Light Up Your LIfe

Features Issue 33 Aug, 2010
Text by John Child / Photo: ECS Media

From classic to kitsch and hi-tech to high art, there’s something for everyone in Kathmandu’s lighting shops. The right lighting can change the mood of a room from flat to fabulous, draw attention to focal points of décor and even make small rooms feel larger. Different lights suit different spaces: ceiling lights and lamps make a living room feel cozy, and lighting focused on the work surfaces in an office promotes productivity.

When used correctly, lighting can hide the wall-surface imperfections so common in Nepal. Light striking the surface of a wall at a low angle, as from wall-mounted light fixtures, exaggerates surface imperfections. In contrast, light striking the wall at more or less a right angle, hides those imperfections. Tube lights and wall sconces used throughout Kathmandu homes are exactly wrong! Make those rough walls look better by lighting the room with table and floor lamps and using soft ceiling lighting in the middle of the room.

Lighting in the kitchen is all about functionality. The prime objective is to get strong light onto the work surfaces and eliminate shadows. Kitchen lighting should be simple because it will need regular cleaning. Use natural light as much as you can, and add dimmers to the most important lights so you can blend artificial and natural light in the early mornings and at the end of the day. Include at least one low-wattage light that you can leave on; then power-up the surface lighting. Put 200 watts or more on your main work areas: you’ll be surprised how much difference it makes. Yes, electricity is expensive. But you will only be using the “task lighting” for a few hours every day. Treat home offices and study areas the same as kitchens: get a lot of light directly on the work surfaces.

Your living space is a picture of you, so let the lighting reflect your personality. Living spaces get used for many different things, so keep the lighting flexible by choosing a combination of different lights. Use pools of light to highlight features of the room or your décor. The amount of light you need varies: dark rooms need more light on the whole. Think too about your uses for the room. If you mostly entertain and watch TV, low lighting may be enough. But if you play family games or read in the evenings, you need more light, at least in specific places. Put dimmers on the main lighting in your living room.

Hallways and stairways have a lot of traffic and are among the most dangerous places in your house. Be sure they are well lit and that the switches are logically placed. If necessary, install a motion-detecting light or mount a small battery-powered light in a strategic place. Professional tip: low wall-mounted lights to illuminate stair treads significantly reduce accidents.

Bathrooms are also hazard areas, and they are functional rooms as well. Bright lighting overall is essential. Put extra lighting on the sink and around your mirror. Make sure your tub or shower area has good light too. As in the kitchen, keep bathroom lighting simple so it’s easy to clean. Bathroom lighting needs to be water-resistant, at a minimum. General-purpose fixtures will corrode quickly. Look for lighting meant for bathroom use. Choose incandescent light (bulbs) rather than tube lights or low-wattage lights. Bathrooms are cold enough in the winter: cold fluorescent lighting makes the feeling worse.

Bedrooms need a combination of central lighting and bedside lighting. If you have a dressing area or large mirror in the room, it needs separate lighting. One light will throw shadows: several small lights are much better. The central light can be ceiling mounted or a hanging light. If your ceilings are high enough, choose a hanging light. It will reduce ceiling shadows and hide rough spots. Be sure the central lighting doesn’t glare into your eyes while you are in bed. Bedside lighting is a good place to have fun. Go crazy if you want, just be sure it’s functional. A combination light and clock or light and phone can be very practical on a bedside table.

Don’t forget about outside lighting. Plan for overnight lights; for safety lights on steps and at doors and for decorative and party lighting.

 Updating your lighting is fun and creative. It can transform a room or make it safer. But the best thing about updating your lighting is that it’s inexpensive! ECS went shopping for lights in Kathmandu at some well-known spots and a couple not so well known. We were impressed by the big selection and reasonable prices, but some of the lights and fixtures didn’t seem well made or durable. Caveat Emptor.

ChinaTown Shopping Center
Shops in the China Town have some wonderful kitsch lights for sale. The Pashupati Gift Corner, stall 11 first floor, has touch-on table lamps in lurid pink and abstract landscape designs. Three varieties of “dry aquarium” lamps beg for attention. (Dry aquarium lamps have moving layers of Mylar plastic painted with fish, waves and bubbles, with a light inside.) Plastic clock lamps come in the shape of a golf cart with monstrous ball, a fish and a choo-choo train. All are perfectly ghastly, but they are completely topped by the plastic hot-air balloon carrying a puppy in the basket. The balloon opens to display two illuminated photos.

The RS Radhika Store, stall 136/7 second floor, has some inexpensive and tasteful marble and metal table lamps with plastic shades, and also several nice desk lamps. We liked the pleated paper shade on one but fell in love with a sinuous deco-style desk lamp with a solid green glass shade. Radhika Store has some great kitsch too. The clock-lamps here are very fancy – big and ornate, with moving parts. There’s a waterfall lamp and aquarium lamps, both the dry version and ones with water and floating plastic fish. The biggest desk lamp is a leaping dolphin, light in his stomach, suspended over crashing waves and a telephone. You have to see it to appreciate it. The shop also has a wide variety of flower lights made of metal bases and “stems,” topped with glass flower shapes and low-wattage lights. Singles, “bunches,” with phones and without phones. Take your pick. The stall’s most interesting item is a perfume lamp. It is a low glass base with a small bulb. A shallow bowl sits on top. Put perfume or scented oil in the bowl, and the scent disperses as the light heats up. Or put a mosquito mat in the bowl for insect protection and a nightlight in one!

