A brief Review of the Contemporary Art in Nepal (1920-2014)
By Sangeeta Thapa, Siddhartha Arts Foundation for Gallerie International, August 2014
Nepal lies neatly at the center of the world’s largest growth region. As a developing country, Nepal is experiencing major political changes while writing its new constitution. It is hoped that the new constitution will defend freedom of speech, as artists have an important role to play in the future of Nepal by raising the consciousness of its citizens. The new government of Nepal must rise to the challenges of its time and work in tandem with private cultural organizations to generate activities that support the younger generation of artists from all ethnic backgrounds, thereby supporting new ideas for social change through the visual and performing arts. However, it is essential that in the quest for modernity, the very essence of Nepali culture is not sacrificed.
In 1940, the Nepali artist Chandra Man Maskey was imprisoned for drawing cartoons lampooning the Rana rulers. India’s independence in 1947 and the end of the British Raj had huge political ramifications in Nepal. Change was inevitable – politicians, members of various underground political outfits who were imprisoned for their political beliefs, social activists, teachers, lawyers, artists and writers united collectively against the Rana rule and clamoured for change.
Twelve years later, King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah Dev ended the Rana rule and Nepal finally opened up her borders to the rest of the world. His successor, King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, believed that the arts could be used to create a feeling of nationalism under a guided democracy called the Panchayat system, which would take Nepal forward into the 21st century.
A feeling of euphoria and jubilation marked the initial years of the Panchayat system, and between the late 50s and 70s, the Royal Nepal Academy was established to promote art, literature, dance and music; the City Hall was built to stage public performances, the Nepal Association of Fine Arts, and the Nepal Arts Council were established to promote contemporary expression and an independent association initiated to promote Nepali handicraft.
The National Museums were also set up in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur during this period. The royal portraits of the Shah dynasty were painted by the famous artists of the era: Balkrishna Sama, Chandra Man Maskey, Tej Bahadur Chitrakar and Amar Chitrakar and were installed in museums and government offices. In 1952, the Nepal Art Society and Kala Samiti were registered. Three years later Gehendra Man Amatya, a self taught artist exhibited a series of non figurative works –now considered a departure in the history of Nepali contemporary art. In 1960, Narayan Bahadur Singh began a column in the Gorkhapatra National Daily, dedicated to the arts. A year later, King Mahendra was to meet three Nepali artists during his tour of Europe, one of them was Lain Singh Bangdel who had graduated from the Ecole National Des Beaux Arts in Paris and was residing in London. King Mahendra invited Bangdel to Nepal to play a pivotal role in taking Nepali art forward.
The birth of modern art in Nepal
In 1962, the King inaugurated Lain Singh’s exhibition of abstract paintings at Saraswati Sadan. His paintings marked the beginning of modernism in Nepal and Bangdel was appointed Head of the Faculty of the Fine Arts at the Royal Nepal Academy by the King. He held multiple portfolios: literature, art, music, drama and administration. He also contributed greatly to the Nepal Association of Fine Arts and in co-founding the Nepal Art Council. With his untimely demise in 2002, Nepal lost a celebrated artist, writer, novelist and art historian.
The Paris trained printmaker Urmila Garg Upadhyay returned to Nepal in 1962 and held the first exhibition of prints. The third artist that the King met while on his tour of Europe was the Paris based Nepali artist Laxman Shrestha. After attending an exhibition of Shrestha’s oeuvre in France, King Mahendra was greatly impressed by the artists work and invited him to Nepal. In 1964, Shrestha returned to Nepal and held an exhibition of his paintings at Saraswati Sadan. The mountains, the ethereal mists of Nepal were to become a continued source of inspiration for the artist. Though Laxman eventually settled in India and was to become an acclaimed artist, his exhibition and his work had generated excitement in the contemporary art scene in Nepal.
The first generation of modern artists
Aspiring artists Kesab Duwadi, Ramananda Joshi, Thakur Prasadh Mainali, Pramila Giri, Uttam Nepali, Shankar Raj Suwal, Vijay Thapa, Shashi Bikram Shah, Batsa Gopal Vaidya, Krishna Manandhar, Indra Pradhan, Madan Chitrakar, Manuj Babu Mishra and Shashikala Tiwari journeyed to India, East Pakistan, France and beyond to study the fine arts and were to return with new ideas and expressions that would define the post modernist arts movement in Nepal. In 1965, the Nepal Association of Fine Arts organized the first National Art Exhibition, which was presided over by the Crown Prince Birendra Bikram Shah who continued to patronize the arts through the 70’s and 80’s.
