Art Since the Time of Arniko

Features Issue 114 Apr, 2011
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

From the early days of Arniko to the present art scene, it has been a long and colorful journey for Nepali art and artists; the artists being as colorful and moody as the art they create. 

A larger than life sculpture of Arniko in artist Manuj Babu Mishra’s garden.

In 1260, the great Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan decreed to Lama Phags-pa, his spiritual teacher, to build a golden stupa in Lhasa in honor of a previous teacher, Chos-rje pa Sakya. Phags-pa, in turn, requested King Jaya Bhim Dev Malla of Nepal to send a skilled architect to supervise the work. Arniko, then just 16 years old led a group of 80 artisans and carried out his work so well that the Emperor asked Phags-pa to summon the young architect. Kublai Khan wanting to test him further, asked Arniko to repair a copper statue of a Sung emperor that was had been considered ‘beyond repair’. When finished, the statue looked so perfect that even the most skilled of the court artists were impressed. Arniko went on to build many other masterpieces in China, among which, the most renowned is the White Pagoda of Miaoying Temple in Beijing. Built in eight years (1271-79), the stupa, better known as White Dagoba, was later declared a historical treasure. According to historians, Arniko’s other notable works included nine Buddhist monasteries, two Confucian shrines and one Taoist palace as well as the Archway of Yungtang - the design of which exactly adopts a Nepalese style.

Artist Durga Baral

Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci?
Besides architecture, Arniko was equally adept at painting and sculpture. His portraits of a series of Chinese emperors were admired by everyone. Pleased with Arniko’s work, the Emperor conferred on him the title of Liang Guo Gong (Duke) and made him a minister in his court. He was also rewarded with 15000 acres of farm land near Beijing, 1000 serfs, and 100 heads of cattle. Arniko is among the very few foreigners, whose biography is included in imperial China’s history books. Arniko died in 1306 in China at the age of sixty-two.

Arniko’s real name was Balabahu. The Chinese called him Arniko (ara: woman; niko: face like), because he had delicate feminine features. Another meaning could be Aa Ni Ka: or respectable brother from Nepal. Going by history, few will dispute the premise that Arniko is the greatest of all Nepalese architects and artists, dead or alive. He was responsible for spreading Nepalese art and architecture not only to China (including Tibet) and Mongolia but also to places like Indonesia. The “World Expo Park of Shanghai” at Expo 2010 Shanghai had a “Nepal Arniko Center” in the Highlight 1 section of the Nepal Pavilion. one of the more popular sections at the expo, it was visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Art before Arniko

While Arniko gave international exposure to Nepalese art, it is also true that art, especially stone carving, was already flourishing in the country long before him. According to the late Lain Singh Bangdel, the history of Nepalese stone sculpture goes back at least 2000 years whereas works in wood and terra cotta date back only to the 17th century. A stone image of Yaksha Bodhisattva found at Hadigaon, (now in the National Museum) dates back to the first century.

Most ancient Nepalese sculptures were created by artists from the Newar community of Kathmandu Valley. Their style influenced Chinese (and Tibetan) art too and Nepali artists were often invited to work on decorating their shrines.

Artist Manuj Babu Mishra

As far as wooden sculptures are concerned, they were mostly architectural works (windows, door surrounds, struts, toranas, etc). According to experts, although the Nepalese style borrowed heavily from the art of Gupta and later, of Pala - both Indian, Nepalese artists later developed a distinctive style of their own – deities with languid eyes and wider faces than that of Indian models, stylized curves and beautiful proportions. Traditional Nepalese art (and architecture) remained more or less the same over the centuries. It particularly flourished during the reign of the Malla dynasty (1200-1769) in Kathmandu Valley when successive rulers outdid each other in creating wonderful works of art and architecture. In due time, contemporary art too began to makes its mark in Nepal, heralding the arrival of a long list of modern artists on the scene.

