Sansar Media 148 Hattimahankal Marg Handigaon, Kathmandu, Nepal Ph. No. 4411378 Email: email@example.com Published with the support of Alliance Fancaise, Tripureswor ÂŠ Sushma Joshi 2008 With thanks to Phillipe Martin, director of Alliance Fancaise; ECS Magazine; and the former Nation Weekly magazine and staff. Printed and bound in Kathmandu, Nepal.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retreival system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recordings or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publication.
CONTENTS Authorâ€™s Note 7 How I became an Artist 10 That Mystic Smile 27 The Marlboro Nomad 31 School of Thangka 34 Obsessed by a Vest 38 The Buddhist Behind the Camera 42 Pink Urinals and Broken Plates 45 Who Art Thou?, 49 Swayambhu Artist 52 Shooting Karma 56 The Work of the Wind 61 Pantomime in the Himalayas 66 Of Cabbages and Men 72 Rai Ko Ris 79 A Gift of the Heart 83 How to Build a Nepali Temple in Thirty Days 88 An Animated Life 95 Connected Centuries, Connected 103 En vogue: prabal gurung, bill blass Continents 109 The Universal Language of Music 117 End Note 122
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hy a book of art reviews, you may ask. My answer is simple: art is the pulse of a nation’s
heartbeat. New York is the symbolic capital of the USA not only because it hosts the biggest institutions of finance, but it also hosts the largest number of artists, art events and art institutions per square feet in the United States. I have come to believe that the vibrancy of the art world is a barometer that can used to measure the health of democracy and freedom of a nation-state. So what’s the state of art in Nepal? This book of art review is a first tentative attempt to answer the question. Why did I put art reviews from 2004, you may ask. The reviews are there for a reason—2004 was the height of Nepal’s civil conflict, and the art events of that moment often reflected the concerns of that time. Half the reviews, and one interview, are from the Nation Weekly magazine, a political weekly that came out from April 2004-February 2005, and in which I was staff writer. The selection is arbitrary—the artists are people whose paths I crossed as I went about my life. There is no special judgment attached to the selection. I did not seek them for any particular reason—and in any case,
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I do not believe in hierarchies in art. I wouldn’t be able to tell you, if you asked me now, who the foremost artists are in Nepal. That is the work of an art collector, or a gallery owner—not an artist who loves art. The reason why I feel the reviews work well as a book is because they capture the diversity of the art world, often unlisted and undocumented, often hard to access, inside Nepal. Many of the art events I write about were held during the conflict, and the art that is produced under such political moments, of course, have their own unique concerns. The Bhaktapur event of “Broken Plates”, for instance, was organized by artist Ashmina Ranjit and featured the work of many artists—in my review, I only covered those who I happened to see during the course of that visit. The public art event was transient, and there is no permanent record of it. “Who Art Thou?” is dated—Salil Subedi has spun off to become a sophisticated media artist who uses video, sound and performance in his work, but the review is no less interesting for that. I have included an article about Prabal Gurung, a friend who works as a fashion designer in New York, because I believe that fashion design is an underrated art. I have also put Sarina Rai of “Rai Ko Ris”, a punk rock band, in the mix: I have no doubt Sarina will hate to be included, but her work and her commitment to music carry the mark of a true (noncommercial, stay out of the limelight) artist. Also included are reviews of visiting international artists—even the ones that appear fly-by-night draw deep inspiration from Nepal. I’ve also added
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two personal essays: “How I became an artist”, and “That Mystic Smile.” I hope these essays will give some answers to questions often asked. The twenty reviews are just a patchwork, a small glimpse of the mosaic that makes up the art worlds of Nepal. I have hardly touched upon the vibrant world of theatre, both street and stage-based, which has been operating in both Kathmandu and outside of it, for the past decade. Also missing is folk culture—songs and music, which make up such a large part of the Nepali imagination. But a book of this nature doesn’t attempt to be comprehensive—it is, in a way, just a small offering that gives a taste of the arts that can be sampled and feasted on in multiple forms in Nepal. Sushma Joshi Kathmandu, Nepal firstname.lastname@example.org
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HOW I BECA ME AN A RT I S T
very once in a while, I am forced to write a little biographical note about who I am and
what I do. In one notable introduction, I was introduced as “writer, filmmaker, artist, journalist, playwright and magazine editor.” Undoubtedly, that’s a stretch of generosity—one human being, after all, cannot be all of these things at the same time. I do acknowledge that I have, at one point or another in my life, worked as a journalist: for a year as staff writer of the Nation Weekly Magazine of Kathmandu, and in-between as a freelancer for various publications in Nepal and abroad. I have also started and edited a journal, re/productions, which was an attempt to culturally analyze discourses of health and rights in the subcontinent. This online journal, brought out by Harvard University, ran for two years or so, and is still remembered by enthusiasts worldwide who enjoyed the sudden collision of cultural theory with the rather dry discourse of development.
