The Eternal Sophisticate

Features Issue 92 Jul, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: Ecs Media & Photo courtesy: Kedar Bhakta Mathema

Sun rises
Behind tall buildings
Silently, a new day

So writes Kedar Bhakta Mathema,  his eyes coming alight as he explains, “Here in Nepal, there is so much of nature involved with daybreak – the roosting of crows, the chirping of birds, the sound of people waking noisily to early morning chores. There, in Japan, the sun rises behind tall steel and glass buildings within and outside of which there is none of the frenzied natural activity we experience here. So - ‘Silently, a new day’.”

Metaphorically speaking, Mathema’s appointment as Nepal’s Ambassador to Japan heralded a new day for him as well - and, as silently.

The Ambassador
Kedar Bhakta Mathema was born on November 25, 1945, just a couple of months after World War II ended when Japan formally surrendered. Fifty-one years later, in 1996, Mathema was appointed Nepal’s Ambassador to Japan. He served in this position for just over six years. It was a long tenure by any standards, for a simple reason - he was good at his job. In an interview in 2006, Professor Novel Kishore Rai, one-time Nepalese Ambassador to Germany (1995-2000) expressed his high regard for Mathema in the following words:  “It is not just because he was my teacher as well as the Vice Chancellor of Tribhuvan University that I say this, but Mathema is an active man - alert, intelligent, frank and physically fit - qualities that earned him respect from others, especially the Japanese.”

As for the nature of his job, the former Ambassador says, “I believe that an Ambassador basically has to be a good salesman. He has to ‘sell’ his country’s attractions and products to the world. I made a lot of effort to promote our pashminas in Japan and I was very happy that a time came when people there began to consider pashmina as excellent if it was made in Nepal.” He adds, “In our embassy we also used to have regular demonstrations on the art of brewing to promote Nepali tea and coffee.” The promotion of Nepali cuisine was another area of focus for the Ambassador. Aside from these special activities, the former Ambassador is grateful that he had a worthy companion, his lovely wife Kohinoor, to shore up his all round efforts to promote the country as a whole. As he says, “A good wife is a tremendous asset for any diplomat”. The former Ambassador expresses with some pride, “She was for some time the Chairperson of the Asian Ladies Society in Japan”. They have been married nearly 36 years and Mrs Mathema certainly vindicates the age old adage, ‘behind every successful man there is a good woman’.

The Art Lover
The former ambassador loves art. A visit to his lovely home in Sanepa, Kathmandu, will be enough to dispel any doubts about the aesthetic nature of the man. A sparkling signature work of Kiran Manandhar hangs in his sitting room while inside, in the adjoining den, hangs a beautiful oil painting of a Kathmandu alley by the Japanese artist Saigo, and a small Nicaraguan painting that is vibrantly optimistic in its depiction of a South American festival scene. On the mantle stands a truly elegant crystal bull with an eye catching black and white polka dotted design inside of it. The former Ambassador purchased it during one of his many travels to some far flung land. He has traveled far and wide. It is not only that he was in an opportune position to do so – his fondness for travel can be surmised from this: “Once I had some $3,000 in my pocket. I spent it to tour Europe. My thinking was that one never knows when one will again get the opportunity to do so. Therefore, while I was in that part of the world, I decided to indulge in my desire to explore Europe more thoroughly.”

Seeing that he is so much a lover of the arts, one can assume that the great art galleries of that continent may have been his chief attraction. “Yes, I have visited most of the famous galleries,” he confirms. He has a collection of charming postcards depicting works by the masters that he collected during his visit to the galleries, a quite instructive collection one must say. His passion for the arts once led to an unusual jaunt, he smiles as he recollects. “Once, when in the States, I flew all the way from California to New York just to see Salvador Dali’s ‘The Sacrament of the Last Supper’.” The true connoisseur that he is, the former Ambassador has a magnificent collection of books on art, which points towards a deep knowledge on the subject. In fact, one of his complaints is, “There are so few people here with whom I can discuss the subject.”

As for his predilection to styles, he says, “Initially I was in love with Impressionists like Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Then later, I found myself drawn towards Surrealists like Dali and Giorgino de Chirico.” His admiration of artists, however, is not limited to the above. His many books on various artists and their works are proof enough of this. According to Mathema, Tokyo is a city famous for its fine culture; a metropolis that hosts international art exhibitions throughout the year, and while he was the Ambassador there, he did try to help Nepalese artists by organizing a show. “I organized an exhibition for a group from Nepal which included the eminent artists Shashi Shah, Batsa Gopal Vaidya and Krishna Manandhar,” he says, adding, “People might think it is no small thing to do so, but let me tell you, a lot of effort and cost are required to organize such an exhibition there.”

The Book Lover
Kedar Bhakta Mathema also loves books, if not more so. He has shelves and shelves of them, and the collection is not limited to any particular genre or author. If asked to name an all time favorite: “It would be Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov,” he says. His taste runs through many genres (including thrillers) and authors, but currently he appears to be particularly enamored by authors like Haruki Murakami (“I like his clever juxtaposition of reality and the abstract”), Orhan Pamuk, Ben Okri and Jean Genet. “You know, Genet was an illegitimate child who in adulthood was condemned to life imprisonment. Yet, look at this book he wrote!” Kedar exclaims, picking up an attractively bound copy of The Thief’s Journal. “I like books that arouse the senses; books that make me see, smell and feel the subjects being written about. You see, I am a sensual man,” he admits.

