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Parallel Passages of Nepali Art

In Asia, Nepal is known more as a pilgrimage site, what with it being the birthplace of Lord Gautam Buddha, besides having many important shrines sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. Nepal is also known for being home to the top eight mountain peaks of the world. To the west, Nepal is an exotic land of hills, mountains, and spirituality. It is a popular tourist destination, famous for adventure tourism that includes mountain climbing, trekking, hiking, rafting, wildlife exploration, etc. Another reason that makes Nepal interesting to tourists is its exotic culture, which encompasses a diverse topography, the prime cause for the large number of communities, its rich history, multiple languages, impressive traditional architecture, and sacred art forms.

In the context of art, Nepal is widely known for its rich and ancient style of Paubha painting, a cultural heritage of the indigenous Newari community of Kathmandu Valley. Paubha art’s content is based on the philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism. These paintings hold the same sacred place as the idols of god and goddesses. Even though its origin is known to be much older, the oldest surviving Paubha is that of the 13th century Ratna Sambhav now adorning the walls of Los Angeles County Museum. Aesthetically rich, visually intricate, and historically significant, Paubha art carries the identity of Nepal, globally.

In terms of historicity, many scholars claim them to be the predecessors of a similar painting style of Tibet, the Thangka painting. Due to lack of proper documentation in the past, it is extremely difficult to trace the exact date of its origin. However, tracing the development of the Nepal-Tibet bilateral relations proves the same, although many people assume the reverse. Newari legends mention the wedding of Princess Bhrikuti with King Srong Tsan Gampo of Tibet in the 8th century, and that she took Paubha artists with her to Tibet. Traditionally, these paintings, as well as paintings of any form, were made solely by the Chitrakar families, however, recently we find artists of diverse communities also taking up the tradition.

In the course of time, and after Nepal opened its borders in the early 1950s, Nepali artists were influenced by the West. The early British residents themselves painted, and they trained Nepali artists in the painting style of the West. Here, we see a parallel existence and development of both Nepali traditional art and Western modern art. The first government academic institution of fine arts, Lalitkala Campus, was established in 1894 to provide quality education in fine arts. Prior to this, those interested in fine art had no option but to travel to India, where proper Fine Art schools were established under the British colonial system, besides indigenous art schools. With time, many private art schools and colleges came up, and now Nepal has a large number of contemporary artists. Art exhibitions are frequently held in numerous art galleries in Kathmandu and other cities. In Kathmandu proper, the art scene is pretty vibrant, especially with the Kathmandu Triennial around the corner.

I recently attended the 9th edition of the India Art Fair in February 2017 as an exhibitor of Nepalese art through the Nepal Art Council. The fair exhibits a rare mix of colors and grandeur in various media, with focus on nurturing global interest in South Asian arts. This year, there were almost seventy booths from galleries and art institutions and organizations of India, Asia, Europe, and America. This year was the second year that Nepal had its booth at the fair, presenting the works of six artists; Anil Shahi, Kabi Raj Lama, Koshal Hamal, Sandhya Silwal, Sanjeev Maharjan, and Sunil Sigdel.
It is worth nothing that, like last year, this year too, Nepalese art was a highlight of the fair. On a personal note, looking around at the fair, I felt that in terms of paintings, the works of our artists had a much deeper concept. The viewers also commented on similar lines, saying that the artworks in other booths were either only aesthetic or too abstract, but those at our booth had a deep concept that aroused different types of emotions. The diverse range of artworks selected by the curator, Dr. Dina Bangdel, spoke to every type of audience.

Anil Shahi’s work was a powerful social comment on the present living conditions. Using the familiar visual metaphor of Mahabharata’s Bhishmapitamaha, he touched upon the precarious living conditions of many in post-disaster and post-conflict conditions. The works of Kabi Raj Lama is a tribute to the 10,000 plus people who died during the disastrous earthquake of April 2015. The painting of Koshal Hamal talks about the importance of a frame on a painting, which according to him not only adds value to the painting but also acts as a covering shield. Through delicate cutwork on traditional Nepali handmade lokta paper, Sandhya Silwal’s work penetrates into the sensitive yet critical status of South Asian women’s fragility and strength within socio-cultural constrains. Together with that, she picked up local Nepali motifs and transformed them into beautiful works of cutout art on Nepali paper.

The photograph of Sanjeev Maharjan, a nude upper torso coated with rato mato (red mud), supported by five watercolor paintings of various grains in the shape of a mandala, was a very powerful visual that drew the attention of many visitors wanting to know more about the work, which was a visual narrative of his connection with his agrarian ancestors. ‘Peace Owners II’ by Sunil Sigdel was quoted among the twelve not-to-be-missed artworks at the India Art Fair by the Huffington Post, an American online news aggregator and blog. Painted in the traditional Nepali style, this work was a visual satire to global politics. His other works too were comments on the social conditions of the society he lives in.

The interesting and point-to-be-noted aspect of Nepal’s participation in such international art events is the recognition Nepali contemporary art is drawing. Till almost a decade ago, Nepal was known only for its traditional art, but this year marks a shift in this status. The artistic caliber of Nepali artists at the India Art Fair this year was covered by the local media in India as well as the Washington Post, causing a breakthrough of contemporary Nepali art in the region and beyond.