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I have also made some documentaries, and short films. These films were shown in peer reviewed festivals (Yamagata Documentary Film Festival’s New Asian Current; Flickerfest in Bondi Beach; the Berlinale’s Talent Campus) and also on CNN International. So I guess, by having paid some dues, I am also a filmmaker. The hardest for me to justify is “artist.” After all, unlike working artists, I have yet to show my work in an exhibition alongside other peer artists. A hypertextual installation I did was accepted to the Art Institute of Chicago’s International Symposium of Electronic Art, that was almost a decade ago. I have yet to receive a grant or a fellowship as an artist, or boast about my sales. Admittedly, three paintings of mine sold in an art auction in New York, but that was to raise funds for a domestic violence shelter. The women who bought the paintings, highly paid professionals, were eager to support not just the shelter but also appreciated the female-inspired faces of my paintings. So why, people wonder, do I persist on calling myself an artist? The paintings that hang in my bedroom are my own, and after a brief solo exhibition at Gallery 9, I did not exhibit again. And yet, like Orhan Pamuk who I heard speak in New York’s PEN International Literature Festival, and who insisted on talking about his past as an artist, I too feel like I cannot talk about my evolution as a writer and filmmaker without talking about the art lurking in my past. Art is a very special expression of any individual. For me, it was the medium that gave me the grace and
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strength to speak. One of my earliest memories is about art. And not just any art, but naughty art. I must have been around four when I ran into my grandparents’ room with a sheet of paper in which I had scrawled my masterpiece. The masterpiece in question was a human stick figure, peeing in a giant fountain. “See, see, Baba peeing!” I screamed. The sudden akward silence that followed in that formal atmosphere was one I would never forget. Like all conservative Brahmin families, my grandfather held court in his room, and his four sons sat in a long line, according to the hierarchy of age, down the long bedchamber. My uncle, I remember, tried to get me out of the room by telling me my picture was wonderful, and I should leave quietly now, but I was not to be intimidated and went around wildly waving my beautiful art at the elders. The social injustice which I was trying to talk about was this—my grandfather, despite the existence of a perfectly good lavatory in the yard, persisted on using a little chamber pot to urinate. He used the landing outside his room to perform this act of ablutions, and the women who had to walk back and forth carrying water, food and little children often had to wait till he emptied his bladder, shook his genitals, and then stood up to go back to his room. The grumbles of the women, while low voiced, was something I was keenly aware of. And yet nobody, it appeared, dared to tell our Grandfather (Baba) that it was the Seventies and time for him to toilet-train. This, then, was how I started out making art—knowing from the very first moment
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Faces Series (1998), Sushma Joshi
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Transformations, (1998), Sushma Joshi
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that art was not just a pretty thing, but one which could make powerful statements, and address those things never said aloud. My Enid Blyton books are scrawled with pictures of feisty girls with wasp-like waists and curly hair. Figures dance along the margins—somebody had taught me to make cartoon flipbooks, and all my books have these figures falling through the air. No doubt this was the incessant desire to doodle which made my teacher in Kurseong (where I spent four years in a boarding school, from age seven to eleven) choose me to represent the inter-school art competition. I sat there amongst all the children of Kurseong and drew a giant, serene yellow lion surrounded by a garden of extraordinary beauty: it is a lion I will always remember. My best friend in high school, coincidentally, was from a Chitrakar clan, and she too drew figures—indeed, it seemed to draw perky girls in gorgeous outfits was the natural thing to do at age sixteen. After our SLC exams, with time on our hands, I and two other friends went to Bal Mandir, where they gave free art classes. A thin, balding teacher taught us how to shade spheres and cylinders. In-between, he also taught us to paint, with the minute patience of the thangka painter, a beautiful Buddha sitting on a many-petaled lotus. The sky was blue, the lotus was pink, and there were curliqued white clouds in the background. I don’t think I could draw this Buddha again—the details are so intricate, and the steadiness with which I must have held that watercolor brush so fine, I wonder where that patience came from.
