Modernity and Nepali Art

The Standardization of Art


Paradoxically, European art was able to set a norm of standardization more easily in countries like India with a rich artistic and cultural tradition than it could in countries with a large number of ethnic diversities in art and culture. This is due to the fact that Indian art had a broad-based concept of aesthetics and it was more pervasive in time and space as a standard norm of art than any minority art form could be in a position to achieve. The Indian viewer of art had already cultivated a taste for art when looking at a painting and acquiring the immediate visual information, the affluent color harmony, and the very articulate lines and kinesis suggested by their movements. The viewer knew what art was. The viewer was familiar with the universality, the standard or notions of artistic perception.


In terms of media, both the Indian and Nepali artists had already used gouache, mineral, vegetable and animal pigments mixed with gum Arabic, often with embellishment of gold and silver, applied to a prepared paper or more rarely, to a color support (Topsfield, 1984: 5). The Mughal court art, decorated in gold and color, the bright Rajput art, and all the other forms of art were united by the fact that they integrated mythological, poetical and mythical allusions. The impact of music especially of the ragas on painting, the taste of the Mughal emperors for art and patronage of the arts had set a standard for art in India which had a direct or indirect impact on Nepali art of the later period as discussed above.


Paradoxically, the Eurocentric compartmentalization of art - the standardization of art in various neat forms - found it easier to set its own standards as the norm of art. But talking of Western influence we should ask, did the Eurocentric genres of art undermine the cultural standards by suppressing or downgrading the traditional arts or by trying to impose forms that are alien to the native traditions? It is often said that the impact of European colonial rule imposed a standard for amalgamating the diverse cultural traditions and thus the pluralistic views of the world into one standard model for the purpose of ruling and imposing its own forms of culture. This results in an all pervasive use of the media and the identities of culture get blurred and what you have is a standardization of culture.


But the Eurocentric art forms did not necessarily depress the traditions of art in countries like India (and in turn Nepal). Yet their thrust for the standardization of culture took its toll. Many small and minority artistic traditions stood neglected. And the establishment of the Calcutta School of Arts had direct impact on the promotion of modern art in Nepal.



Chandra Man Maskey and the Westernization of Nepali Art


When Nepali painter Chandra Man Maskey joined the Calcutta Government School of Art in 1918 for formal training, the concepts about art were changing. He brought the Western technique of painting to Nepal. But he also worked with the indigenous traditional Newar artists of Kathmandu whose family name is Chitrakar, and whose art shows the influence of the earlier traditional paintings of the subcontinent from Pre-Mughal art to the other religious and court paintings of the later time.


The Westernization of Nepali art does not mean the loss or the complete rejection of tradition, yet it certainly makes a departure. The modern artists of Nepal create their own milieu and create their works of art in it. Their "modern" is basically a Western concept, but they only exploit the Western education to broaden the range of their skills in painting. So the Nepali identity of the artists in this country should be sought in their own cultural and folk environments and in the their works, making the best use of their skills, whether they be Western or Oriental.


The management of modern galleries and art schools, the logistics and modalities of the execution of paintings, the use of media and the display of the individual artist's paintings on the wall to show an individual expressionistic projection - most of these, if not all, are the acquired modalities from Western training. "Modern art" had now become a norm in Nepal as anyplace else.



The "father of modern art" in Nepal: Lain Singh Bangdel


The exhibition of Lain Bangdel's paintings in the oldest college gallery in Kathmandu in 1962 marks the real turning point in the history of Nepali art. It is perhaps the beginning of the contemporary or modern period of Nepali painting.


Bangdel's initial training took place at Calcutta Art School and later he got exposure to Western schools in France and Britain, including study visits to Spain. The modern artist's exposure to Western art, and the direct encounter of the Western galleries, schools and management of art exhibitions and other activities was a very significant event for Nepali art.