The Pioneers
Perhaps an excerpt from the book, ‘Tej Bahadur Chitrakar – Icon of a Transition’ (2004) by Madan Chitrakar, would be relevant at this point. “But the irony of history is such that when there was relative calm in 1957 and King Mahendra instituted the Royal Nepal Academy as the upholder and custodian of Art, Culture and Literature of the country, someone who had never stepped inside the country earlier was chosen to ‘represent art’ of Nepal. For sure, Lain Singh Bangdel – the new member - was born, brought up, and was working in a place other than Nepal. All the local rightful claimants (aspirants) for the post then, who had struggled so long and so hard to lay the very genesis of the Western style of painting in Nepal and were responsible for the achievements so far, including Tej Bahadur Chitrakar, were ignominiously ignored. Only King Mahendra knew the reasons. And above all, without prejudice it should be read in the context that in 1924 when Lain Singh was still a toddler, Tej Bahadur and Chandra Man Maskey were painting portraits from life in the Government School of Arts, Calcutta – the same institution Bangdel himself got enrolled into some twenty years later.”

Tej Bahadur Chitrakar, Chandra Man Maskey and Lain Singh Bangdel are some names that have to be mentioned when talking about Nepal’s later art history, as have to be names like Uttam Nepali, Batsa Gopal Vaidya, Krishna Manandhar, Indra Pradhan, Vijay Thapa, Thakur Prasad Mainali, Durga Baral and Rama Nanda Joshi. The last mentioned, besides being an excellent water colorist, also established Park Gallery, Nepal’s first modern art gallery.

Artist Shahi Shah

The Present Scenario
At present, art has become somewhat of a run of the mill affair, especially in Kathmandu, with art events being the order of the day or, to put it another way, a trend. Art schools are producing artists by the dozen every second year and old timers are having a difficult time keeping pace with new and more youthful energy. The majority of artists practice the art of painting with few devoting themselves to installations and sculpture. In fact, sculpture is more of a prerogative of artisans who toil day in and day out in the narrow lanes of cities like Patan to produce stone and metal icons of various deities for use in temples and monasteries. In villages like Bungamati also, woodcarvers chip away determinedly to create decorative wooden items like toranas and peacock windows. But an attempt to understand the Nepalese art world as it exists today through brief sketches of a selection of artists and their works makes for interesting exercise. By no means complete, the list is representative of the country’s contemporary art world as it stands today.

The Hermit
Manuj Babu Mishra, 75, is an artist and litterateur who is held in the highest esteem nationally and internationally. However, he is also the quintessential eccentric. He has now lived indoors for almost 10 years in his abode called the ‘Hermitage’. “I go to sleep between 6:30 to 7:00 pm. I wake up at 2:00 am,” he discloses. What does he do at that hour? “I sketch, paint, write!” he says. His sketches are mesmerizing. They are clearly the works of a master. He uses sharpened bamboo tips dipped in ink to draw his sketches. As for his paintings, they are rowdily extravagant in nature. “The basic concept of my work regardless of the media I use is the result of and a reaction to, the churnings of my mind”, he declares.  Many, if not all of his works have wide (and wild) eyed - some very much devilish - faces of the artist himself. He says, “Art for me is inner expression to vacate the load on the mind.”

Artist Lok Chitrakar

Horse Whisperer
In an interview a couple of years back, he had disclosed, “After 15-20 years of painting horses, I am now painting other subjects”. This was a surprise as Shashi Shah’s name has always been related to paintings of horses; not just ordinary ones, but large, muscular and magnificently unbridled animals. Perhaps it was the artist’s way of expressing his own free spirit. The 71-year-old artist is presently the head of Srijana College of Fine Arts in Lazimpat. He says, “Even in a country like Nepal with its innumerous difficulties I have managed to achieve a lot as an artist.” Much of the artist’s life has been devoted to the depiction of horses. He admits, “Horses dominate my paintings. A white horse is the symbol of Vishnu, others are also symbolic - some are evil, horrifying, manic and devastating while others are good. I hope they all seduce the viewers’ imagination.” He opines, “Everybody has a different style and a painting must immediately be recognized as a particular artist’s. This is success in itself.”

Masterful Strokes
His works are easily distinguishable; the distinction primarily due to the endowment of concise broad strokes throughout his paintings. “Shades of cubism, yes, that is what some people have noticed in my works,” admits Shyam Lal Shrestha. Initially a water-colorist, he later went on to explore more creative possibilities. The 65-year-old artist takes pride in that he got to learn under the tutelage of the late Lain Singh Bangdel and especially happy with what the former Chancellor of the Royal Nepal Academy had to say about one of his exhibitions, ‘Expression’ (2000), “…Once a powerful and successful water color artist…he exhibited his water colors with a mastery of flow, strokes, technique and charm…he has changed his style since and has now developed more on his semi abstract figurative works.” His canvases, though oriented towards the abstract, are still to a layman, comparatively easy to fathom but he does admit, “I have still some way to travel before I can claim to be proficient in abstract art”.

