Amazing mix of tradition and innovation in Nepal’s contemporary art scene

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Vietnamese monks say they want a river. So on a preliminary sketch for the gate of a Buddhist monastery in Vietnam, Lok Chitrakar, one of Nepal’s most famous painters, wrote “The need for a river” in the folds of the landscape.

When I visited Nepal late last year, the paintings stretched all the way to the wall of a room in Chitrakar’s studio. There I watched the reinstallation of a 10th century deity into a shrine that was stolen in 1984. I thought most of my time would be spent thinking about art from the past – but I couldn’t help but be drawn to Nepal’s vibrant contemporary art scene. During my travels and subsequent interviews, I have invited some of the most prominent participants to talk to me about how to blend tradition and innovation and balance spiritual and commercial in their artistic practice – I discovered one of the country’s outstanding modern artists The work, Lain Singh Bangdel, is currently on display in Queens.

Chitrakar’s name is a clue to his profession. The Newars of the Kathmandu Valley have an occupation-based caste system, while the Chitrakars have long used the Sanskrit meaning of their name: “image maker”. But Chitrakar’s father tried to convince him to take a different career path, arguing that creating paubhā (spiritual paintings used in Newar Buddhism) was no longer a viable option. (They are sometimes called thangkas, the name for a related Tibetan-style Buddhist spiritual painting.) The practice declined during the 1960s and 1970s, when new students were scarce and many established practitioners turned to Travel market making sketch.

Lok Chitrakar has unveiled a painting of Ganesha, the head god, which was completed after 20 years of work during the pandemic.

But Chitrakar, born in 1961, persevered. His paubhās were made with hand-milled mineral pigments glued to buffalo hide glue according to the exacting requirements of traditional form and theme, and are now in collections and Buddhist sites around the world. Chitrakar has also received commissions, such as from a Vietnamese monastery, for designs used by other Nepalese metal and woodworkers to produce 3D pieces in traditional Newar style.

Since at least the 13th century, the work of Newar artists has been highly valued by patrons from Tibet, India and other Buddhist communities. Chitrakar rightly foresaw that the calm of his youth was temporary. Today, the streets around the main Buddhist pilgrimage site in the Kathmandu Valley are lined with artist shops selling deities in paint, limestone, wood and copper. Ordinary tourists bring some home, but the grandest examples were commissioned by Tibetan Buddhists eager to build new shrines outside their hometowns.

Ryan Singh Bandel Bolts and Swirls (1969) in view Lain Singh Bangdel: The Moon Over Kathmandu At the Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University in Queens.

Silicon Valley’s popular artists have used the pandemic to catch up on those orders, which are often placed years in advance. Chitrakar also completed a huge painting of Ganesha, the god of elephants, worshipped by Nepal’s main religions, Newar Buddhism and Hinduism. The artist had to climb a ladder to show me the painting. Its intricate details took him 20 years to complete. Ganesha is worshipped as removing obstacles and is usually depicted as a peaceful deity tasting a bowl of sweets. Chitrakar’s magnum opus depicts his angry side. Holding a skull cup, Ganesha wields a variety of weapons and dances, symbolizing the power necessary to protect his followers.

Chitrakar was easy to find, but it took me longer to find another artist I wanted to meet. Many neighborhoods in the Kathmandu Valley are decorated with murals, stickers, stencils and other forms of street art. I particularly admired a mural of Sadhus – Hindu dervishes – meditating on a pile of coals, intertwined with bouncy figures wielding spray paint cans, playfully spewing traditional scroll-shaped depictions of clouds .

I finally spoke to Sadhu X, who co-created this mural with illustrator Nica Harrison. Today, Sadoo X’s work incorporates traditional portraiture and modern influences into his own unique style. But when he was growing up, the only street art in Nepal was created by visiting foreign artists. In 2010, when he was finishing his undergraduate degree, a teacher suggested he use a template he had made on an art school exterior. He followed the advice and soon met others interested in creating street art and helped create Kaalo.101, an art space and community.

Birat Raj Bajracharya (right) holds a paubhā painting consecrated by a lama before shipping it to a buyer.

Helena Aryal, who also joined the video call, is another founder of Kaalo.101. She expressed disappointment that street art is considered a Western phenomenon in Nepal and abroad. Aryal insists that while the medium may be foreign, the form is deeply rooted in Nepalese history. Hand-painted paper illustrations of snakes (naga) pasted on many houses and buildings in the valley during the annual rainy season confirm that pasting is nothing new in Nepal. And the concept of creating art by transforming public landscapes is also very much in line with the interactive, multi-sensory nature of Nepal’s devout, where devotees leave fingerprints of vermilion powder on the deity’s forehead in the open corner shrine and offer them marigolds , perfume, food, and even music, by ringing a bell. Some shrines are covered with names written in marker — not random scribbles, but reminders of the gods who prayed and why.