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Meanwhile, in the apartment that my parents owned, a young American woman called Claire Burkett had come to stay. She had come with a special mission—she had won a small grant to start a project that would eventually take the beautiful art that the Janakpuri women painted on their walls and floors and transform them into objects of contemporary use. As a teenager, I saw the piles of Maithili art in many forms—as paintings, as pots, as wall hangings, even bedsheets. My interest in folk art would grow, and later in life I’d try to imitate the imperfection and rough charm of the Maithili women’s handmade shapes. During a rather troubled moment in my relationship with my parents, an acceptance letter arrived. I had been accepted to Brown University. Claire (who coincidentally had also attended Brown for graduate school) had just come to rent the apartment. When I told her I was going to a college called Brown, she didn’t believe me. I don’t blame her. It must have seemed odd to cycle into a dusty compound into Kathmandu, looking for a house to rent, and being told the shy, fat teenager with the giant glasses and terrible hairstyle was going to attend the same Ivy League as you did. At Brown, I wanted desperately to take classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. RISD, (pronounced “rizdee”), was just down the hill, and one of the best art schools in the nation. This is the same school that Manjushree Thapa, now a writer, attended as an undergraduate. But a Brown
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student had to take Art 10 first to prove his/her commitment to art. Art 10 turned out to be a dud—the professor was boring, the classes were boring, and I felt I learnt more at Bal Mandir. The next semester, I haunted the halls of RISD till they let me in. The class was taught by a dynamic young woman who looked like an Italian Madonna. Her critique was so sharp it terrified all the would-be artists in the room. She would take my charcoal from me, and with the slightest pressure of her wrist, modulate the darkness until it appeared the same human profile was flowing from fat to thin, from darkness to light, from an outline to a living, breathing shape. I stuck it out, although I knew I was far out of my league—the students in the room had stamina, they could draw for six hours with the silent attention of young Picassos working on their masterpieces. The nude art models, an initial, titillating draw for engineering majors looking for some skin, soon faded into shapes and forms as we drew haggard old women, wrinkled old men, and every conceivable other human type that passed through that giant room. Shadows suddenly took on prime importance. I had to lose my dependence on an outline, a backbone, a structural form I could fill in, and just look at pure light, shadow and space. At the end of the semester, feeling worn out by the pressure of performing with such professionals, I never handed in my portfolio—and although I did not get a grade for this class, I don’t regret it. To have a B or C for such effort seemed wrong—for me, art had always been a fiercely felt, deeply emotive experience.
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After college, I briefly worked as an art model. The friend who told me about this job was a staunch feminist, and she assured me that the power one felt after feeling the beauty of one’s body was a special feminist enterprise. The first time I modeled, I sat between two of my friends and were drawn by a roomful of quiet artists. All I know is that it was so cold the artist put a lamp near to our body, and the clock melted. This particular surrealist scenario may not be all that significant in the scheme of things, and yet, in my memory, the melted clock remains the time during which I finally transformed, from a young girl afraid of her own body to one who understood the profound simplicity and beauty of the human body. And indeed, later as I roved around and looked at the figures the artists had drawn, I was amazed at what they had seen—perhaps Ruben, or Da Vinci, may have made that simple body look as divine. People not involved in art always imagine that there is something sexual in art modeling—that it may be like a dance bar, perhaps, or the red-light district of Patpong. Indeed, having been in all three, I can assure the uneasy reader that art modeling is none of these—there is a reverence for the model that the artist never violates. After all, the models are the muses, and to disrespect this in any way would mean an end of art. Of course, there is no figure drawing in Nepali art schools. Indeed, at one particular literary gathering, a rather well-known Nepali cultural commentator attacked me on my
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sophomoric plans to “sell oil” (aromatic oils decorated with flowers from the flower-shop below our apartment and put in oddly shaped glass bottles; a hippie enterprise hatched during junior year with a roommate with a penchant for making gorgeous glass bottles in RISD’s glass department and which he had come to hear about through a secondhand source)—in his imagination, this was a disgusting, clearly immoral enterprise. I can only imagine what he might have to say about art modeling. These days, I draw and paint when I feel like it. Unlike writing, which is my vocation, art is my passion. After my first Vipassana meditation retreat, I came back and poured my heart and soul into six big paintings. No doubt people find them ugly. Indeed, looking at them now, even I find them strange. They are misshapen figures of women with musical instruments inside their bodies. Another eighteen watercolors show faces inside faces inside faces. They were expressions of the strange feelings I felt inside me during meditation, and at that time they made sense. Perhaps I need to go back into retreat to learn where those particular forms came from. Three of them, gigantic mother goddess figures bleeding blue on canvas, eventually gave me the name for my exhibition I held at Gallery Nine: Blue Nepal. During the height of 2004, when all of Nepal was hurting, this derivative title seemed appropriate.