Soulfully Yours

Shashikala Tiwari, 61, doyenne of Nepal’s art world, is as unpretentious as they come, and as down to earth. ‘Merging With Nature’, completed in 1988, is one of her personal favorites. It shows a lovingly proportioned woman, clad in a white - out in the open being buffeted by the powerful gusts of a strong wind. It is a painting that is soulfully sensuous in content. Her atelier in Bishal Nagar, Kathmandu, is located within surroundings brimming with greenery. This environment no doubt must have played a part  in inspiring her to paint a whole series of canvases titled ‘Fallen Leaves’,  ‘Flowers’,  ‘Harvest Leaves’ and ‘Monsoon’. In 2002, her ‘Sunnya Man Ka Stabdha Aankha Haru’ - a tribute to the late King Birendra and his family - had a collection of lovingly done depictions about the royal tragedy. Her poetic talent was evident in the lyrical eulogy penned on the brochure which led to Sangeeta Thapa, Curator of Siddhartha Art Gallery, stating, “…she is also an accomplished poetess. It is precisely this synthesis of literature and art that gives Shashikala’s paintings a distinct lyrical style”.

Artist from left to right: Bijay Thapa, Asha Dangol, Shyam Lal Shrestha, Shanta Kumar Rai, Erina Tamrakar, Uttam Nepali, Kiran Manandhar, Sashi Kala Tiwari, Bhai Raja Maharjan, Binod Pradhan, Krishna Manandhar, Narendra Shrestha And Manish Lal Shrestha

The Experimental Expressionist
Arguably, Kiran Manandhar, 54, is the most popular contemporary artist in the country today. Currently he is the Chancellor (the first one in fact) of the recently established Nepal Fine Art Academy. He is a modern artist, an ‘expressionist’, and a vigorous one at that. He declares, “I go mad when I am working. I paint with brushes, hands and feet. When I am working, nothing else exists for me. I stop only when I become exhausted.” Kiran has spent considerable time in France where he is a Fellow of Cite’ International des Arts, Paris, France, and a member of the Association des Arts Plastiques, Draveil, France. About his style, a critic has observed, “Kiran paints very fast. He starts with the abstract forms but later discovers in them, the faces, figures, animals and birds through the swift strokes of the brush. He scatters or flings colours on to the canvas in order to explore the physical qualities of colour”. He prefers not to mix colours on the palette, believing that this will dilute the strength of colours. Expectedly, his favorite colors are passionate reds, strong blues and bold blacks.

The Perfectionist
“All paubha paintings are religious in nature but not necessarily based only on Buddhism,” says Lok Chitrakar. However, if one were to look around his studio, Simrik Atelier in Lalitpur, one would see mostly Buddhism inspired paubha paintings. Because of the time consuming nature of his craft, it is understandable that the artist manages to finish but four or five paubhas a year. Explaining his art, Chitrakar says, “Paubha actually comes from two words, ‘Pau’ and ‘Bha’ derived from the Newari term Patra Bhattarak, which means, ‘depiction of god in flat form’”. He adds, “One has to be very disciplined to success in this field. Concentration is essential otherwise one cannot achieve the high levels of perfection required in paubha art”. This discipline and concentration, combined with his immense talent, has made Lok Chitrakar into one of the finest of paubha artists in the country.

Racing against Time
Son of the legendary artist Tej Bahadur Chitrakar, Madan Chitrakar is very much at the centre of today’s Nepalese art world. As an art writer, he is one of the few giving impetus to Nepalese art through the medium of words that are knowledgeable and discerning. In 1999, on the verge of reaching the golden median in his life, and after having worked in a cushy job for almost 20 years, he quit. He says this is because, “Realization struck me that I was nearing 50 and that I had precious little productive time in which to attain my goals in the fields of painting and art literature, both of which I regard as my first calling.” He refers to this point in his life as his ‘second coming’ and aptly, his style too underwent a metamorphosis. Where, once he expressed his pain at society’s ignorance in not recognizing the great legacy of Kathmandu’s heritage by exhibiting works like ‘The Vanishing Heritage’, his later works are more light-hearted and celebratory in nature.

