16-22 August 2013 #669

The art of the gods

Overlooked for decades, the traditional art of paubha is finally making a comeback
Tsering Dolker Gurung

Lok Chitrakar at his studio in Patan Dhoka.
In his studio in Patan Dhoka, 53-year-old Lok Chitrakar is busy at work. One of the most renowned Nepali paubha artists, Chitrakar is adding last minute touches on a huge painting of Macchindranath, founder of Nath Pantha sect, that will be displayed at Kanzouin Museum in Japan next year. The painting took 11 years in the making.

“I am always excited to show my work to new audiences,” says a delighted Chitrakar whose paubha paintings have found homes as far as Denmark, Germany, Pakistan, US, and the UK. This will be Chitrakar’s third exhibition in Japan. Art aficionados from all over the world come to his studio to train. While most international students see pauba as another art form, for many local students this is their bread and butter.

Born into a family of artisans, where every male member was involved in making religious art, it didn’t take long for Chitrakar to pick up the brush and start painting. After observing his father and uncles at work, the young boy made his first paubha of an Astamatrika (eight female deities) at ten. Four decades later, the veteran goes about his work with the same enthusiasm.

For long paubha, a traditional Newari art based on Hindu and Buddhist mythologies was seen as a type of thanka painting, which gained popularity because of the West’s growing interest in Tibetan culture. However, paubha derived from the Sanskrit word patrabhattarak meaning depiction of god and goddesses on a flat form, dates back to the 7th century and is a precursor to thankas. “They are basically two children of the same parents,” explains Renuka Gurung, a student of Chitrakar who did her PhD thesis on paubha from the Princess School of Traditional Arts in the UK. “The only difference is in the interpretation of religious texts.”

MASTER STROKES: Renuka Gurung puts finishing touches on her paubha at her home in Budhanilkantha.

In the past few years, there has been a renewed interest in the art that once was at risk of losing its identity. “More and more people are aware of the difference between paubha and thanka and few people still label it the ‘Newari thanka’ like they used to even a decade ago,” informs Chitrakar. The growing significance of the art has also benefited artists and many youngsters now see it as a viable career. Chitrakar who has been teaching students at Kathmandu University is happy with the renaissance and the way business has picked up due to the boost in the number of tourists.

Paubha paintings are sold for as much as Rs 1 million. But both Chitrakar and Gurung admit that a piece of paubha can never be commodified as it takes a lot of time and dedication to finish a piece. “I started working on some of my pieces years ago, but they are still incomplete because paubha cannot be hurried. It takes time and a lot of patience,”says Gurung.

Although paubhas were historically painted for spiritual reasons, today many simply see it as an art. “Back then there used to be a relationship between the patron, the artist, and the priest,” explains Gurung. Artists would perform initiation rites before starting, priests would be consulted, and a long ritual would follow. “Contemporary artists rarely follow these guidelines and the method has also changed in the last few decades,” she adds. Although the surge in popularity is encouraging for artists, Gurung worries that commercialisation may lead to distortion.

In her effort to open up paubhas to an international audience, Gurung started a program at the Princess School in July, but was disappointed when no Nepali student turned up. She is hopeful, however, that with discounted fees for Nepalis, the attendance next year will be more encouraging.

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Bringing back the paubha