Modern Nepali Art; Abhi Subedi


In conjunction with Bikalpa Art Center’s latest exhibition ‘Panorama 60’s: Pioneers of Nepali Modernism’ the esteemed Dr Abhi Subedi wrote the long-form essay ‘Modern Nepali Art: Bangdel and after as mirrored in my reviews.’    

Professor Abhi Subedi is a Nepali poet, playwright, linguist, columnist, translator and art critic. Professor Subedi was an English lecturer at Tribhuvan University for forty years, ice-President of the Nepali Folklore Society of Nepal, founding former President of the International Theatre Institute (ITI) UNESCO from 2000 to 2008, member of International Playwright’s Forum from 2000-2011, and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been involved in a number of interdisciplinary study groups and is a prolific writer on issues of freedom, culture, literature, arts and social transformation. His essays and seminar papers have been published in Nepal and abroad.

‘Panorama 60’s: Pioneers of Nepali Modernism’ is a panoramic showcase of post-1960s Nepali art, featuring work from eight artists who pioneered modern art in Nepal. Through examining the work of the pioneers of the movement – Manoj Babu Mishra, Shashi Bikram Shah, Batsha Gopal Baidhya, Krishna Manandhar, Ramananda Joshi, Indra Pradhan, Gehendra Man Amatya, & Shashi Kala Tiwari –, this exhibition aims to educate the public on the emergence and development of modernism in Nepali art. Modern Nepali art is an understudied area of artistic and cultural history and the objective of this exhibition is to help fill this gap

Modern Nepali Art: Bangdel and after as mirrored in my reviews

Dr. Abhi Subedi

I browsed through my diary of art reviews made over the past several decades to see how I or we have perceived the modernist Nepali paintings. The reviews open up narratives about Nepali paintings that have changed over difficult, experimental and interesting times. I have revisited my early reviews and alluded to them to capture the glimpse of modernist Nepali paintings as I have seen them. As this is only limited to my catalogue and other published articles, this essay is not an outline of history.

Modernism as a concept was already the dominant feature of a section of Nepali poetry, if not all, towards the sixties. These poets of the young generation made unique experiments in their poetic craft. They indeed emulated the style of modern paintings in their poetry. How they got this exposure to the modern style of painting triggers debate. But from my own experience, I can say that they had drawn little from any Nepali modernist paintings, which were far and few between until the sixties and early seventies. Though a first historical exhibition of modern paintings of artist Lain Sing Bangdel (1924-2002) was organised at Saraswati Sadan of Tri-Chandra College, inaugurated by King Mahendra, in 1962, it did not make any direct impact on poets, but it certainly did open up new avenues for the artists. These words that I wrote for the obituary of Bangdel, speak about the moment of transition when modernism was being experimented in the difficult moments of history. I wrote Bangdel’s “the highest-priced painting was sold for Rs 5,000, and most of the buyers ‘came from the Rana families’. The King had just dissolved the parliament and put the elected prime minister B.P. Koirala, his close confidantes as we can see from B.P.’s autobiography in jail. He had banned parties and political discourses. Bangdel’s paintings did not offer the King any challenge. These paintings were very friendly if you did understand them, or just lovely even if you only recognised the sensa in them”. In the same obituary, I wrote about his kind of training. It would be relevant to cite again to begin this discourse about modern paintings. I add, “Thoroughly trained in Western schools of modern arts, Bangdel came with different techniques of paintings. He had been influenced by Picasso’s paintings, especially of his works of the ‘blue period’, in which Bangdel found a great model to depict the Les Miserables, the hapless and sad figures. But he had executed paintings that were abstract. In abstract paintings, Bangdel captured the ethos of the people by depicting the calm and livid Himalayan mountains. The misty, lyrical and charming Kathmandu valley bathing in the mellow autumn sun with the haunting beauty of the Himalayas became the subject of his very well known lyrical paintings.