The Shahs of Contemporary Art
‘Shanti Yagya’ at the Siddhartha Art Gallery held in April 2006, was one of the most successful exhibitions held there. This was when the then 41-year-old Umashankar Shah revealed his proclivity for newer styles rather than only those credited to him so far. His better half Seema is an accomplished artist in her own right, and her successes have been no less. Her ‘Explorations of The Magical Realm’ exhibition in 2003 was hugely successful. She now has a reputation as one of the finest printmakers in Nepal. It must be noted that transitions are never easy. As Seema says, “Initially, I used to paint only trees and jungles. Even when I wanted to change my theme, the shapes of my favorite subjects would somehow creep into the picture.” Her husband agrees, “I have been fortunate to have a smooth transition.” Gigantic prayer wheels, portrayed with remarkable realism and a glowing translucence are indeed very different from the neatly crowded night cityscapes that Umashankar is famous for.

Let’s Play with Clay
“Come on, why don’t you try out your hand here? Let’s play with clay,” is what Gopal Kalapremi Shrestha said to me once during a visit his Gokem Art Ceramic Studio in Maharajgunj.  He says he sculpted his first statue when he was just eight years old.  At age 17, he decided to turn professional. “I also paint and work with stone,” he says. “But you can call me a clay specialist.” His love and enthusiasm for the art is evident from his statement, “Clay is life. Clay can be moulded as per the artist’s desire.” The sculptor has been awarded many prizes in his long and creative journey including the Arniko Art Award and Gold Medal in 2000. He labels his figures as ‘modern sculptures’ and that is quite fitting, because Kalapremi is hailed as a contemporary sculptor.

The Neo Impressionists of Kasthamandap
In 1994, under the leadership of Prashant Shrestha, an accomplished artist at 26, eight artists came together under the umbrella of ‘Kasthamandap Art Group’ (KAG). On March 30, 1999, when he was just 31 years old, Prashant passed away suddenly. As one sits with the present members of ‘Kasthamandap’ in their studio in Kupondole, one hears his name mentioned often, and with reverence. One can see that Prashant’s spirit lives on and will continue to do so. Today, KAG is a name to be reckoned and its original seven founder members have made a name for themselves. Asha Dangol, Bhairaj Maharjan, Binod Pradhan, Erina Tamrakar, Pradip Bajracharya, Pramila Bajracharya and Sunila Bajracharya, all in their thirties, make up KAG, and each has had a fair measure of success, some, as is natural, more than the others. In general, the group admits to being influenced by the Impressionists. However, each has managed to carve out a unique identity of his/her own.

Molten Lava
Ashmina Ranjit’s ‘Hair Warp-Travel through Strands of Universe’ exhibition at NAFA Art Gallery in 2000 was a memorable one. In addition to charcoal sketches of strands of intertwined hair as crowning glories, also on display were installations in the form of huge red braids of accouterments to do with ethnic hair-dos of Nepal. Ranjit is an artist who is bold enough to make a distinction between skill and creativity in fellow artists. She says, “An artist may be very accomplished, but it is creativity which uplifts art to a transcendent level.” Her own works (many of which are installations) strive to reach such heights. ‘Women and Sensuality’ in 1998, meant to “express the feminine perspective towards women’s sexuality’, had some oils that created quite a stir - a profusion of blood red depicting depths of stark womanhood. Another work that created waves was an installation titled ‘Shakti Sworup - Menstrual Blood’ which arose from the artist’s quest to “understand, express and visualize the strong emotions stirred by flowing blood, along with the fears associated with it”.

Manish Lal Shrestha’s slight stature belies his considerable status in the Nepalese art world. Still young, at 32, he is enviably successful. He continues to remain driven. ‘Sound of Intimacy II’, ‘Sound of Hope’, ‘Sound of Existence’, ‘Sound of Existence’ and ‘Sound of Silence’, are a few of his successful exhibitions. “‘Sound of Hope’ was a turning point in my life,” he reveals. In this, the large canvases had almost a quilt-like appearance, the effect due to numerous pieces of coarse handloom painted in various hues, and some with bells, sewn together. He says, “This exhibition taught me that artistic creativity can be conveyed through many means.” Manish is a staunch admirer of Georg Baselitz, whose most famous work - the 200cm x 162cm ‘Head is a Pot’ - enthralls the young artist. “I revel in its simplicity,” he declares. Simplicity is something Manish himself is striving to achieve which is evident from many of his later works where one will find few colors and even large sized canvases bereft of much detail except the minimum, conceptualized.

