14-20 April 2017 #854

An illustrated history of the Chitrakars

New book commemorates the legacy of generations of Kathmandu’s hereditary artists
Sahina Shrestha

PAINTING STORIES: An 11th century manuscript cover depicting the Das Avatar or 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu

Born in a family of generations of painters, it was no surprise that Madan Chitrakar (pictured) was drawn to art from a young age. Paint ran in his veins.

Chitrakar means ‘painter’, and the surname is synonymous with Nepali art. Madan is the son of Tej Bahadur Chitrakar, who ushered Nepal into the modern era of Nepali art, and learnt insights and skills passed down from his forefathers. Modern education helped Madan find his niche in contemporary art.

What bothered him as an art student, and later as an artist, and art historian was that many of the narratives concerning Nepali art were referenced from foreign publications and relied on evidence sourced from museums abroad. Little was written and published about the evolution of art and the milieu of Nepal’s family of hereditary artists.

So when Sangeeta Thapa, Board Member of the Patan Museum Development Committee, proposed a book on the history of the Chitrakars, Madan jumped at the opportunity. Nepali Painting Through the Ages was five years in the making and contains historic paintings, many previously unseen and unpublished. It contains reproductions from the collections of the National Museum, Chhauni, Patan Museum, the National Art Museum, Bhaktapur and private collections of Chitrakars and Rana families.

The book focuses on the cultural environment, motifs and driving factors behind the artists and evolution of forms and formats in Nepali art. An accompanying essay by Madan Chitrakar provides an insight into the tradition of his family’s inter-generational involvement in the arts.

“The book is not a recitation of history,” Chitrakar told us at the launch of his book last week at the Kathmandu Triennale. “Rather, I expect it to serve as a more comprehensive reference material and inventory for writing the history of Nepali paintings. It is an attempt to narrate the historicity of Nepali traditional art, how it emerged and how it has evolved over the time.”

The book is a visual journey through time, separated by form and subject.

It begins with the earliest painted manuscript covers from the eleventh century to medieval paubhas, the precursors to Tibetan thangkas and which remain at the fulcrum of the Newar art tradition. The book moves on to modern works, including hand-painted photographs and oil and canvas portraits of the Rana and Shah dynasties. There are also examples of murals from the vihars, bahis, and palaces around Kathmandu Valley. We see the evolution of Nepali art through foreign influences, religious social and political beliefs and more modern techniques.

An image featured in the book, of a wall painting at the 55-window palace in Bhaktapur, shows King Bhupatindra Malla personified as Lord Vishwaroop and Queen Vishwa Laxmi as the consort of the Lord, illustrating the royals' desire to be considered divine.

Nepali Painting Through the Ages by Madan Chitrakar

Patan Museum, 2016

289 pages

NPR 3,000

While early paubhas were based on religious forms, later ones show the influence of Rajasthani and Tibetan styles. The Chitrakar artists also incorporated styles and poses from Moghul art in their portraits of the Malla kings. And with the advent of photography, their art was influenced by the western style of portraits.

Apart from acting as an inventory of the representative works of the Chitrakar artists from past and present, the book unintentionally highlights the neglect and disregard for heritage in Nepal.

The murals of Krishna and Vishwaroop found in Bhimsen Thapa’s palace in Lagan were already derelict before the April 2015 earthquake destroyed them. The author found a late 19th-century ritual painting of Nryteswori Devi folded in a corner of a drawer in the National Museum without proper preservation. An 18th-century painting of Ratna Sambhava was too damaged to be interpreted properly, and another exquisite paubha from the early 18th century was too damaged to restore.

The book is a treasure trove of rare and historic paintings from the past, recorded and documented by a member of the clan that made art history in Nepal.

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Lumanka ti

Lumaka ti

by Rishi Amatya and Prakash Ranjit

Amuse, Jhamsikhel

50 pages NPR 250


Sitting on the boundary of two massive tectonic plates, Nepal has frequent earthquakes. So it is not unusual that quakes figure prominently in folklore and literature. With the 2015 earthquake featuring so widely in national and international publications, what more can an author offer on the subject?

The writer-artist duo Rishi Amatya and Prakash Ranjit have come up with a novel idea. Lumanka ti (Newari for 'don’t forget'), is a graphic novel combining visual narrative with long forgotten myths and legends of the Kathmandu Valley.

The story takes place in 1254 CE in Nepa: Mandala, Kathmandu Valley. King Ananda Malla is being haunted by the wrathful God Bhairav and the country is fighting a never-ending war with the Rudra Vamshi clan. The priest comes up with the idea to end the nightmare and win the war by taming the God.

The writer has taken liberties with the story, borrowing from both history and myths. He combines the story of  Abhaya  Malla, the king who died during the first recorded earthquake in Kathmandu, with that of King Bhupatindra Malla, who built a temple for Siddhi Laxmi to tame Bhairav’s anger.

The dialogue in a graphic novel should be simple and colloquial, which it is. But Ranjit’s dark and moody illustrations breathe life and drama into the tale. Those detailed illustrations and the use of scattered Newari words evoke the ambience of ancient Kathmandu. If Amatya and Ranjit polish their story-telling and iron out the kinks, they could produce a whole lot of other graphic novels based on Nepali history.

Sahina Shrestha

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