Bangdel fully used the form of modern abstract paintings to express his sense of space and time. Space was fluid but recognisable. He thoroughly revised his apprenticeship of the western orientation of expressionism in the combination and use of colours and figures. His abstract art depicted the condition of modern mankind but that was very charming and expressive. In some paintings, one needs only to look at the sensa and not a recognisable theme (Space Time TODAY, 3 November 2002). Bangdel continued to work. One other interesting incident must be mentioned. A total of 250 paintings of Bangdel were exhibited at the Arts Council in April 1991. Looking at these paintings was like looking at the history of modernist Nepali art. These paintings showed his creative 50 years in art.

To continue the painting poetry nexus as mentioned at the beginning, I would like to allude to the painting exhibition of Uttam Nepali, who is also a modern poet. His exhibition of paintings under “poet, poetry and paintings” was made at the Fine Arts gallery in 1975.  I wrote, “He used the contemporary modernist poets’ lines on his paintings and centred the canvas around the sense conveyed by the poem or created an interpretation of the tension between the language and the paintings.” Uttam Nepali executed his paintings in oil and acrylic medium. Mention must be made of a retrospective exhibition of Uttam dai‘s entire paintings acquired up to that time, i.e. up to April 2004. Art curator Sangeeta Thapa organised that historical albeit complex exhibition at the same Arts Council’s gallery where she had organised a similar painting exhibition of Lain Bangdel 13 years earlier in April 1991. These exhibitions of paintings by Bangdel and Nepali give the character of the challenges and crises experienced by painters in the formative years of modernism.

Keeping a certain temporal order in mind I want to mention the art of the great modern Nepali painter Laxman Shrestha briefly. Laxman Shrestha first exhibited his paintings in what was then NAFA in 1967. The brochure for that exhibition was written by no other than Balakrishna Sama (1902-1981), the maestro of Nepali drama.  As a young university student and regular visitor, Sama was the source of my artistic epistemology, crafts, and criticism. I heard about Laxman Shrestha from him. Uniquely enough, Sama mentioned to me the works of Picasso, and the post-impressionists. In the brochure itself, he has mentioned about the relation between abstract non-figurative art and modernist art of the West. I quote from my previous article here–“I was very happy to read his brochure in which he had introduced a problematic. That was a good piece of art criticism. Sama calls Laxman Shrestha the painter who understands and uses that complex aesthetic-religious perception. He makes another very important observation in that short text. He juxtaposes the Sanskrit poet-dramatist Kalidasa’s Rati Vilapa and Jackson Pollock’s Suvaas, which means good smell. I do not know exactly which painting of Pollock was Sama referring to. But both paintings, he says, have the same purpose—to express human feelings. He concludes—“Laxman Shrestha by putting upon these old walls the pictures of the human mind in the abstract paintings, creations of his brilliant mind, has enhanced the prestige of Nepali art in the world. Such is my conviction and my perception” (The Kathmandu Post, 9 June 2013). Sama’s review reveals that we have not sufficiently understood the root of Nepali modernist paintings. It is a very important issue.

One of my earliest reviews is that of SKIB–the acronym of Sashi, Krish, Indra, Batsa–in 1971 in the form of a letter that I published in “The Rising Nepal” in which I have mentioned about their meeting with the Nepali writers. I had organised that, in fact, at NAFA gallery where we all sat on the floor and for the first time, as it were, we were ruminating about how painters and writers could work together. That is another narrative; I do not want to go into that. SKIB’s exhibition that was going on there. They had all returned after completing an apprenticeship in India, mainly from JJ School of Art. The time was transitional. I wrote the following in a catalogue about them:

“Their personal involvement in art activities coupled with their experimentation created a unique atmosphere in Nepali paintings characterised by such features as the gatherings of artists, interactions, exhibitions and, above all the pedagogy of art.

Shashi Shah studies the unique dramatic modes of culture in a somewhat surrealistic style. There is vision of the apocalypse in his paintings; Krishna Manandhar has created a changing pattern of experiences in different modes of experimentation over the decades; the late Indra Pradhan’s paintings combine charm with the fragmentation of experience and the disintegration of values with the creation of new hopes in the pleasant combinations of forms and media; Batsa Gopal Vaidya views the occult and the sacramental subjects with the openness and readiness for experiments of a modern artist. Indra Pradhan’s death left the three to continue their works, but without the group spirit any longer.