Bangdel's paintings were Western in their orientation. The blue period of Picasso's paintings influenced his early works. One can notice the pattern of emulation in these early paintings. The cultural basis of subcontinental and Nepali art saw a new configuration of emulation which was new, alien, complex, and challenging. But the viewer in Kathmandu saw possibility and hope for freedom and expression in the abstract canvasses, since for the first time a unique presentation of human drama was expressed in paintings.


One example is a painting entitled "Twilight" which was displayed in the 1962 exhibition in Kathmandu. Here a world of a different nature spreads across the canvass. An unusual twilight is created by the artist. The imagery is drowned in abstract form, the colored shapes and the brush strokes give the painting a pattern. The colors themselves, not the images, spring to the eye of the viewer and influence the mind. They have an emotional appeal, but the abstraction of the normal in terms of the use of color and pattern present a picture that exists in experience - an unusual kind of experience for the Nepali viewer (Subedi, 1992: 2-3).



Painting since the 1960s


Since the sixties Nepali painting has made a tangible departure from tradition. Traditional forms of art, portrait making, narrative and spititual painting represented a different world altogether. The modern painters, most of them trained in Indian and Bangladeshi art colleges, fully used the techniques and the media which are now universally recognized as occidental.


In modern Nepali painting artists experimented with all levels of presentation - themes, media treatment of the subject. Though most of them faithfully followed the well-defined order and adhered rather rigidly to the modernist classical style, some deliberately disrupted it. They did not violate the concept of balance in art, but there appears to be a violation of the balanced placing of images and color bands and mass.


In traditional Nepali art linings were very important because they were set in a defined system. But in modern Nepali painting artists used lines expressively. The visible lines were charged with the artist's passion. Invisible lines were an entirely new phenomenon. Bands of color and the modality of form made up invisible lines. Thus, modern painting became the vehicle for the artists' feelings, their problems, their frustrations and hopes in the changing context of the country and culture.


Colours were used expressionistically within the context of and the structuralism of the motif. The modern Nepali artist's palette had a greater variety than the Eastern Indian Monastic paintings of the early years. But in recent times Nepali artists don't seem to maintain this uniqueness in terms of use and combination of color. Through some artists use traditional forms of color while delineating the cultural motifs, the main thrust of any combination is expressionistic, not rigid and defined.


The symbolism in modern Nepali painting is unique. The universalism in the choice of motifs plays an important role in modern Nepali painting, but the most important feature of modern Nepali art is that the artist is devided between rejection and acceptance of tradition - its values and techniques. In some very well-known paintings the tension itself is the subject matter of the painting.


Modern paintings create the motion not necessarily by referring or responding to outer events affecting the life of the artist, but by creating an internal, psychological reality. Modern Nepali paintings thus doe not necessarily depict the event and time of the transitional Nepali society. But they certainly express the modern Nepali artist's response to the changing times, changing values and norms.



Three exemplary modern artists


The works of three artists are introduced here briefly, one representing the early-modern and two representing the current generation, to give a cross-view of the scenario. They certainly are not the only Nepali artists working today. But their works have important commonalities with the works of other artists like Uttam Nepal, Shashi Shah, Krishna Manandhar, Indra Pradhan, Batsa Gopal Vaidya, Shanker Raj Suwal, Sharad Ranjit, Shashi Kala Tiwari and others. Yet their works are unique in a number of ways.



Manjuj Babu Mishra belongs to the second generation of modern artists. His treatment of modernity is different from either Bangdel's or Uttam Nepali's. His works reflect the physical crisis in a very tangible form, but in each canvas he introduces ideas which are directly related to the catastrophe depicted in the art. The base of the dramatic relationship between modern scientifically fortified war machinery and the helpless anthropomorphic forms in the art is humanism. His subject matter is humanism - its catastrophe, its thwarted hopes and bleak futurity. Overt representation rather than a subtle one is the feature of his art. Because of the need to foreground the theme, the subject of the predicament of humanity under the shadow of war, he does not delineate the theme in a subtle manner.