The second wave of art graduates returned in the 1970’s: Surendra Bhatterai, Pravin Shrestha, Kir an Manandhar, Birendra Pratap Singh, Ragini Upadhyay Grela, Parmesh Adhikari, Yuvak Tuladhar, Laya Mainali and Raj Manandhar. The influx of artists created new dynamics in the contemporary art scene – artists collectives were formed such as the SKIB Group [Shashi Shah, Krishna Manandhar, Indra Pradhan and Batsa Gopal Vaidya], the Young Artist Group and Artist’s Society of Nepal which had a broader membership base. The individual and collective contributions by the artists created a definite impact on the psyche of the public. It is also during this period that Nepali artists would travel abroad to take part in inter-regional and international art events: the Dhaka Art Biennale and in Fukuoka Asian Art Exhibition.
Ramananda Joshi a graduate from the Sir J.J. School of Art in India, opened the Park Gallery in 1970 as a hub for artists, art activities and as a commercial space for the arts. By the 1980’s, the original patrons of the arts, the temples, the aristocracy and government, were replaced by private galleries, which were established by artists and entrepreneurs, in response to the need for professionally managed spaces where contemporary Nepali art could be exhibited and marketed. The J Art Gallery was established by the entrepreneur Hirendra Bajracharya. A few years later Kiran Manandhar opened the Palpasa Gallery. In 1987 alone, three art galleries were opened: the Srijana Gallery, established by Birendra Pratap Singh, the Pumori Art Gallery founded by Ragini Upadhaya and the Siddhartha Art Gallery which was opened by Sangeeta Thapa and Shashikala Tiwari. Though some of the galleries have now closed, new galleries have emerged.
Though the arts gained an unprecedented momentum, it is important to remember that censorship was a key issue during the Panchayat period. However artists, writers and poets were allowed to use the traditional festival of Gaijatra to voice their frustrations against the State. The Royal Nepal Academy organized gala shows satirizing and lampooning the leaders of the time. Along with the public, the King and his Ministers attended the performances, enjoying the parodies. A key feature of these times was the publication of a magazine called “Bhand-Bhailo” in 1983 – which was only released during Gaijatra by the Young Artists Group. Contemporary artists contributed their cartoons while writers penned their satirical and humorous anti–establishment texts.
Even though at one level of life, the visual narratives of the artists were drawn from traditional religious iconography and symbolism, from its agrarian settings, folk art motifs and universal human emotions, the contemporary arts began to reflect socio-political tensions, a yearning for change and the desire to be free from the censure of the Panchayat system. In 1990, Nepal was to witness a historic revolution that called for greater democratic freedom, thus ending three decades of Panchayat system of government.
Ragini’s bold portrait of the royal family sporting signature dark glasses, was a powerful commentary on the royal family’s lack of awareness of reality. Her works in 2001, focused on the ineptitude of politicians. Her solo exhibition ‘Gaijatra’ in 2010, caricatured the greed and lust for power that lead the country down an abyss of misrule and corruption. However, her works have landed her in controversy on some occasions. Her exhibition ‘Love is in the Air’ in 2011, courted controversy as the artist depicted herself as the modern day Goddess Saraswati or Goddess of Wisdom riding a swan. A US based Hindu outfit, the Forum for Hindu Awakening, asked the artist to take the work off the website. This incident marks the first instance in Nepal, of an artist’s work being deemed offensive by a religious organization. A staunch advocate for women’s rights, even in the art field, Ragini established WAGON (Women Artists Group Nepal) a non-profit organization dedicated to the uplifting women artists.
The second generation of modern artists
The early 1990’s bustled with local and international exhibitions and activities. In 1991, Uma Shankar Shah returned from Banaras Hindu University with an MFA in Printmaking. In 1993, Jyoti Duwadi a Nepali artist residing in the US travelled to Kathmandu to present his site specific installation ‘Myth of the Nagas’ and ‘Kathmandu Valley Watershed’. This event would be the first time installation art was presented to the public. However, the years between 1996 and 2006 quickly metamorphosed into turbulent and bewildering times as Nepal reeled under twelve years of a bloody civil war. In 2001, three events were to stun the world: the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan, the massacre of the royal family in Nepal and the bombing of the world trade Center in the USA. Many Nepali artists such as Shashi Shah, Shashikala Tiwari, Ragini Upadhyay Grela, Gopal Kalapremi responded to these events with powerful and compelling works.
Some of the key names from this period include: Gopal Kalapremi, Ashmina Ranjit, Prashant Shrestha, Sudarshan Rana, Sunita Rana, Erina Tamrakar, Binod Shrestha, Pradeep Bajracharya, Bhairaj Maharjan, Pramila Bajracharya, Sunila Bajracharya, Asha Dangol, Binod Pradhan, Sarita Dangol, Kirti Kaushal Joshi, Sujan Chitrakar, Kishor Rajbhandary, Manish Lal Shrestha, Sunil Sigdel, Jupiter Pradhan, Purnima Yadav, Prithivi Shrestha and Saurganga Darshandhari. Some of these artists travelled abroad to further their studies – and were to return to Nepal to play an important role in strengthening the local art community.
