The writer with curator Dina Bangdel in the Louvre museum in Paris in 2013.
There would not be many Nepalis worldwide who could give a professional tour of the Louvre’s collection of European art from the Medieval to the Renaissance to Impressionism, Modernism and Late Modernism.
But there was Dina Bangdel. The usage has to be tragically in the past tense because all of a sudden she is no more: taken from Nepal, the Himalaya and South Asia by a freak illness.
In June 2013 we happened to be together in Paris for different events, and the grand Louvre museum, of course, was only a part of Dina’s interest. The city was also a pilgrimage destination for her because her father, Nepali master of modern art Lain Singh Bangdel (1919-2002), had lived and painted here in the early 1950s, walking the lanes of Montmartre where the great Impressionists browsed.
Dina’s plan was to retrace her father’s steps in Paris, and also to build a permanent collection of his works back in Kathmandu. Having spent her student and professional life overseas, Dina was on a trajectory back to Nepal, where her infirm mother lived. To be closer to home, she moved from the US to Doha, to head the Art Department of Virginia Commonwealth University.
Art history and curating were Dina’s passion and career, this self-made professional who carved a niche for herself in the rarefied field. She curated shows internationally and in Kathmandu, helped in the revival of the Nepal Art Council, and encouraged Nepali artists with her curatorial skills.
I was fortunate to be working with Dina on two projects related to Nepal’s traditional art and iconography. We were part of a team, including the recently departed Sukrasagar Shrestha as well as the America-born artist Joy Lynn Davis, working for the return of Nepal’s stolen statuary. The campaign would be based on diligent documentation and expert knowledge, and Dina had the skills we needed, besides the international recognition and credibility.
Dina was also energised by her father’s deep interest in the challenge of idol theft. Distressed by the loss of statuary and knowing the value of documentation, Lain Singh Bangdel built a vast photographic record of before-and-after images, an exercise he completed at great risk and which ended with the publication of The Stolen Images of Nepal (1989).
In the early 1990s, the artist was shocked to see a Kathmandu Valley Uma-Maheshwar (13th Cent) and a Vishnu-Laxmi-Garuda (12th Cent) exhibited at the Musee Guimet in Paris. He informed the museum and the two artefacts were promptly moved to basement storage. A few years ago, the museum allowed Dina Bangdel access to the two idols. The emotional weight of Dina’s encounter with the statues in the Guimet basement would have been profound, for she was as devoted a daughter as she was an authority on Newar iconography.
The grandeur of Kathmandu Valley's historic artistic outpouring convinced Dina of the need for an international exhibition showcasing Nepal’s ancient and traditional art. There has not been a major exhibition on Nepal since one was put up at the selfsame Musee Guimee in 1966, inaugurated by King Mahendra.
Dina single-handedly worked to convince the museum, including its Asian Art Department head Natalie Bazin, to return the two statutes. The museum demanded assurance of security for the idols once they were restituted to Nepal. Bazin also agreed that there should be a grand exhibition of Nepal’s ancient and traditional art, and that the Vishnu and Uma-Maheshwar would be exhibited one last time at the Musee Guimet before being repatriated.
Dina’s plan was that the exhibition would travel around the world, including the US, Austria, Singapore and Japan, before arriving in Kathmandu. Her international credibility and expertise were vital to pull off this grand exhibition, which would also have marked the formal start of the campaign for the return of stolen gods and goddesses that grace museum pedestals and personal collections globally. The Paris exhibition was originally planned for 2016, but delayed by the continuous political turmoil in Nepal.
This exhibition should now be moving into the planning stage, but the impresario has departed. Dina Bangdel would have wished that her ideas should move ahead, even in her absence: including the dedicated Lain Singh Bangdel Collection, the campaign for the restoration of stolen Nepali iconography, and the international exhibition of Nepal’s ancient and traditional art at the Musee Guimet, to start with…