way to get high marks in SLC is to learn by heart, because creative answers are considered wrong. Such answers are not expected and are not entertained.” He has recently made some important proposals for the reform of SLC.

Eventually, Aidan handed the school over to a Nepali principal. Kathmandu University saw this as a golden opportunity to start a Fine Arts Department with him at the helm. Delighted at the prospect, he immediately insisted the department would have to be set up in Bhaktapur, for the well-preserved art and culture in the city. In 2003, an experimental diploma course was started on a small scale above Bal Mandir School in Durbar Square. As Program Director, Aidan brought in the first appointee, Rabindra Puri as lecturer. Puri had completed BFA from Tribhuvan University and MA from Bremen, Germany. The other lecturer involved since the inception of the department, is Sujan Chitrakar whom Aidan calls, “a very interesting teacher of painting and drawing.” A year later, they moved to the new building still under construction, with the first batch of seventeen Bachelor of Fine Arts students. The only drawback the director perceives is the high tuition fees. “Many students want to study here but the fees of KU are quite high,” laments Aidan, adding, “We desperately need to attract sponsors for the students.”

Aidan lives with his wife Caroline in a cozy house near the school, overlooking the vast Durbar Square, a treasure trove of art and architecture. His living room is naturally full of books and some of them bear his name. For company, the Warlows have many volunteers, who arrive from many different countries to teach and work with the young students. They have a son, Christopher, who builds timber houses for a living in the US, while Rebecca, their daughter is trained to be an actress, and lives in London. Now she is also becoming a teacher.

Aidan speaks fondly of some of the successful programs he initiated in Nepal. The 100% Enrollment Program in Dhulikhel has been exemplary. When he first noticed that many village children were not attending primary school, Aidan became extremely upset. He created quite a stir by chiding the municipality and the local Rotary Club for doing nothing to improve the situation. Finally today there is an excellent program for 100% enrollment in the nearby villages.

As for the future, Aidan has a keen interest in training people on Book Illustration (a short course is planned with the British Council this April) and Fashion Design which has been taught at Kathmandu University’s Department of Art and Design for the past couple of months by two brilliant lecturers from Germany. The stage beyond that will, he hopes, be Product Design.

He feels he has found the right people to guide the students and hopes one day the department will have its own building. In fact, he has set his sights on a plot of land for which he will need funding.

The Department of Art and Design is ideally located in the heart of the city, close to the Durbar Square. Occupying a spacious flat on one of the upper floors of a new building, the classes have abundant natural light pouring in through the numerous windows. The drawing and painting class has the privilege of occupying the largest room. The walls are crowded with drawings and paintings. Many of the portraits we could tell were of fellow students. The lean, tall Englishman from Cumbria looks happy. With a successful school in Dhulikhel behind him, and a blossoming college of art under his care, Aidan Warlow has every reason to be content.