The Surprising Mix of Tradition and Innovation in Nepal’s Contemporary Art Scene


Vietnamese monks said they wanted a river. So, one of Nepal’s most prominent painters, Lok Chitrakar, wrote in a preparatory sketch of the entrance to a Buddhist monastery in Vietnam that “a river is needed” in the folds of the landscape.

When I visited Nepal at the end of last year, these paintings were hung on the walls of a Chitrakar studio room. I was there to see the 10th century divine sculptures re-installed in a shrine stolen in 1984. I thought I would spend most of my time thinking about the art of the past, but I couldn’t help it. You will be drawn into the vibrant contemporary art scene of Nepal. During the trip and in subsequent interviews, I asked some of its most prominent participants to mix tradition and innovation and talk about the spiritual and commercial balance in their artistic activities. Lain Singh Bangdel is currently on display at Queens.

Chitrakar’s name is a clue to his profession. The Newars of the Kathmandu Valley have a profession-based caste system, and Chitrakar has long followed the Sanskrit meaning of their name, “image maker.” However, Chitrakar’s father tried to persuade him to follow another career path, believing that it became impossible to make a living to create the devoted painting used in New Buddhism, Pauba. .. (They are sometimes called Thangka, the name of the associated Tibetan Buddhist memorial painting.) From the 1960s to the 1970s, there were few freshmen and many well-established practitioners made quick copies for the tourism market. I came to do it.

Lok Chitrakar, who presents a painting of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, was completed during a pandemic after 20 years of work.

However, Chitrakar, born in 1961, did his best. His paubhās are drawn according to the traditional form of hand-ground mineral pigments bonded with buffalo skin glue and strict instructions on the subject, and are now in collections and Buddhist locations around the world. Chitrakar is also commissioned to design what other Nepalese metal and woodworkers use to create traditional Newar-style sculptures, as well as a request from a Vietnamese monastery.

Since at least the 13th century, the work of Newar artists has been appreciated by patrons of Tibetan, Indian and other Buddhist communities. Chitrakar correctly predicted that his youthful calm was temporary. Today, the streets around the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the Kathmandu Valley are lined with shops of artists selling paint, limestone, wood and copper gods. Ordinary tourists take it home, but the best example is commissioned by Tibetan Buddhists who are eager to establish a new sanctuary outside their homeland.

Rainsin Bandel’s Bolts and vortices Displayed at (1969) Lain Singh Bangdel: Moon in Kathmandu At the Yeart Gallery at St. John’s University in Queens.

A popular artist in the valley used a pandemic to catch up with these orders, often placed many years ago. Chitrakar also completed a giant painting of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god worshiped in both Nepal’s major religions, Newar Buddhism and Hinduism. The artist had to climb a ladder to show me the painting. The complex details took him 20 years to complete. Worshiped as an obstacle remover, Ganesha is usually shown as a peaceful god sampling a bowl of sweets. Chitrakar’s masterpiece represents his resentful side. Ganesha, who dances with a skull cup and various weapons, symbolizes the power needed to protect the believers.

Chitrakar was easy to find, but it took much longer to find another artist I wanted to meet. Many areas of the Kathmandu Valley are adorned with murals, paste-ups, stencils and other street art. I especially like Sadhu, a Hindu ascetic sage, entwined with an elastic figure wielding a can of spray paint, skillfully spewing out a traditional roll-shaped cloud depiction of a pile of coal. I praised the mural paintings that I was meditating on.

Finally, I talked to Sadhu X, who created the mural in collaboration with illustrator Nika Harrison. Today, Sadhu X’s work blends traditional iconography with contemporary influences into his own unique style. But when he was growing up, Nepal’s only street art was made by visiting foreign artists. In 2010, when he had an undergraduate degree, his teacher suggested using a stencil he created on the outer wall of his art school wall. He followed his advice and immediately met with others interested in creating street art to help establish an art space and community Kaalo.101.

Birat Raj Bajracharya (right) has a picture of Pauba consecrated by Lama before shipping to the buyer.

Helena Aryal, who also participated in the video Hangouts, is one of the founders of Kaalo.101. She expressed her dissatisfaction with her perception that street art is a Western phenomenon, both inside and outside Nepal. Aryal argued that the medium may be foreign, but its shape is deeply rooted in Nepalese history. Hand-painted snake (nagas) paper illustrations affixed to many houses and buildings in the valley during the annual rainy season festival confirm that paste-ups are not new in Nepal. .. The concept of changing public landscapes to create art also fits well with the interactive and multi-sensory nature of Nepal’s dedication. In Nepal, worshipers of shrines on the street corner leave fingerprints on the foreheads of the gods with vermilion powder, offering marigolds and perfumes. , Food, and even music, ring the bell. Some shrines are covered with names written with markers. It’s not a casual graffiti, it’s a reminder of who prayed what.