I was closely associated with another remarkable artist Manuj Babu Mishra. This artist who could work in his seclusion, in a place called hermitage in Bouddha, carries a universe of his own imagiation, the vision of the apocalypse, which dominates his works. The forms that are visibly distorted, contorted and stylised show his modus operandi that clearly foregrounds the picture of the modern era, or of modernism, which is haunted. But the scary figurality, human heads pierced by jets including his own, pythons rising to the sky and the domination of blue and green, as well as dark, ironically represent a calm acquired after a catharsis. Mishra is also a portraitist. He has drawn one of mine, which is included in his book of paintings. I feel immensely delighted by that, especially by the fact that he has kept my figurality outside the surreal modus opernadi.

Shashikala Tiwari is another modern artist whose works have always attracted me. She is the first modern woman artist of Nepal whose canvases present through the delineation of the colour structure a very effective atmosphere of expression in painting. I wrote earlier about her, “The predominance of blue and green in her paintings marks an important feature about her style. In most of her well-known canvases blue is used to mark a positive experience. The concepts associated with the blue such as the blue mood, the dejected mind, and the world of misery sometimes stand at odds with her use of colour. She, however, finds blue as the effective symbol of nature and even of an optimistic mood”.

My files show, I have written about Kiran Manandhar more than about any other artists. But here I want to quote from my latest text written for a catalogue of his exhibition with his son, a talented painter of young generation Sagar Manandhar, in 2014. What I have written in this catalogue is worth quoting at some length because this catalogue article covers a little history of my study of Kiran’s art. I write, ” In the early years Kiran Manandhar’s mandalic motif attracted me with his delineation of the circular, triangular and square shapes. He looked philosophically guided then. His paintings of that period subtly represent both the iconicity and philosophy of mandalic art. I have written about those paintings in his glossy catalogues and newspapers. Various other phases came in his art including his experiments with the Chinese and Japanese paintings. But through all these changes Kiran Manandhar maintained a certain deeply meditated and exercised formalism in his paintings. Just to mention a few features of his central style—he uses anthropomorphic forms nearly in each of his paintings. Figures, especially of women with a certain degree of mytho-poetic meaning, appear in them. He creates ripples of sounds in some paintings featuring flute imagery, reminiscent of the Krishna musical myth. But it is not quite as transparent as it may sound in these lines.

Looking back at the span of time that Kiran Manandhar’s paintings cover, I interestingly encounter the same issues of art criticism discussed here and South Asia as we see in the general discourse of art criticism in the West. It may be appropriate to say that Nepali modern paintings too when they emerged carried with them a degree of vitality of an alien order in the eyes of the Nepali audience who were even shocked by some of the first modern paintings, as stories go.

…… Kiran Manandhar’s paintings, in most of the major ones, some of which were remarkably huge like the one he executed on stage where we were staging my play “Kathmandu Odyssey” in 1996, and several others in others times, fill out the field of action to the very edge. But in this series of vertical paintings, mountains occupy that field. It may appear somewhat out of place with the modernist techniques, but the painter, as I said earlier, goes beyond the Western aesthetic perception and follows the styles of the South Asian modern painters, where forms of culture and beauty are incorporated in the work.” It would be contextual to cite a few lines that I wrote in the same catalogue about Sagar Manandhar too because he was exhibiting alongside Kiran Manandhar though he belongs to the young generation of painters. I have written the following:

“Sagar’s paintings through their detailed and very minute delineations of forms lines and geometric shapes do not present a copy of reality but articulate narratives of Newar art that are retold not in linear order but through lines and forms creating textures of seasons, moods and theatrical participation. The artist repeatedly told me how he had projected his persona, his self to earn this experience. The artist has become an active participant by putting his selfhood as a voyeur from inside both as a native to the culture and artist with confident artistic accomplishments”.