Sadhu X told me that he has never seen a strict distinction between the style of traditional paubhas and the work he admires from street artists from other parts of the world who also use flat, graphic linearity to create exaggerated, instantly recognizable form. Sometimes he thinks his work is helping traditional Nepalese art develop, but more often he just mixes his influences and inspirations because he wants to tell the story in a visual language he wants the audience to understand. His work, and those of others related to Kaalo.101, show that if you change your perspective, the distinctions between labels like ancient and modern, foreign and Nepali can become blurred.

The walls of a shrine in Patan, Nepal, are inscribed with the names of believers.

The Kaalo.101 artist is not the first to question what traditional Nepalese style should bear. I also had a lengthy discussion on this issue with Birat Raj Bajracharya, a Newar Buddhist scholar and part-owner of a gallery that sells works by artists who aim to preserve and transform paubhā paintings.

The gallery was founded by Bajracharya’s father. Like Chitrakar, Bajracharya’s father wanted to be a paubhā artist, but unlike Chitrakar, he could not find a teacher. Instead, he studied art in Italy for many years and returned in the 1990s, with the goal of incorporating the emotional expressiveness and three-dimensionality he had impressed upon in Catholic religious art into the Newar tradition.

In addition to his father’s ambitions, Bajracharya added the goal of rebuilding paubhās lost through theft. He collected pictures of Baoba from foreign collections, the most magnificent of which were probably stolen from Nepalese monasteries, and encouraged painters to make new editions. Bajracharya also read ancient Newar religious texts (often after they were found in foreign archives) to find descriptions of scenes from paintings that had disappeared entirely.

Lok Chitrakar in his studio in Patan, Nepal, holds a sketch ready for metalworkers to carve a gate for a Buddhist monastery in Vietnam.
Lok Chitrakar is showing a work in progress, a painting of the Buddha refusing to let his meditations be interrupted by a group of tiny figures who symbolize “afflictions”: hatred, delusion and greed.

Like Sadhu X, Bajracharya does not see a fundamental difference between the traditional Newar style and the classical European model. For example, he pointed out to me, the texts describe paintings as depicting deities with expressive faces. But such expressions are difficult to present in the linear style of traditional paubhās. As such, Bajracharya believes that the more complex emotional shades and full range of colors of modern pigments captured by artists using European Renaissance techniques may be closer to ancient texts than older paubhās.

But while Bajracharya agrees with Sadhu X that an artist can stay true to his roots while radically breaking away from traditional styles and mediums, in terms of form, he is closer to Chitrakar. Bajracharya advises the artists associated with his gallery on details such as the colors, attributes and hand positions of the deities in the paintings, ensuring they follow the standards handed down in Buddhist and Hindu texts. He wants art to be transformed without “giving up its core meaning”: its religious function. He hopes that all paubhā sold by his gallery can be used as a meditation tool, even if purchased by non-Buddhist collectors.

The interior of a shrine in Patan, Nepal showcases the interactive, multi-sensory nature of Nepal’s piety, with sacred artworks painted with cinnabar, flowers, prayer scarves, lamps and rice offerings. Bells are suspended above the sculptures so worshipers can ring them to offer music to the gods.

On April 9, another blend of tradition and modernity will be presented at the Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University in Queens, which is hosting the first American exhibition of paintings by Lain Singh Bangdel (1919-2002). Bandel studied in London and Paris in the 1950s before returning to Nepal, where he used the literary realism and abstraction he had studied to depict his homeland in novels and paintings.

Though a staunch modernist, Bandel is also an advocate for the preservation of Nepal’s cultural heritage. In 1989, he published the book stolen nepal imageswhose photographs of the sculptures in situ before the theft have provided evidence for many recent repatriation claims (including this one, for which allergy breaks the story). One of the paintings in this exhibition, “Bolts and Swirls,” 1969, reflects Bandel’s intertwined interests. The curator interprets the lightning as a vajra, a weapon with the power of a thunderbolt that is often used by Hindu and Buddhist deities in Nepal.

Back in December, after showing us his Ganesha, Lok Chitrakar invited us for a cup of tea. One of my companions, the novelist MT Anderson, asked Chitrakar how he deals with his ego problems. His work helps others pursue enlightenment through contemplation – but doesn’t his fame increase the risk of pride or interest further driving him away from his spiritual goals?

An example of many hand drawn paper illustrations of snakes (dragons) pasted on many houses and buildings in the Kathmandu Valley during the annual rainy season.

Chitrakar takes a sip of tea and looks at his current project: another huge painting, this time the Buddha refuses to let his meditations be interrupted by hordes of tiny figures that symbolize “afflictions”: hatred, delusion and greed. He told Anderson that he believed trouble was not entirely evil. For example, Chitrakar explained that he uses his pride in his work as a driving force for him to create more work to help a wider audience glimpse true peace.

Chitrakar reminds that no one is entirely good or evil, and this applies to all the factors that shape the lives of contemporary Nepalese artists. Tradition and innovation; global connections and local roots; meditation and marketing: all of these can be tools for creating better lives and communities. The different solutions and goals of Chitrakar, Sadhu X, Bajracharya and many other Nepalis show that there is no single best path to the future of art.

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