10-16 October 2014 #727

Devoted to painting

Nepal’s paubha master takes Kathmandu’s traditional art to Japan
Stéphane Huët

Lok Chitrakar, 54, is Nepal’s most famous painter of paubha, the devotional art form that went from Nepal to Tibet to become the thangka. Now, he is taking 32 of his paintings even further to Japan, where it will be part of a larger collection on permanent display at a museum.

As an autodidact, Chitrakar came from a family of artists and started using brushes at 12.  Today, his work is renowned worldwide with some of his paintings featuring in permanent exhibitions from Pakistan to Finland. Chitrakar has been working with the Kanzouin Museum in Tokyo for the past 12 years which already has 30 of his paintings, and soon will be adding 32 more to complete a series that will ultimately have 108 paintings from Kathmandu.

Lok Chitrakar was working on a mandala for a Japanese client in 2000, and had to learn Japanese techniques to complete it. For this he got in touch with a Japanese friend who showed his work to people in the art scene there. There was no looking back, the Japanese were hooked.

Paubhas were first taken from Kathmandu Valley to Tibet in the 8th century when Bhrikuti was married to king Srong Tsen Gampo. She took paubha artists with her to Tibet, and this style later evolved into the thangka, which is distinguishable by newer Chinese styles. Thangkas depict Buddhist subjects or even deities from the pre-Buddhist Bon faith, while paubhas contain Hindu and Buddhist deities, reflecting the ancient symbiosis of Hinduism and Buddhism in Kathmandu Valley. Some of the Paubhas that will go to the Kanzouin Museum in Tokyo were on a brief farewell display at Yala Maya Kendra from 26 to 29 September. “I like to show my work to the Nepali public before sending them abroad,” Chitrakar says of the paintings that will be shipped out later this month.

Six pictures in the Yala Maya Kendra’s exhibition were from private collections, like the striking Green Tara and Ganesh. Artist Ashmina Ranjit, who was at the exhibition said she has always been mesmerised by Lok Chitrakar’s work. “His paintings can put us in kind of a meditative state,” she said.

Given how intricate the paintings are, Lok Chitrakar is often asked how long it takes to complete one painting. “I never count the days, otherwise I’ll be discouraged,” Chitrakar replies laconially. “I just write the date on which I finish the work at the bottom.”

Paubhas are a visual representation of religious philosophy, and always feature a central deity with moral and spiritual significance. The background and the details are up to the artist, but for the deity there are strict standards: body postures, facial expressions, skin complexions and hand gestures all carry important symbolism, developed over many centuries. The deity’s eyes are always painted last. Chitrakar makes his own paint with crushed stones and vegetable dyes such as indigo, sometimes mixing silver and gold dust.

Lok Chitrakar is now used to international acclaim at various exhibitions he has been asked to put up at Harvard University or the Historical Museum of Shiga, Japan. When asked if he is proud to represent Nepal’s original Buddhist art form to the international public, Chitrakar answers simply: “I’m just proud to be an artist.”

Read also:

Poubha, Salil Subedi

Nepal’s biggest poubha mural, Salil Subedi

Bringing back the poubha

The art of the gods, Tsering Dolker Gurung

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