As we talk, the melodious strains of Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variation’ plays softly in the background. The former Ambassador says, “It’s a rendering by the famous Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.”  He loves music and expectedly a couple of shelves hold a fine and varied collection of classical and jazz music. “Among Nepalese singers I am always stirred by Narayan Gopal, Bacchu Kailash and Gopal Yonzon. Aruna Lama’s ‘Pohor saal khusi phatda jatan gari maan le taale, tehi saal maya phaatyo…’ (‘Last year when happiness was torn, I sewed it up carefully with my heart, that same year when love was torn…’) never fails to move me.”

The Educator
And, most importantly, Kedar Mathema loves education. “My true calling is education,” he confesses. “I never set out to be an Ambassador. It happened purely by chance.” After graduating from Tribhuvan University (TU) in 1966 Mathema became a lecturer at Tri-Chandra College and then at the College of Education in Kathmandu. His initial association with TU lasted for nine years. He resigned in 1975 as the Campus Chief of the Central University Campus. Next, Mathema worked briefly in Bhutan for UNICEF and later joined the World Bank Mission in Nepal as a program officer until 1990.

From 1990 to 1994 he was the Vice Chancellor of Tribhuvan University and in 1995 was designated the chairman of a high-level committee on youth affairs. In a speech delivered at the inaugural function of the South Asia Regional Student Leader Conference in February 2005, Kedar Bhakta Mathema admitted frankly, “The phrase ‘student leader’ brings to my mind the happy and sometimes not so happy memories of the days I spent at Tribhuvan University in my previous incarnation as its Vice Chancellor.” He went on to say, “When I accepted the post of the Vice Chancellor, I had only one aim in mind to take advantage of the newly found atmosphere of openness and freedom and to introduce much needed reform in the university..., ruffled the feathers of student bodies, incurred their wrath, and felt the strength of their power.”

He recollects those days, “When I first entered TU as its Vice Chancellor, I found an atmosphere of doom and gloom. In a sense, the environment was anarchic. I decided on doing four things: 1. Revitalize the university’s financial condition; 2. Boost morale and motivate the staff; 3. Enhance academic quality; and 4. Restore public trust.” The Vice Chancellor worked long stress-filled days. He increased the tuition fees to more reasonable levels. He privatized the cafeteria (which was making colossal losses) and used the money gained to build a women’s hostel. And he made admission exams statutory for gaining admittance to university courses. “My three-year tenure as the Vice Chancellor was the most challenging and interesting period of my life,” he says. Currently, the former Vice Chancellor is involved in many educational activities and says, “It is like coming back home!”

The Mathemas
Kedar Bhakta Mathema is no ordinary man, nor were his ancestors. According to the former Vice Chancellor, the Mathema’s have traditionally been employed in the royal courts (durbars) since the time of King Prtihvi Narayan Shah. “Actually, the Mathemas came into prominence during Sri Teen Maharaja Bir Shamsher’s rule (1852 - 1901),” he points out. “Those days, Sirdar Hari Bhakta Mathema was an influential figure who was also a teacher to the famous 24 brothers who were in the court at that time.” Bir Shamsher himself took great interest in health issues and so appropriately, one notices that the country’s major hospital is named after him, i.e. Bir Hospital. He also started the first Nepali-language newspaper Gorkhapatra (Gorkha Newsletter). The former Vice Chancellor continues, “During his son, Sri Teen Maharaja  Dev Shamsher’s, short 144-days rule (1901) another Mathema, Kazi Bhagat Bhakta, was a very powerful individual.” Sri Teen Maharaja Dev Shamsher was known as “The Reformist” for his progressive policies. He proposed a system of universal public primary education and opened the Durbar High School in Ranipokhari, Kathmandu, to children who were not members of the Rana clan.

And, how can one forget the national martyr from the 1940’s, Dharma Bhakta Mathema? One of the first Nepalese body builders to win a title, he was once crowned the Bengal champion in body building. He was also appointed the physical instructor to King Tribhuwan. He was hanged at Sifal in Kathmandu in 1940 for activities against the Rana regime. Dharma Bhakta was Kedar Bhakta Mathema’s uncle, the elder brother to his father, Dhruva Bhakta who is 96 years old and in good stead. Kedar Bhakta Mathema has a lineage to be proud of, and one must say that he has conducted his life in a manner befitting his illustrious heritage. His daughter Kalpana and son Kalyan must take great pride as well in such a father figure. After all, he is knowledgeable, widely traveled, well read and his reputation is spotless. For those who know him from afar, he is an exemplary figure. For those who know him somewhat, he is a successful man. For those who know him well, he is the eternal sophisticate. Kedar Bhakta Mathema, former Ambassador and Vice Chancellor, is as satisfied today with his lot in life as he has ever been. “Returning to my first love, the world of academia is like returning home. It is somewhat like ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’,” he says.

And so, what else but another of his haiku’s to describe his present state of mind?

Distant clouds
Turning pink
I am ready for home