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Of course, it is not just the making of it, but also the consumption, that makes one an artist. In New York City, I was so poor I lived on wine and cheese. This may seem like a paradox, until one realizes that wine and cheese is what they served at art openings. From Soho to DUMBO, I somehow found my way there. Sometimes I even ate crackers with my cheese. I was so slim I looked like a fashion model (except several feet shorter and with an unacceptable amount of body hair). People stopped recognizing me: “Did you use to have a fat sister with curly hair?” I found my way into Andy Warhol nostalgia factory openings. I was there for the upscale upper East Side Asia Society opening for Shazia Sikander. I found my way up to Spanish Harlem into unlisted art spaces where illegal artists from Cuba and Mexico showed colorful landscapes into cavern-like rooms. I roamed through the Harlem Studio Museum, and the MOMA, with equal ease. I’d take the train into Brooklyn to see paintings of gigantic dogs in small, obscure lofts, where transvestites sang operas as they opened the show. I found my way into rusty barges for magazine launches held by the river. I always knew when the free Shakespeare plays would take place in Central Park, and when the African dance festival would happen by the piers. I went into each and every one of the open studio events, and saw the range of strangeness labeled art. I filmed crazies who attended the “Howl” festival. I had strange friends who made sculptures from nails and broken glass. I visited a hidden seaside villa in Montauk
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where Andy Warhol used to spend his summers. My social calendar was so packed I was scheduled to attend four or more events in a single day. Needless to say, I didn’t make it to half of them. People said I was unreliable. I was merely, in my own way, learning to be an artist. I’ve also had the good fortune to travel around the world. My first stop is often an art gallery, a museum, a wall filled with graffiti. In Berlin, the walls filled me with awe—which city would allow this level of graffiti to remain intact in the main streets? In Brazil’s San Paolo, I went to the museum and was amazed at the rich mixing of Europe and Africa. In Tokyo, I went to the War and Peace Museum, run by women who wanted to ensure that the atrocities of the war would never be forgotten. One wall of their museum they had covered with photographs of sex slaves—one couldn’t enter the room without feeling moved. In London, I seem to remember trudging through miles of old paintings, and finally coming to rest before Damien Hirst. Or perhaps those smelly, rotting offal of half-cows was in the Brooklyn Art Museum, where a Madonna made of elephant dung also caused a big ruckus. In Mumbai, I always go to Jehangir Art Gallery. In Milan, I missed “The Last Supper” and still regret it. In Paris I made time for the Louvre, in Barcelona for the Picasso Museum, in Amsterdam for the Van Gogh Museum. I always had a special affinity for Van Gogh—during college, one of the first paintings I had imitated was his sunflowers. They came out looking so fat and rich I felt immediately satisfied, as
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if the flowers had plopped down from some heavenly source. The girl who helped me to stretch the canvas and gesso was named Anaa—her parents were Russian Jews who had fled Russia and come to Providence to start a new life. She lived next door to me during freshman year. In her manner, her being, her entire persona, she exuded what it mean to be an artist. She, in a way, was the one who took me from my shell and introduced me to this new world—one of splendor and richness, one where performance and body art, reinvention of the persona and the art of life were all tied together into one giant whirl. She was the one who took me, freshman year, to see Frida Kahlo’s exhibition in Boston. After the show, she got so inspired she broke off with her high-school boyfriend and cut off her hair. She drove men and women crazy because they were never quite sure what she was thinking. But they all met up at her place on Hope Street, surrounded by her paintings and her strange French bulldog, and lived, for a few brief edgy moments, in the makeshift aura of a transient salon. I remember going to the beach with her, to a New Year firework display, to “Angels in America” in a draughty auditorium at Trinity Rep. Each event was unique, each moment memorable. This was art as lived, moment to moment. In Kathmandu, finding the art world took more time. But its there, moving beneath the surface of unlisted events. Whether it is the Dashain celebrations with bulls in Bhaktapur’s square, or the goat stolen for Nasa Deo, whether it’s the sudden upsurge of plays in Gurukul
