Don't Look Now: Lalitkala Campus

Features Issue 66 Jul, 2010
Text by Rishi Amatya

After years of neglect and lack of funding, the old Lalitkala Campus building does look like it belongs to another era.

If a student of art from Paris or Vienna were to visit Nepal, he/she would expect the national col- lege of art to be housed in one of the opulent buildings around Kathmandu. One of the old durbars would do just fine, as they themselves are a treasure trove of art works. But unfortunately, people in power don’t quite seem to see things that way. Art seems to rank quite low in their list of priorities. Hence, the Lalitkala Campus lies in one of the worst locations and occupies a building that is not worthy of such a noble institution.

Bhagat Thapa, Assistant Administrator, quickly loses his otherwise calm composure as I fire questions at him. The reason; Lalitkala Campus has been at the receiving end of much negative press lately. “Nearly all of the government’s educational facilities run in a deprived condition. We aren’t the only ones running with limited funding and poor infrastructure,” says Thapa, trying to explain the deplorable condition that the college building is in.  If one has visited the vast Government College of Arts & Crafts in Calcutta, a visit to the Lalitkala Campus in Kathmandu will prove to be a heart breaking experience. After years of neglect and lack of funding, the old building does look like it belongs to another era. And to think that fine art classes are held here, and that students are expected to be inspired as well as creative, one will be forgiven for being skeptical. “It’s really shameful that the first of the art teaching facilities in the country has to run like this. The condition is just pathetic,” says Ganesh Bhandari, a student pursuing his Intermediate levels. “The way things are run, I wonder how much the students take from here apart from frustrations and grievances towards the whole system.”  

Lalitkala Campus was established in 1894 as Nepal Art School to provide quality education in fine arts. Prior to its establishment, students had no option but to travel to India for studies in fine art. It is the pioneer institution when it comes to teaching the basics and advanced level courses in fine arts. Students have the choice of learning music, sculpture and painting here. Starting with the intermediate level (10 + 2 level) the students go through Bachelors level, but there are no degree courses.  All one gets on completing the courses is a diploma, which sadly is not recognized outside the country. To study abroad one has to start from the bottom.

“Most of the media’s criticism of our campus is targeted at the building complex itself,” informs Thapa. And looking around, it is easy to see why the media takes a negative view of the institute. The campus is situated in a corner of Bhotahiti, on the lane that leads from Ratna Park to Ason. It lies immediately behind another historical landmark, the Durbar High School, which once educated the elite of Nepal. These buildings have rich historical backgrounds and both have seen their heydays.  Both are also pioneers in their respective fields. Durbar School, which was established by the Rana oligarchy in 1854 was the first public school in the country while Lalitkala Campus is the first institute of its kind in Nepal that teaches fine art as its major subject.

The run down building gives one the impression that it has not seen repairs in a very long time. The wear and tear that comes with time and negligence is evident everywhere. The place has an air of neglect flowing through its small corridors and steep staircases. The stench of the toilet is typical of government run establishments. The classes are small and crowded and natural daylight barely enters the rooms, which is a surprising deficiency for an institution where sufficient natural light is a must for students to go about their lessons. It’s sad that this place of learning, that teaches the finest among all of the subjects of art, Lalitkala, lies in disrepair. “It just wouldn’t do any good to the students to rest on their laurels, what we want is better facilities and infrastructure to continue our studies,” says Saroj Shrestha, a student pursuing his Intermediate levels in Sculpture. “The classes are poorly lit and the equipments and tools they provide are mediocre at best. Even if the teachers are the best in the country, they still cannot create magic with inferior tools and equipments, can they?” asks Shrestha.

But Bhagat Thapa has an explanation for all this. “We had planned to shift to our new complex in Kirtipur, but changes in policy at the central level made sure that we stay where we are. Even our plans to construct a new three-story building in the existing area came to nothing when nobody responded to the tender notice,” says Thapa. The construction came to a halt due to the absence of higher-level officials in the university. “We cannot move a feather without approval from the university, and with most of the top posts still vacant, our hands are tied,” laments Thapa. Despite the hardships, Thapa is optimistic that the situation will improve for the better..

But the students have come to the conclusion that waiting around for things to improve will not do. They have decided to take the matter into their own hands and have established the Lalitkala Preservation Trust. The results have begun to show. After approaching various businessmen and other individuals they have been receiving much support from the public. More than financial support, they have been receiving support in the form of materials. Some have donated bricks, sand or tiles while others have given them paint and electrical goods, etc.  Architects and engineers have helped them with designing, while still others have given free labor. During our visit to the campus, we found the students stripped down to their jeans and busy putting the finishing touches to the dabali. The courtyard now has a new, fresh look and the walls near by have a fresh coat of paints. It is heart warming to see young students making a difference after all these years of indifference. The campus boasts of a fine teaching staff. Only a few educational institutes can match the standard of education it provides, and the talents it has churned out since its inception speaks volumes. But while a plot of land in Tripureshwor that belongs to the Tribhuvan University has been leased out to make room for a massive, modern shopping complex, the University’s own campus buildings remain in deplorable condition.  When will the fine arts campus get its due?

For details: Lalitkala Preservation Trust, Ph. 9841220927.