Where Traditions Live

Features Issue 139 Jun, 2013
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: Ujjal Shrestha

The Living Traditions Museum in Changu Narayan is a noble effort to present the artistic culture of Nepal’s ethnic groups.

I had a wonderful dream this morning,” began Judith Conant Chase, with a smile gently spreading across her face, “I saw the complete pillar, with the Garuda on top, as it once used to be.” Judith and I were walking in the courtyard of the ancient temple of Changu Narayan, seven kilometers north of Bhaktapur Durbar Square. The pillar she had dreamed about was the one that stood at the right of the temple’s main door. It was erected by Manadeva in 464 A.D. Originally, the pillar stood more than 36 feet tall. At its apex was the big statue of the kneeling Garuda, which now sits on the ground, facing Vishnu’s image, hands folded in veneration.

We were standing just outside the Amatya Sattal, the southern wing of the extensive wall that encloses the Changu Narayan Temple complex. The sattal, or guesthouse, is a restored building named after the family that financed the renovation. In this restored building is the Living Traditions Museum, a remarkable collection of objects Judith amassed during decades of traveling and living in Nepal. Judith is founder and director of the Living Traditions Museum. The museum houses only a small portion of her entire collection, which has some 400 objects in total.

Each of those objects was collected during treks in various parts of Nepal that Judith went on decades ago. She wrote about those trips in her upcoming book: ‘I spent 18 years walking throughout the countryside of the mountains and plains and living in the Kathmandu Valley. I followed hints to visit a rare group of people in one place and accepted an invitation to visit a hidden valley in another.  It continued to be a great adventure, roaming off for weeks or months’. She amassed an assortment of objects made by the inhabitants of the areas she visited.

In 1982, an invitation came from the Chauni Museum to hold an exhibition as part of King Birendra’s birthday celebrations. Pashupati Duvedi, the then director of the Chauni Museum, was familiar with Judith’s work in collecting traditional arts and photographs. He invited her to exhibit at the museum. The exhibition got a great response, especially from the Nepalese guests, who enjoyed the opportunity to learn about their own culture as well as that of other groups and regions of Nepal.

The Return Home
A few years later, Judith returned to live in the U.S. She continued to exhibit her collection of Nepalese traditional art in various museums and galleries in the States. Then the collection ended up in a museum’s store room after the planned exhibition failed to materialize. That wasn’t where she wanted the collection to be. Around this time, she and her husband Jim decided they wanted to move to Nepal for the rest of their lives. Judith remembered the exhibition she had put up at the Chauni Museum. She told Jim that she wanted to send the objects back to Nepal, “to their home.” Jim immediately agreed, and Judith shipped her collection to Nepal. Judith and Jim were living in Bhaktapur when the shipment arrived. She remembered the sight of the three huge crates in which her collection came. “They were so huge, electric wires had to be hoisted to let them pass. People gathered in the square to see what the trucks were carrying.”

Judith had planned to have a museum in Bhaktapur, but numerous factors prevented that from happening. Then a friend introduced her to the Director of the Archaeology Department. When he learned that Judith wanted to donate her collection, he offered the sattal in the Changu Narayan Temple complex as a museum site. The Department of Archaeology had already renovated the southern section of the sattal, the Amatya Sattal, and after adding other features such as skylights and display cases, Judith opened the Living Traditions Museum in March 2012.

Art in Daily Life
The exhibits at the Living Traditions Museum are delightful, but their real charm lies in the fact that they are mostly objects of daily life—artistic creations serving the most mundane purposes. This fact helps viewers establish a link (aided no doubt by the lovely photos of many of the objects being used by the people who made them) between the objects and their makers. This was what Judith had in mind when she decided on the name. “For the most part, people appreciate, buy, exhibit and trade art objects without knowing very much about their purposes in their original cultures; art is separated out from its meaningful background,” she said.
In the case of this collection, the objects reflect not just their makers’ skills but their culture, the geographical locations they inhabit and the uniqueness of design it necessitates. Judith explained: “I was originally attracted to the objects because I could witness the places and peoples from which they were created.  Part of the beauty of Nepali traditional arts is the enormous diversity of cultures and their distinct ways of designing objects related to their environments and needs.  Seeing these objects within the households and ritual spaces, grazing grounds and mountain camps, they come alive within their places.”  

As you enter the main exhibition on the first floor, your gaze will most likely fall on a large canvas crammed with figures. It is a drawing of the Maithili symbols of fertility and auspiciousness, traditionally painted on the walls of bridal chambers. Intricate, full of symbols and mesmerizingly colorful, it speaks of the Maithili love for color and drawing. The exhibition is divided into sections according to the four main regions of Nepal: the Terai, Kathmandu Valley, Mid Hills and the Himalayan Highlands.

Rivaling the Maithili love for color are the objects made by the other indigenous dwellers of the Terai, the Tharus. The Tharu objects reflect the close tie that exists between them and their surroundings—the wilderness of the Terai. Tharu lifestyle is recorded in some nice photographs, which show the efficiency of some of the objects displayed. In terms of the time spent watching and uttering ‘wow’, perhaps the box displaying Maithili and Tharu jewelry will be unrivaled.
The section on objects from the Mid Hills of Nepal is equally interesting. This section contains some of the most artistic renditions of household implements. The variety of shaft holders of traditional churns used in the middle hills of Nepal, one carved in the shape of intertwined ducks, is a stellar example of the craftsmanship of the region. But the standout exhibit, at least to me, is the large umbrella made by weaving two panels of woven bamboo strips. It has the appearance of a woman’s hand bag, a huge one. The objects in this section appear like the submissions for a competition to turn the most ordinary household objects into something sublime.

This ability to turn ordinary objects into artistic masterpieces is the one common feature of all the objects of the exhibition, from the Terai to the Himalayas. Both the sections on the Kathmandu Valley and the Himalayas Highlands are a continuance of this rich artistic heritage. Three ornately carved wooden wick holders from the Kathmandu Valley and a Nyinba greatcoat from Solukhumbu are just two examples of the regions’ skills and penchant for art.

Captured Eras
There are also beautiful photographs in the collection. Most of the photos depict people performing chores or celebrating festivals. But viewed decades after they were taken, they are now eras captured in photos. My friend stopped in front of one of the photos on the wall. “What a lovely photo!” he exclaimed. The photo was of a little girl, clad in traditional Nepali dress, standing on a swing rigged on a tree branch. She was in mid-air above a precipitous gorge. It was a nice picture, but not exceptional, as it seemed to be judging from my friend’s remark. He had obviously seen something more. “Never,” said my friend, “will anyone see a similar scene. There can be the child and the swing, but not the dress. This dress is gone.” Since many of the photos date from almost 30 years ago, they have now become historical records.

After a year of opening, the museum is now expanding. Living Traditions Museum recently received financial aid from the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, and renovation of the north-eastern section of the sattal is almost complete. “The new section will basically be a celebration of the rich history of the Changu Narayan Temple,” Judith said. She plans to install a large paubha painting related to the myths, festivals and history of Changu Narayan in the main gallery.

The Living Traditions Museum is truly a home for the culture and traditions that are fast fading into oblivion in the very places where they originated. It certainly has succeeded in providing ‘insights and appreciation of the uniqueness and value of each cultural expression’ and instilling ‘an appreciation of how diversity enriches the entire country’. Visitors will also appreciate the effort put into establishing the Living Traditions Museum and how it deepens their understanding of the Nepali culture and its people.