Nepali Times
Durga Baral’s diabolical realism

Durga Baral has been known in his native Pokhara for 30 years as a noted artist. But in the rest of Nepal, he is better known as the cartoonist, Batsayan.

Using post-1990 freedoms, Batsayan burst into the national scene with his biting cartoon satires in which he lampooned feckless politicians, poked fun at inflation, water shortages, and day-to-day travails. In doing so, he taught Nepalis to laugh at themselves.

"But as the violence got worse, and the conflict spread, I found that cartooning had its limits, I needed other ways to express myself, and that is why about two years ago I went back to painting around the theme of violence," Baral said during the inauguration of his exhibition at Siddhartha Art Gallery last Friday.

Ever since Mukunda Saran Upadhaya wrote his book of verse, Prakrit Pokhara and won the Madan Puraskar 40 years ago, this lake-side town in the lap of Machapuchre has been an incubator for artists. 'Pokhara is itself a poem/itself a painting/you don't have to ever write poems about it/or paint it,' versified Upadhyay in his award-winning book.

Today, Pokhara is even more of a hub for intellectual and artistic fervour, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that people like Durga Baral and the novelist Saru Bhakta live there. Pokhara is the only place in Nepal where people pay to attend poetry readings. After FM radios started broadcasting in Pokhara, four new digital recording studios came up and Pokhrelis were churning out music videos and CDs.

Creativity is easier when nature is such an inspiration. This idyllic valley, with its shimmering blue jewel of a lake and the pyramid of Machapuchre soaring into the sky now has the fires of insurgency raging all around. And it is here that Durga Baral has been reading about and watching the horrors of conflict engulf his beloved land. Having decided that cartoons were not adequate, he returned to painting. Not just a one-off work, but an epic of 23 that chronicle the conflict which now make up the exhibition, 'The Faces of Time and the Colours of Sensibility' at the Siddhartha Art Gallery. In each of these searing images we see the pain the artist has felt in seeing his motherland suffer. Baral shares his anguish with us through the medium of art.

Such pain is unbearable, for all of us. And at times like that words are not enough. Images and colours deliver a more powerful impact, and sometimes we turn to the passion of poetry to convey the outrage and shame better. But when words fail us, as they often do these days, it is images that reflect the ache in our souls. And, it is in these haunting images that we unexpectedly find solace. It is a catharsis that somehow unburdens us, as if by sharing the pain of fellow Nepalis we somehow make it more bearable for all of us.

Other artists, poets musicians and film-makers have in their own ways begun to express the torment of being a Nepali at this time in our nation's history. But Durga Baral's is an all-consuming passion: two years of hurt expressed in paintings that force us awake from our slumber, to sit up, take notice, and do something. "These paintings may have provided a personal catharsis for the artist, but it deliberately offers no respite to the viewer," says the curator of Siddhartha Art Gallery, Sangita Thapa.

In Next Door's Tale, Through the Window and Entrapment, we get a glimpse of how bereavement, brutality, cruelty and grief wound the living. The spirits, ghosts, corpses are always juxtaposed against those still alive and Baral bathes death in a contrasting warm glow that we associate with humanity, compassion and non-violence.

Other artists, like Picasso and Goya, also lived through civil wars and depicted them in haunting impressionistic works. Durga Baral has used everyday newspaper headlines, tales of disappearances, the gaping void that they leave behind in the hearts of their families, in a hyper-realism that Nepali art has never attained before. Maybe peace can be achieved by talking less, by reflecting more, and through reflection, building a common cause against the cruelty that overwhelms us. That is what powerful art everywhere compels us to do: it moves us to act. (Kunda Dixit)

The Faces of Time and the Colours of Sensibility is on exhibit at the Siddhartha Art Gallery the whole of October before moving on to Pokhara. 4218048

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)