Durbar Marg
We visitied Great Finds, next to the statue of King Mahendra on Durbar Marg.  We remembered a hanging light from a previous visit and went back to look at it. The tiny shop is cluttered with remarkable things, practical and decorative, many old. In the middle of the ceiling there is a beautiful light, a grand relic of the Rana era. The blue etched-glass shade has a candleholder inside. It may have echoed a larger and grander chandelier, for its mechanism is similar: pull on the base, and the candleholder descends while the shade rises on a ratchet system. This piece could use some restoration but is lovely and just right for a modern-sized room. It could easily be converted to electricity. The light is “not for sale,” but you never know… Like other shops along Durbar Marg, Great Finds has Tibetan, Newari and Nepali oil lamps, new and antique.

Putali Sadak
Many light shops are clustered along the north end of Putali Sadak up to Krishna Pau Roti. They carry a staggering variety. Every surface of the shops is covered with lights, and asking about one often brings an assistant running with yet more options of similar type. Most of the lights are made in India and China, but there are Japanese, Korean and European products too.

Big shops like Bansal Light, City Lights and Natraj Lights aim to fill every lighting need, but their offerings cluster around two main themes. First there is a lot of practical and inexpensive lighting and second there are high-end lights. The fancier and more expensive lights are either elegant or high-tech, like track lighting and mini-spotlights.

At the top of the heap are huge crystal chandeliers, both traditional candle style and modern. Big ceiling fixtures follow. Judging from the stock, Deco is a popular theme in Kathmandu. Basic ceiling fixtures abound. Wall lighting, so popular in Nepal, is in abundance – traditional, flower forms and bright colors in overwhelming number. Desk lamps stand, arch, flex and balance. Lava lamps battle with side-table lamps of every size and sort. There are track lights, outdoor lights, streetlights and nightlights.

Baber Mahal Revisited
We covered Marina Shrestha in April, issue # 32, and just had to revisit Paper Moon, her shop in Baber Mahal Revisited. Marina is largely responsible for elevating paper craft in Nepal to high art. Her designs in lokta paper and metal wire have been widely copied, but the best of Nepal’s artisans have responded with creative designs of their own. As we walked through Baber Mahal Revisited, we stopped in at Tamrakar Antiques to look at their huge collection of standing and hanging oil lamps.

Paper Moon features Marina’s unique designs in ever evolving forms. Wall lamps dominate. Most are multi-layered creations with lights behind to make the lokta paper glow. Classic shapes are Tibetan clouds, lotuses and tantric flames. There are cylinder and half-cylinder wall sconces and a peaked form that looks like a house blown off-axis. Other sconces are cone-shaped, but modified cubistically. Two stunning wall lights use drapes of lokta paper; they shimmer both from light and from air movement.

Small paper lotus table lamps are elegant, and the pebbled-finish cylinder table lamps are exquisite, but both would be in shreds within days in our house! The surprises – there are always one or two – were geometric op-art lamps, one floor-standing and one tabletop, made with heavier metal framing than most of Paper Moon’s creations.

Shops in the handicrafts-mile north of the Hotel Himalaya have many lamps, mostly Nepali handicrafts. A few, such as at Homemaker, have trendy local products or imports. Akarshan, a wrought-iron furniture house, has beautiful lamps in black iron. We loved the table lamp that looked like a basket and the sinuous floor lamps that seem alive.

Much of the lighting the Kupondole craft shops offer is derivative or more easily available at a specialty lighting store like Unique Lights. But we did find a few gems. Dhukuti has a wide range of lovely copper table lamps. Mahaguthi has a very cute iron table or bedside lamp circled by a Nepali-style spiral staircase in miniature. It would be perfect for a display of small knick-knacks or collectibles. Mahaguthi also has a striking floor lamp on display. It is made of heavy iron wire and flowered lokta paper and, despite not being round, looks very much like a Chinese urn on a stand. We loved it. Sana Hastakala has lovely hanging paper lanterns. Some are predictable forms, like globes and squares. But the variety surprises the eye too: there is the pyramid and several complex geometric shapes.

Our next stop was at Unique Lights. This small shop features only Nepali products. Unlike every other shop we visited, selecting lamp bases and shades is a mix and match affair here. Like the lamp, hate the shade? Try another. There are hundreds. Lamp bases come in pottery, copper, iron and wood. There are jug shapes in many colors, sizes and styles; floor lamps that mimic Nepali tin work with a wooden riser; and animal forms. Unique Lights also offers scores of hanging lamps. Like almost all the lampshades, lokta is the material of choice. The lokta hanging lamps and table lamps are wonderfully creative and unique.

Two forms dominate the paper lamps. One is a basic cylinder, plain or textured, singly or clustered. The other form uses exposed bamboo structural elements in geometric patterns. To our eyes the most interesting item is a wall sconce that opens like a three-dimensional lady’s fan. The twist is that the shape extends into the room rather than lying flat on the wall. In place, the light can be adjusted to a quarter-round shape to shed light or closed into a half-round for mood lighting.

Shopping for lighting in Kathmandu is a pleasure, even for non-shoppers. The easiest and least-expensive form of remodeling can light up your day, your room and your life.