The Visual Interpreter
Sujan Chitrakar, in his early 30s, is one of the more gifted artists of the times. On this, there seems to be a general consensus among his colleagues and peers. The reason he is so highly regarded owes itself to his innovativeness, to validate which he says: “I prefer to be called a ‘Visual Interpreter’ ”. His desire to increase art appreciation among the general public resulted in the creation of what he calls ‘Artivity’, some examples of which were first on display during the international workshops and exhibition held in 2006 by Sutra Art Centre in Patan Durbar Square. He had then used common vendor pushcarts as mediums through which to display his work. He says, “I want to trigger public interest in art by involving the public themselves in the activity of creating art.” He teaches at the Centre of Art and Design, Kathmandu University, and regards teaching to be both a great responsibility as well as a challenge.

Arniko Lives!
Dharma Raj Shakya says that working in stone is one of the hardest of artistic professions. But that hasn’t stopped him from sculpting thousands of pieces including the two famous nine feet-high lions in Basantapur Durbar Swuare’s Hanuman Dhoka, which people refer to as the ‘Dharma Raj Lions’. A statue in his own likeness stands tall in the White Stupa Temple in Beijing, China. How did he mange this? Well, it so happened that when Chinese authorities were searching for a model on whom to base the making of Arniko’s statue, they came to know that Dharma Raj Shakya of Patan was, besides being a talented sculptor himself, amazingly similar in appearance to the legendary master. “So, that was how I got to have a statue of myself built in China!” jokes the doe-eyed Dharma Raj. Among the many awards he has accumulated, the Arniko Youth Art Award in 2002 holds special meaning. “Maybe because it is named after Arniko,” he admits.

What goes round comes around and the wheel, as they say, appears to have come full circle! With so many talented artists at work, art in Nepal is thriving, that’s for sure.

Parts of this feature have been excerpted from the writer’s forthcoming book titled, “Informally Yours – Artists and Architects of Nepal – Volume I” (publisher: Pilgrims Publishing, Varanasi). Amar B Shrestha is also author of “The Dark Mermaid”, an inspirational story of a young Nepali girl’s valiant efforts to succeed despite difficult odds. It is available at Pilgrims and other leading bookshops in Kathmandu and on most online bookstores including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders.

The Golden Age of Nepali Art and Architecturel
After the fall of the Licchavis (300 – 1200 AD) came the Malla period (1200-1769 AD) during which the foundation of the city of Kantipur (latter day Kathmandu) was laid. The early Malla rule started with Ari Malla in the 12th century and over the next two centuries grew into a large empire before disintegrating into small principalities. Jayasthiti Malla, with whom the later Malla period commences, reigned towards the end of the 14th century. Although his rule was rather short, his place among the rulers in the valley is eminent for numerous social and economic reforms. In general, Malla rulers transformed their capitals into what might be called open-air museums of arts and architecture. Almost all the fine examples of art and architecture, the graceful pagodas in the shape of temples, palaces, and houses; the prevailing customs of the various castes and the many festivals cycling round the year are the products of Malla period. They are still a living phenomenon and influence the life of the people with the same impulse as it used to do more than four hundred years ago.

Excerpted from:

Evolution of contemporary art in Nepal
Nepalese art is usually associated with thangkas (paubhas) and religious bronze and silver sculptures. Nepal is also famous for her architecture and temple squares and an unrivaled tradition in metalwork and woodcarvings. In order to understand how contemporary art evolved in Nepal, one has to look into Nepali history. Many experts have concluded that the move towards contemporary art began with the Rana Prime Minister, Jung Bahadur’s visit to England in the early nineteenth century. A small group of traditional Chitrakar artists (temple artists) were selected and specifically commissioned to paint royal family portraits, scenes of royal hunts and landscape in the “European Court Style” for their anglophile Rana patrons. Bhajuman Chitrakar was the first Chitrakar to paint in the European style. During the Rana regime, only a few artists (Chandra Man Maskey, Tej Bahadur Chitrakar and later Kesab Duwadi) went to India for formal artistic training. Several self-taught artists like Manohar Man Poon, Bal Krishna Sama and Amar Chitrakar painted in the western style for their patrons. In the early 1950s, Lain Singh Bangdel became the first Nepali ever to receive formal artistic training at the Ecole National des Beaux Artist in Paris.

Excerpted from: