The Nepalese artist Lain Singh Bangdel (1919-2002) was a prolific painter who favored figurative art, landscapes, and abstract expressionism. Figurative art represents or symbolizes some aspect of reality. In portraiture, the figure may be strictly realistic, loosely realistic or abstract, with each of which Bangdel experimented. His daughter Dina saw that “His versatility as an artist is nowhere clearer than in his long struggle with portraiture.”
Bangdel painted his first portraits while studying art in Paris in the 1950s. One of his best from that time was of Manu—the ‘Artist’s Wife’ (1957), reminiscent of Picasso’s style. Over his entire painting career, Bangdel painted several dozen portraits, but early on he became dissatisfied with the form and left some attempts unfinished or destroyed. When he returned to portraiture two decades later, he was hoping to master the form. In time he developed a more loose and free form somewhat removed from pure realism, which pleased him.
About painting portraits, Bangdel felt that it was not enough to capture the likeness of the sitter. A portrait, he said, must both reveal the artist’s virtuosity and technical ability as well as some essential aspect or characteristic of the subject. Each portrait symbolizes a special relationship between artist and sitter. The degree of flexibility and distortion in the portrait indicates the level of familiarity between them. It was important to like the person he was painting.
Bangdel considered his ‘Portrait of Balkrishna Sama’ (1975) and ‘Poet Laureate Lekhnath’ (finished in 1990) among his best. Both men were his friends and fellow members of the Royal Nepal Academy. Dina saw in these two works from this second period of portraiture that her father “moved away from the classic form, color, and style of his earlier portraits.”
Among other members of the artistic and literary elite whom he painted were the poet Siddhicharan Shrestha, the writer and human rights activist Rishikesh Shah, former Prime Minister Kirtinidhi Bista, and Ganeshman Singh, a stalwart leader of the democracy movement. Earlier, Ganeshman Singh helped secure financial support for Bangdel when he was a poor student in Paris.
One of his long-standing friendships, dating back to the 1940s, was with Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala, a Nepalese literary figure and politician who was destined to become Nepal’s first democratically elected prime minister in 1959. Their relationship was based on a mutual appreciation for the fine arts. When they met again in London in the late 1950s, they toured the Tate Museum together. It was in London that ‘B.P.’ (as he was familiarly known) said, “Bangdel-ji, you must come to Nepal. You have to establish a small art organization or a gallery or museum. It can be arranged. I’ll speak with King Mahendra. The government will help you.”
The subject came up again in 1960 when Bangdel met King Mahendra in London. Lain recalled their brief conversation going something like this –
Mahendra: Timi Nepal farka. (You should return to Nepal.)
Bangdel: Mero Nepal ma kehi chhaina, pet ko sawal chha, Hajur. (I have nothing in Nepal. How do I survive?)
Mahendra: Maile gerara hudai na ra? (I will do something for you, no need to worry.)
Lain and Manu moved to Kathmandu in March 1961. Within a week, Manu was appointed Matron of the newly opened national maternity hospital and a few weeks later Lain was inducted into the prestigious Royal Nepal Academy. The King also gave them a piece of land on which to build a home with a studio. With support, time, space, and inspiration, Bangdel quickly became a respected and productive artist.
When he renewed his interest in portraiture in the 1970s, One of his goals was to paint a memorable portrait of B.P. Koirala. Though he put great effort into it, he was not satisfied with the results. Whether due to his personal emotions or his awareness of the political overtones and the intense public sentiment towards Koirala, he found it difficult to paint Koirala with the same ease and power he brought to other paintings. It was not until 1991, nine years after Koirala’s death, that he succeeded. The result was two great paintings of his friend. The first was in oils on canvas, entitled ‘Portrait of B.P. Koirala’. In Dina’s assessment, “It captures vividly the sitter’s dynamic personality while the swift brushwork and warm colors, combined with an abstract background, give the painting a sense of arrested movement.”
In a second portrait, ‘B.P. Koirala in Abstract Form,’ Bangdel took his art a step further in a “revolutionary scheme of style and color.” This one is also known as ‘Portrait of Lokanayaka B.P. Koirala’, which identifies B.P. as a ‘national hero’.
Self-portraits and the meaning of modernism
Bangdel once noted that contemporary Nepalese artists rarely attempted self-portrait. Nonetheless, in those he painted, we find a startling variety of style and technique, indicative of how comfortable he was painting his own likeness. In time he became quite open to revealing both his artistic skills and his moods, sometimes serious and thoughtful; other times almost comical and light-hearted.
Bangdel’s early period ‘Self-Portrait’ (1958), for example, portrays him looking somewhat sad and contemplative. It is a formal work, with a quiet, meditative strength reflecting his determination and perseverance to excel. Many of his paintings in Europe influenced by the masters, in this case by the Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne, ‘The Father of Modern Art’.
In later self-portraits, Bangdel’s brushwork became more loose and free, the better to capture his inner spirit and emotions.
Bangdel appears playful in his 1985 sketch and in two self-portraits painted in 1990. These and several others from late in his life suggest a likeness of his daughter Dina. It is as if he had her fondly in mind as he painted.
About her father’s art, Dina concludes—“By ...the 1990s, he is totally free of the earlier ‘classic’ influences and gives the Nepalese style of portraiture the meaning of modernism.”
To celebrate the centenary year of Lain Singh Bangdel (1919-2002), a gallery of his select paintings will be presented in a forthcoming book about his life, family, and art. It will include his legacy as an artist along with tributes to his wife Manu and his daughter Dina, an art historian, by colleagues and friends. This Artbook/Catalog is being edited by Bibhakar Shakya, Deven Shakya, and Liesl Messerschmidt.
This short essay is adapted from the author’s book, Against the Current: The Life of Lain Singh Bangdel—Writer, Painter and Art Historian of Nepal (Bangkok: Orchid Books, 2004) and Lain Bangdel: Fifty Years of His Art by Dina Bangdel (Kathmandu: M.K. Bangdel, 1992).