Nepali painting has come a long way, transforming itself from two-dimensional religious icons to western-style oil-on-canvas perspective realism. The man who did more than anyone else to bring about this renaissance was Tej Bahadur Chitrakar, a member of the clan whose surname has become synonymous with Nepali paintings.
Ever since King Jaysthiti Malla designated the Chitrakar clan to painting in the 18th century, the family has been in the business of art not just as a profession, but also to fulfil their social and religious obligations.
Their skills and paintings have been passed down from one generation to the next, and along the way famous Chitrakar painters have added new styles and techniques. The Chitrakars have a strong sense of preserving their ancestral profession. They may have drifted into business, but most still paint. And if they gave up painting, they turn to photography and photojournalism.
Three hundred years ago, Chitrakars were given the job of painting religious paubas, the antecedents of Tibetan thangkas. Today, paubas adorn temples, puja rooms and museums across the world. And when the chariot festival of Machhendranath came along, it was the Chitrakars who were called out to paint the wheels with the all-important eyes, just as they painted the masks of the dancers and the eaves of temple struts.
It was not until Jang Bahadur took Bhaju Macha Chitrakar to England and France on his 1850 Europe visit that the clan was exposed to new styles and vogues. Jang Bahadur wanted Nepali painters to learn the art of doing oil portraits like the ones of the British viceroys he had seen in Calcutta. Legend has it that Bhaju Ratna employed some of his newly-learnt brush techniques on the long journey back from England to make practice portraits of Jang Bahadur himself. One of these Jang Bahadur is said to have, rather immodestly, presented to Queen Victoria and it hung for a long time in the office of the foreign secretary in Whitehall until Robin Cook had it removed in 2000.
Then, during the reign of Chandra Shumshere, when palace-building was at its zenith in Kathmandu Valley, Tej Bahadur Chitrakar took the bold step of focusing on representational real-life figures on canvas. It was neither socially acceptable nor economically viable at the time to paint real-life portraits, landscapes or depict social life.
Tej Bahadur didn't want to restrict himself to paubas. He wanted to explore what he could do with modern techniques. The construction of Singha Durbar was near completion, making it the largest private residence in the world of the period. Young Tej Bahadur was working as an apprentice, painting the huge backdrop curtain for Chandra Shumshere's personal theatre in what is now the parliament building. One day, during a tour, Chandra Shumshere noticed Tej Bahadur and asked him to show him his work. The Sri Tin was impressed and promptly sponsored his training at the Government Art School in Calcutta.
It wasn't all altruism. As with Jang Bahadur and Bhaju Ratna, Chandra Shumshere wanted Tej Bahadur to return to paint large portraits of the Rana family. At the time, Kathmandu was closed to the world and the only way to reach Calcutta was by walking all the way to the Indian border and then by steamboat down the Ganga to Calcutta. With help of Chandra Shumshere's trusted official, Ram Mani Acharya Dixit, Tej Bahadur was admitted into Pioneer Art School where he learnt the craft and honed his skills.
After four years of learning to paint, Tej Bahadur returned to Kathmandu but Chandra Shumshere died before he could get a commission. Bhim Shumshere, who succeeded Chandra, was not a art aficionado and reformer. But the commander-in-chief Rudra Shumshere was so impressed with a portrait of his father, Bir Shumshere, that Tej Bahadur had done, that he commissioned a series of family portraits. But even before Tej Bahadur completed the work, Rudra Shumshere fell victim to intrigue and was banished to Palpa. Tej Bahadur was considered guilty by association and was victimised. He then lost all his property in the 1934 earthquake and and his wife died a short while later.
Juddha Shumshere was the great 'reconstruction' prime minister who commissioned Tej Bahadur to paint heroic life-size panoramas of his hunting exploits in the tarai for the meeting hall in Singha Darbar to impress foreign dignitaries. So impressed was Juddha Shumshere with Tej Bahadur's painting of him hunting tigers from atop elephants that he rewarded him well and gave him a permanent studio in the Naksa Adda, the map room inside Singha Durbar.
Tej Bahadur was busy passing on what he learnt in Calcutta to a new generation of Chitrakar painters at Durbar High School, where he was an art teacher. His students include legendary artists like Manoharman Pun, Amir B Chitrakar, Gautam Ratna Tuladhar, DB Chitrakar, Kulman Singh Bhandari and others.
Other Chitrakars have also made their contribution to the arts. Dirgha Man Chitrakar was taken by Chandra Shumshere for his official visit to England in 1908, where he learnt photography and film processing. This knowledge was passed down to his son, Ganesh, who set up Ganesh Photo Lab, which has a treasure house of period photographs of early 20th century Kathmandu. In a fine case of historical symmetry, Dirgha Man's grandson, Kiran Chitrakar, accompanied another Nepali prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, in 1996 on an official visit to London as a cameraman for Nepal Television.
Tej Bahadur passed away in 1971, and his friends and family feel the state has not given his life's work due recognition. After the Rana regime fell, his significance was minimised and he was not even chosen to be a member of the Royal Nepal Academy when it was established in 1957 by King Mahendra. Madan Chitrakar, Tej Bahadur's painter son, has brought out a book to pay tribute to his father. Says Madan: "My father's name has already faded from history despite his enormous contribution to the development of art in Nepal. The book is to preserve the heritage."