Legend has it that during the construction of the Changu Narayan temple in Bhaktapur, one of the stone elephants, which was incomplete, began crying and bleeding. The event disrupted the kingdom and work on all other sculptures was halted until King Mandeb ordered that the statue be erected as it was-half-finished.
Back then, stone sculpting was considered sacred. Sculptors considered their work to be an offering to the gods. Various rituals were performed to purify the stone, the sculptor and installation site before hammer and chisel were put to the stone. But modernity and technology soon changed things. Religion gradually lost its place and sculptors became known more for the art value of their work rather than the spiritual value. With photography and instant prints, the demand for sculpting as an art form and other methods of carving declined.
"In the old days sculptors had perfected the art of imitation. They could make statues that looked like they would bleed if you cut them but with technological advancement, this skill was pushed away. Contemporary stone sculpture was born as a rebellion against technology," says sculptor Om Khattri. The need to make art unique and technologically irreproducible increased, encouraging creativity, imagination and feeling.
At the month-long exhibition held in the Nepal Association of Fine Arts after a 15 day workshop which concluded on 2 July, contemporary sculptors of Nepal gathered to showcase their work. It was powerful evidence that the Nepali tradition of stone sculpting is very much alive and has taken new diverse directions from just temple art.
Professor Govinda Narayan Jya-poo, 80, is a scholar of contemporary art. He stands by his sculpture of a pregnant woman whose womb has been cut open to reveal the child inside and explains: "What I'm trying to show is the eagerness of the child to escape the womb and enter the world to become his own person." The details are subtle: the heaviness of the woman's breasts signifies pregnancy but the sculptor has left the stone rough to depict pain.
"Contemporary sculptures are based on traditional foundations," explains Jya-poo, "the difference is in the shape and style. Contemporary works focus more on expression of emotions and presentation skills rather than on adornment." The other artists at the workshop agree, saying that traditional sculpting concepts demand life-like statues. They recount numerous tales of sculptors who painstakingly crafted the eyes of statues. It was believed to be the moment when life was injected into their creations, one ray of light from those eyes was powerful enough to kill a person so they used buffaloes as shields, which too, died.
The times have changed and with them the artists' idea of inner light. Hridaya Ballabh Pandey's works consist of a fishlike form radiating light from its centre. "I wanted to show the light and energy that is in all of us," he says.
Contemporary sculpting is now getting its due as an art but is still struggling commercially. Jya-poo tells us proudly, "I have never really sold my work, I give it away to people as tokens of friendship or respect." But many sculptors do make a living by selling their work. Khattri says, "It is possible but Nepalis need to appreciate our work, help create an environment where sculptors, artists and such creative people can thrive."
This is not to say traditional sculpting techniques have faded. It is still popular among sculptors and has a lucrative market both in Nepal and beyond. "The traditional art of sculpting is established in the art world and in Nepal, has a special niche carved out with the worship of idols," says Khattri, "but to be able to compete internationally, artists now need to expand into contemporary forms."