Nepal’s Bangdel encounters Indonesia’s Affandi
Lain Singh Bangdel (1919-2002) was a well known litterateur and artist in Kathmandu from the 1960s onward. He was Nepal’s first modernist painter. He also authored several poignant short novels. During the 1980s he served as chancellor of the Royal Nepal Academy and also gained international fame as an art historian who documented the ancient sculptural treasures of Kathmandu Valley.
Lain grew up on a tea plantation in Darjeeling where his school teachers recognized and encouraged his talents in writing and painting. After high school he attended Calcutta Arts College, graduating in 1945 “with distinction,” first in his class. He also wrote his three famous short novels in Calcutta, Muluk Bahira (Outside the Country, 1948), Maitighar (Maternal Home, 1950) and Langadako Sathi (The Cripple’s Friend, 1951).
While his novels brought him notoriety and are required reading by students of Nepali, it is as an artist that Bangdel remains most well known. In 1952, to further his ambitions, he sailed to Paris to study art under the influence of the great masters of the past and contemporary modern artists. His goal was to become known as a uniquely modern Nepalese painter.
In Europe Lain met married a Nepali nursing student named Manu Thapa who was also from Darjeeling. Within a week of their Paris wedding on May 1st 1953, the couple met a visiting Indonesian artist named ‘Affandi’, who was gaining artistic fame internationally.
Affandi and his wife Maryati were in Europe on a tightly budgeted art tour. While in Paris they stayed in the same hotel as the Bangdels. There the two couples quickly became friends and for several weeks, while Manu and Maryati exchanged recipes and the couples shared meals, Lain and Affandi went into the countryside together to paint.
One day Lain found a note in his hotel box in which Affandi described his dire financial situation and asked for help, “so that I can at least pay for my hotel room,” he wrote. In response and to help Affandi, Lain asked him to paint Manu’s portrait, for which he paid £5 (about $8). In recounting the event later, Lain remarked with a smile that Affandi’s painting now sell for thousands of dollars.
As Lain watched Affandi paint Manu’s portrait, he was intrigued by the artist’s unique style - the frenetic energy, the unusual technique, the eccentricity. “He didn’t use a brush,” Lain said. “Instead, he used lots of rags and very thick colors on the palette, as a kind of syrup, and a pot full of turpentine and a little bit of linseed oil. He started drawing direct from the tube, very fast. He was brilliant.” Affandi finished Manu’s portrait in about 20 minutes, then signed the canvas simply: “Paris, AF”.
Though the artistic techniques of the middle-aged Affandi (1907-90) and the young Bangdel were dissimilar, they shared certain philosophies and attitudes about painting in general. For one, Affandi was a strong nationalist who felt that Indonesian art had to be about the experiences of being Indonesian. Bangdel understood this, for he too was struggling to define his own national identity and to express something of the character of Nepal in his art.
But where Bangdel worked hard to master conservative Western technique, Affandi was radical, iconoclastic and experimental. Affandi has been described as a painter who “developed a Zen like approach of meditating on the subject till he was filled with it and then painted it, outside, before it, in a high-energy of objective/emotional response...”
In contrast, Bangdel was more methodological, systematic and scientific. And though each painter expressed his art quite differently, Lain nonetheless admired Affandi. Much later, during the Nepal Revolution of 1991, two of Bangdel’s modernist paintings - ‘Struggle for Democracy’ portraying the people’s uprising of 1990, and the abstract ‘Portrait of Lokanayaka B.P. Koirala’, Nepal’s early Democracy hero - show off some of his own artistic vigor and creative abandon, reminiscent of Affandi’s style. ■
Don Messerschmidt is a regular contributor to ECS Nepal magazine, and can be contacted at email@example.com.