In the paintings, Ragini Upadhyay Grela has captured the archetypal pattern of the political game by combining ancient with the modern, perpetual impulses with the local and temporal. She has also combined literature with art especially by using children’s literature to dramatise the comic yet sinister aspects of politics and politicians. She is a very prolific artist who has made many experiments with her intaglio works. Her theme continues to be women in most of her major works. Another artist, the Australia-trained Ashmina Ranjit’s experiments in her works bring her style closer to the postmodernist forms. She is very well known for her installation works. So her works are given prominence by media. She depicts the raw pain, violence and bloodshed in the land. But the ephemeral works of this talented artist have an effect of a theatrical performance without a reusable text.

I want to conclude this short diary browsing here by mentioning a few words about other artists about whom I have written here and there. In that context, Sharad Ranjit is another artist well known for his landscape works and portraits of characters on representational or realist plane. His love for the transparency, charming and articulate structuralism of colour, balance and space, especially in his Himalayan landscapes, has gone into the making of these abstract illusions.

Ramesh Khanal’s paintings are experimental, especially in the use of colours. I like the artist’s sense of time that hides in the immediately conceived formless forms. I would say the arupan gaami painting, though the basis of its compositions is not a system of imagery, becomes an image itself. When you view the combination of white and blue, the flow of colours left with brush strokes, you find that the colours enter into dialogue with each other, and very importantly with the viewer herself. That is the function of imagery. Each painting, therefore, is an image in totality if not in isolated forms inside the art.

Madan Chitrakar’s paintings combine graphic forms and expressive use of colours and lines. Shankarraj Suwal, Shyam Chitrakar, Gopal Kalapremi of Biratnagar, Karna Maskey of Dharan and other artists of this generation not mentioned here, for reason of space all use controlled methods of paintings with rich palettes of colours. Ratan Rai’s graphic style and drawings have received a very good response from the viewers. Buddhi Thapa’s paintings deal with the theme of mandala and ecology.

Mukesh Malla was an art activist, a champion of the cause for an academy or an institute for art exclusively. I was associated with some of his activities. His paintings do not represent that anxiety directly. But his paintings done mainly in acrylic medium and sometimes in oil on large and mostly smaller canvases are more charming than frighteningly daunting. Abstractionism is their main stylistic feature, but Malla has not limited himself rigidly to any particular form.

“I want to quote from an article that I wrote for a French book of South Asian artists about another artist Sujan Chitrakar (1974). “He is among the youngest–of the later generation of modern artists–and a brilliant painter whose impact on modern art education is probably the most significant. He was educated in India. He did his Master of Fine Arts at MFA College of Art of  Delhi University in 2001. He got his degree of Bachelor of Fine Arts, BFA from Benaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India in 1999. Sujan Chitrakar is the leading art pedagogue at Kathmandu University. He is very well known also as an art curator. He has lectured on art in all the South Asian countries and received his training in America as a Fulbright scholar. His art is experimental and innovative. He has trained a number of very good artists”.

Though this diary browsing is not about the younger generation of painters, I have the temptation to write a few lines about them too. The reason is, I have also written about their works at different times in different forms. Women artists of the younger generations have been showing greater maturity every day. Shova Wagle treats her paintings with great care and love. Sarita Dongol executes eco-paintings. In her paintings there is dominance of blue colour, and criss-cross lines are used to create an expressive rebellion against the depletion of forests which is synonymous with the exploitation of woman; Sunila Bajracharya creates woman’s expressive sombre image by making dark bands, woman’s lock as the central focus that makes the brownish canvas expressive; Pramila Bajracharya creates textured canvas with their styles.

Asha Ratna Dongol’s small vertical canvases are paintings with a mood of exuberance suggested by the predominance of yellow and dark bands creating textured forms; Erina Tamrakar’s pensive women appear after a series of strokes she puts with yellow invisible lines; Binod Pradhan and Pradeep Bajracharya also work in similar styles. These Kasthamandap group have kept the art activities alive.

I have already mentioned at the beginning, the main focus of this diary browsing is to write about the trends of modernist Nepali art, and that I have attempted to write in this short critical recollection.

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