Mishra's themes are topical today when each week or even day, children in the refugee camps die due to famine, or fall under army guns. Women are raped or murdered and genocides are committed. But the mode of terror and drama in Manuj Babu Mishra's paintings is shaped by the last Great War, and the structuralism of European painting of the war period such as Picasso's GUERNICA and THE CHARNEL HOUSE, Carl Hofer?s THE BLACK ROOMS, Jacob Lawrence's WAR SERIES NO. & and other post-war crucifixion paintings.


Some of the recurrent images in his paintings are missiles, tunnels, birds, serpents and terrified heads. These images evoke fear at its rawest form. These archetypical images evoke fear glibly in his paintings. But even though the symbols are supposed to represent and dramatize the universal patterns of fear and hope, love and hatred is the intention that they also carry the burden of contemporaneity of our times. Mishra's paintings carry the times just as his missiles carry the sophisticated lethal explosives. The scientific sophistication and the bellicose mood that pervades the atmosphere in his paintings are reminiscent of major events of our times.


There is great mobility in each canvas. Missiles are fired, heads shoot around, human figures are subjected to go through excruciating pain in the blue, red and yellow world. There is movement, targeting, destruction and overriding. But the very important point about all this mobility and action is the conspicuous absence of the "agent". Each painting thus presents the pain of the sufferer, of the receiver. The agent, the doer, is behind the action which shows the impersonality and the inhumanely indifferent automation.


Hosts of his paintings, especially those executed recently, present the drama very vividly. In the paintings birds come out of cannons, devotees huddle at Buddha's feet with missiles ready for action, the Swayambhu chaitya with Buddha's unblinking bleary eyes carries warheads, a saint is seen in a vertical canvas carrying missiles with the force projected by the yellow color in the foreground and the grim and sombre background, the artist himself is poised for a certain action with missiles jauntily tucked on his hat, there is a parade of heads with all the primary colors heightening the effect. There is irony about the trinity of peace, mobility and progress, the yellow Buddha is going to Lumbini in the contemporary context. Manuj Babu Mishra, to drive home the irony and the symbolism in his paintings, juxtaposes his own cultural milieu - the deities and their diverse manifestations with the dramatic presence of warheads and other atrocious objects associated with modern war technology. This is a recurrent phenomenon in nearly every painting.


Mishra is overt, not subtle, in the treatment of his theme. Therefore his paintings use the techniques of modern occidental painting to project the artist's sense of the times we are living in and the atrocities committed by people to people in tangible images and symbols. The most dominant motif in his paintings is time seen against the background of the apocalypse that, according to the artist, is at hand.



Kiran Manandhar is a versatile Nepali artist of the younger generation. His works are subtle and their impact is charming and warm, created by structuralism, by an effective combination of media and the specific treatment of the motif.


Manandhar's vertical paintings exemplify some features of his art. We should look at the field of action itself - the vertical sized Himalayan rice paper. As we have seen, Nepali paper was extensively used in the 14th and 15th centuries. But a modern artist's rediscovery of the medium is an interesting phenomenon. The paper gives the artist an opportunity to create a dialogue not only between the form and the subject matter, but also between the canvas and the other media - color and lines. Primitive Himalayan paper enters into a dialogue with Western media and creates a unique work of art.


In his paintings Kiran makes liberal use of visible and invisible lines and creates a sense of force in each. Each painting emerges out of the paper canvas through the rough surface glistening the dry Himalayan grass, tendrils and wigs. Each painting comes into the foreground, as it were from the depth. Kiran's paper canvas is made by superimposing one layer upon another. This gives the artist a dramatic canvas to sink the lines and colour in each layer.


The most important structural feature of Kiran's paintings is the creation of a "mandala", a dynamic pattern of movement created by bands of color and lines. The distribution of colors and lines in his paintings is designed to create a movement withing the entire field of actions. Once the field of vision acquires a pattern of the kinetic visible and invisible bands and lines, the impact of the canvas works on a psychological plane. The viewer's mind acquires the same motion as the paintings.