Sadhu X combines traditional Pauba style with the work of street artists he admires from other parts of the world to create exaggerated, instantly recognizable forms using flat, graphic linearity. I told me I had never seen a strict distinction. Sometimes I think his work has helped evolve traditional Nepalese art, but often because he wants to tell a story using a visual language that he wants the audience to understand. It mixes influence and inspiration. His work, and other works related to Kaalo.101, suggest that changing perspectives blurs the distinction between labels such as ancient and modern, or foreign and Nepalese.

The wall of a shrine in a pattern in Nepal. The name of the worshiper is written.

The Kaalo.101 artist is not the first to question what to endure with traditional Nepalese style. I also discussed this question for a long time with Birat Raj Bajracharya, a New Buddhist scholar and the owner of some of the galleries that sell the works of artists who aim to preserve and transform Pauba paintings.

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

To his father’s ambitions, Bajracharya added the purpose of recreating the stolen paubhās. He collects photographs of Pauba in foreign collections, the most magnificent of which may have been stolen from a Nepalese monastery and encourages painters to make new versions. Bajracharya also reads ancient Newar religious texts (often after finding them in foreign archives as well) and finds a description of the painting scene that has completely disappeared.

Lok Chitrakar, in his studio in Patan, Nepal, has a preparatory sketch used by metalworkers to carve the doorways of a Buddhist monastery in Vietnam.
Lok Chitrakar, which exhibits the work in progress, is a painting of a Buddha who refuses to interfere with meditation by a group of small figures that symbolize “distress.” Hatred, delusions, and greed.

Like Sadhu X, Bajracharya sees no fundamental difference between traditional Newar style and classic European models. For example, he pointed out to me that the text describes the painting as depicting gods with emotionally expressive faces. However, such expressions are difficult to express in the traditional Pauba linear style. Therefore, Vajracaria believes that the more complex emotional shadows captured by artists using European Renaissance techniques and the full range of colors of modern pigments are more similar to ancient texts than the old Pauba. I am.

However, Bajracharya agrees with Sadhu X that artists can remain true to their roots while radically moving away from traditional styles and media, but he is much closer to Chitrakar in terms of form. am. Bajracharya advises artists associated with his gallery on details such as painting colors, attributes, and the position of the hands of the gods, ensuring that they comply with the standards inherited in Buddhist and Hindu texts. To do. He wants art to “keep its core sense”, that is, to change its religious function. He wants to be able to use all the Paubas sold in the gallery as a meditation tool, even if purchased by non-Buddhist collectors.

The interior of the shrine in the pattern of Nepal shows the interactive and multi-sensory nature of Nepal’s dedication, provided by sacred works of art anointed with vermilion powder, flowers, prayer scarves, lamps and rice. It has been. The bells hang above the sculptures, so worshipers can ring them and provide music to the gods as well.

Until April 9th, the Yeart Gallery at St. John’s University in Queens is exhibiting yet another mixture of tradition and modernity. The gallery will host the first American exhibition of paintings by Rainsin Bandel (1919-2002). Bandel studied in London and Paris in the 1950s and returned to Nepal. So he adopted the realism and abstraction he learned to portray his homeland in his novels and paintings.

Although a solid modernist, Bandel was also a defender of the preservation of Nepal’s cultural heritage. In 1989 he published a book Stolen images of NepalPhotographs of sculptures on the scene before the theft provide evidence of many recent return claims (including this). Highly allergenic I broke the story). One painting in the current exhibition, “Bolt and Vortex” in 1969, reflects Bandel’s intertwined interests. Curators interpret Bolt as a Vajra. This is a weapon with the power of thunder that is often used in the Nepalese representation of both Hindu and Buddhist gods.

Back in December, after showing his Ganesha, Lok Chitrakar invited us to drink tea. One of my companions, novelist MT Anderson, asked Chitrakar how he dealt with the ego problem. His work helps others pursue enlightenment through contemplation — but did his fame increase the risk that pride and interests would further move him away from his own spiritual goals? ??

Examples of many hand-painted paper illustrations of snakes (Naga) affixed to many homes and buildings in the Kathmandu Valley during the annual rainy season festival.

Chitrakar took a sip of tea and looked into his current project. Another huge painting. This time, the Buddha refused to interfere with meditation by a group of small figures symbolizing the “worries” of hatred, delusions, and greed. He told Anderson that he believed that worldly desires were not entirely evil. Chitrakar, for example, motivates him to use his sense of pride in his work to create more works so that more viewers can get a glimpse of true peace. explained.

Chitrakar’s reminder that nothing is completely good or evil for humans applies to all the factors that shape the lives of contemporary Nepalese artists. Tradition and innovation; global connections and local routes. Meditation and Marketing: All of this can be a tool for creating a better life and community. The various solutions and goals of Chitrakar, Sadhu X, Bajracharya, and many others in Nepal show that there is no best way to the future of art.


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