The present generation of modern artists
On the political front, extrajudicial killings, murders, kidnappings, disappearances and turmoil, continued to ravage the nation. The works by Shashi Shah, Durga Baral, Shashikala Tiwari, Kiran Manandhar, Jyoti Duwadi, Ragini Upadhyay Grela, Ashmina Ranjit, Sudarshan Rana, Manish Lal Shrestha, Sunil Sigdel, Sujan Chitrakar, Asha Dangol, Om Khatri, Govinda Azad, Chirag Bangdel and a host of other artists provided powerful commentary on these tragic and bellicose times. In 2007, Nayantara Kakshyapati launched ‘Photo Circle’ as a platform for emerging and professional photographers and as photo archive. In May 2008, the Kingdom of Nepal metamorphosed into a Federal Democratic Republic, thereby ending the rule of the 240-year-old Shah dynasty. Statues of the Shah Kings that had been installed across the country were vandalized and paintings of the monarchy removed from all government offices. In the same year, the palace of the Shah Kings – Narayanhiti Durbar- was converted to a Museum.
The sweeping political changes also impacted the indigenous and marginalized communities who demanded that their voices be heard beyond the confines of the house of parliament. The need to develop national cultural policies that were socially inclusive was finally brought to the forefront. The various presentations of indigenous cultures have added a greater dimension to the field of art, music, dance, theatre and cinematography. In 2008, the Society for Modern Art SOMA was registered and an indigenous language magazine for arts and culture published by Chomolunga Pratishtan Nepal. Two years later the Kirat Fine Arts Association and the Mithila Artist’s Society were also registered.
Durga Baral ‘Batsayan’ (2005) – Death of Constitutional Monarchy
Kathmandu International Arts Festival and now “Kathmandu Triennale”
In 2009, the First Kathmandu International Art Festival was held as a theme-based, non-commercial, contemporary arts festival. Organized by the Siddhartha Art Gallery, the Festival used the medium of art to address critical socio-political issues. The event was conceived as a platform to establish Kathmandu as an international arts hub. KIAF served as a visual narrative on the ‘Status of Women’. Inaugurated by the former Living Goddess, over 100 artists from 25 countries participated in the event spread out across six different venues in the city. The festival served to introduce new perspectives in art practices to Kathmandu.
Exhibitions by BFA graduates from Kathmandu University also set the tone for bold new approaches in contemporary art. In 2010, Tribhuvan University officially began its MFA program with eminent printmaker Dr. Seema Sharma Shah at the helm as Head of Department, Central Department of Fine Arts. Hitman Gurung, Mekh Limbu, Arjun Khaling and Jaya Shankar Son Shrestha are some of the artists that graduated from this institution. The works made by this young generation of artists, focus on socio-political issues: the status of women, human trafficking, the environment, pollution, art made from materials sourced from the junkyard, politics, war, the seduction of power, a growing awareness of one’s ethnicity, architecture and heritage, traffic woes, the saga of migration and the search for spirituality in an increasingly chaotic urban space.
On a parallel level, the need to explore alternative art practices in contemporary art beyond the confines of a Gallery structure, was to lead to the opening of multiple art spaces: Kastamandap Studio, Sutra, Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre, Sattya, Lasana Live Art Hub, Artudio, Bindu space for artists, Bikalpa, Srijanalaya and Art Lab. The art residencies, workshops, interactions, art forums, street art initiatives, photography and film screenings brought national and international art practitioners together and have challenged the existing patriarchal concepts and succeeded in connected art to the local community and to a wider audience.
In August 2012 a death threat was issued against Manish Harijan by members of the World Hindu Forum who had visited Harijan’s solo exhibition at the Siddhartha Art Gallery. After this visit, a case was registered at the Central District Office demanding: the arrest of both the artist and Gallery Director, the seizure of Harijan’s paintings and the sealing of the gallery on the spurious grounds that the works posed a threat to public security as they were anti-national and anti-Hindu. Manish‘s paintings of Hindu gods with western super heroes satirized the commercialization of Hindu and Buddhist icons. The misinterpretation of the work in a secular new Nepal, created a furore in the art world and revealed the gap between what the State perceived Art should be, and what contemporary artists in Nepal are making.
The Second Kathmandu International Art Festival –EARTH BODY MIND was held in 2012. Thematically centred on environment and climate change, this mega event drew 100 artists from 35 countries. Diaspora artists Jyoti Duwadi and Ang Tsering Sherpa also participated in the Festival. More than 400,000 visitors attended the exhibitions and events which were spread across sixteen venues in the city. The cumulative energy of the Festival has contributed towards propelling contemporary art in Nepal towards a bold new direction. A series of interesting developments were to follow, in 2014 the photographer Kashish Das Shrestha opened the City Museum and a few months later the very first Children’s Art Museum was established by Sneha Shrestha. 2015 saw the first international photography festival take hold of the historic city of Patan. And in 2016, Photo.Circle organized the second edition of the event with an overwhelming response from local and international community. Today the arts in Nepal, is poised for a takeoff, despite the lack of government funding. It is important to recognize the resilience of the local artists and role played by private art galleries and institutions to create awareness about the vitality and potential of this field.