The mind acquire such a dynamic in two ways. The sky in Kiran's paintings is seen in the vertical movements of the invisible lines and the openness of the field of action. The composition has no limit. The other way one can notice the sky in the paintings is through the structuration of a "mandala", the mobile use of colour, lines and images. The brush strokes show the field of vision - the path that the viewer's eyes have to follow. The sky becomes a consciousness the mind must find a place in the structure. Also in the colour symbolism we can see the sky in his paintings. The undulating fast changing colors, the sudden disappearance and emergence of the same colour at another space - creating a sense of mobility - , the use of thick white, blue and yellow, all these factors join in creating the sky in Kiran's paintings.


In his thatched terracotta?cottage below the Swayambhu hill - below the bleary eyes of the Buddha - I saw Kiran executing some of these paintings. I could feel how the sky entered his canvas. The nature outside, especially the light and the wind, find a place in his paintings. In the traditional architecture of temples and houses in Kathmandu, a space is created for the sky. Being on the five elements, the sky should find its place in paintings, dance, music, and the space of a temple or a home. The sky in Kiran's paintings is both them and structure.


Another significant feature of his paintings is the creation of the female form through an abstract pattern. The female richness, the immense creative possibilities and charm are further attributes of Kiran's paintings.



Ragini Upadhyay, who represents the young generation of Nepali artists, has also used Himalayan paper as her canvas in several of her paintings. Her paintings, done on Nepali paper, directly synchronize folk themes with folk material.


A graphic artist by training, Ragini has been using other techniques and has been combining different levels of skills in her paintings executed at different times. In the works done on Nepali paper, for instance, she has used paints through the medium of graphic prints using superimposition as a technique. The color blotches, albeit not very prominent, have very interestingly served to make the narrative islands in the fables drawn from children's story books, myths and living coming strips - the game of politics which she has depicted in these vertical canvases to create a sense of irony.


Each painting in this series has a commonality with all others while remaining uniqe in a number of ways. Common to them is the use of media and the theme that runs through all the paintings with variations. Ragini's entire body of work is a symphony with variations in each canvas.


In her paintings of Nepali paper, Ragini has captured the weak points of human nature, especially the games monopolized by men, such as politics, violence, backbiting and fighting for gains. Women also figure in her works but only as someone standing by the corner of the horizontal space watching the drama. But the narrator, the moderator and the censor of these stories is a woman. So the invisible character in these paintings is a woman. The gap between the visible and the invisible is thus the state of irony in her paintings.


One should be familiar with the stories of the classical Sanskrit myths and other folk tales in this country to fully understand the themes in these paintings. But there are patterns which are universal like the wickedness and leg-pulling and using fair and foul means to achieve one?s selfish ends.


There is charm in her paintings. They easily interact with the viewer wither through the familiar media and stories if watched natively, or through the dramatization of the universal human psychology through the alien media if viewed outside. The charm and simplicity of her art works in either case.


Her paintings open up like a wall and the anthropomorphic forms, lines, colours, the figures of animals and birds, and the Devanagiri scripts appear as graffiti. But these graffiti don't only speak of contemporary issues, they also dramatize the universal human nature. These paintings combine the comic with the serious, graphics with painting, fun with sadness, and forms with empty space. Ragini continues to experiment and the paintings referred to here represent her latest experiment and they represent it effectively.





We have made a brief survey of Nepali art and especially Nepali painting over the last one thousand years. It is a very interesting and challenging subject in its own right.


The pattern of Western influence can be seen not only in the use of media and technique and in the expressionistic use of colour, but more importantly also in the management of art, in the exhibitions collecting works in one place and making them available for people to purchase them.


Early Nepali painting was produced for local use, for religious and ritual purposes. But the priests and the art lovers of this country value only their ritual aspect. They ignore the great charm, beauty and power of paintings which certainly must have been highly appreciated by people when they were executed. Every culture has its own aesthetic traditions.


The Nepali aesthetic tradition, as it is seen in painting, is rich, unique and polymorphous.