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or the small disks of DVDs handed out by filmmakers who share their films outside the formal circuit, art is alive in Nepal. Of course, I should explain, rather late in this essay, that I do not simply consider a painting, a drawing or a sculpture as art. For me, the entire gallery of visual, aural, literary and performance art strike me as art. Anything that moves beyond the literal, anything that captures magic and transcendence, anything that works with material objects and immaterial ideas, for me is art. This may be the reason why people have difficulty with what I do—after all, should we all not move in these narrow, linear channels of clearcut definitions of what we are and what we do? Doesn’t blurring it in this manner really confuse things? Aren’t I a pseudo filmmaker because I never got my work in Film South Asia? Aren’t I a hokey artist cause I never sold a painting? And those two plays I wrote—why don’t I just stage it? I have no answer for all this, except to point to my guru, a grey-beard white man (although some people suspect his mother may have been an Arab slave.) His name was Leonardo Da Vinci and he did a lot of things in his own day. Many things remained unfinished. Many were just sketches and ideas. But he was able to move beyond boundaries and shake up the definition of what an artist was supposed to be. Nowadays, I mostly draw with my four-year old nephew. He comes and bangs on my door and cries if we don’t paint and draw. It is a very personal thing for him—apparently I have been
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drawing and painting with him since he can remember, even though in my imagination we only started a few days ago. We have come to an agreement that I will keep the Italian pastels in my room—he’s realized I’m possessive about them, and wisely, gives me my space. There is a special magic of drawing with children because everything is allowed and nothing is fixed. There is no right or wrong. The lines can be red and blue and pink, or only red. The entire painting can be a gigantic scrawl of black. I can use his square of paper to make a little dog, and vice versa. There is no time to begin, and no time to stop. There are no circles, or squares. A blue line can be a ghost, and a couple of squiggles can be an airplane. Everything is as it should be. There are no mistakes. And in that primordial disintegration of meaning, finally, art comes to rest in its perfect place.
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Faces Series (1998), Sushma Joshi
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T H AT M Y S T I C S M I L E
rt remains in peopleâ€™s lives long after their creators are gone. These material artifacts, ironically,
weather time better than the people who shaped them from their imagination. The miles and miles of art objects that adorn the Louvre, Franceâ€™s and possibly the worldâ€™s most well-known museum, are an aching reminder of how the material world outlives the human one. But even when an artwork survives its artist, there is no guarantee that it will be loved and appreciated as it was in its own time and place. Art, torn from its maker, becomes subject only to the ruthless criteria of the present. Take the Louvre. It is filled with floor-length paintings of emperors and empresses, monarchies and royal families, rebels and guerillas, national wars and civil conflict. It is filled with the grandeur of the Church. It has room-sized tableaus of hunting, gladiator fights, and meetings of religious and political leaders. It is filled with portraits of unknown beauties who modeled their life away for a few brief moments of immortality. And yet, of all the riches inside it, the ones people find immortal are (among others): a sculpture of a dying slave by Michelangelo. The Lace-Maker by Vermeer, a painting of a plain woman engaged in the task of
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making lace. A seated scribe from Pharoahnic Egypt. Sculptures of Pharaohs surround the scribe, but people walk directly past, wanting only to see that intent look of the world’s first writer before heading out for coffee. As a first-time visitor to the Louvre, I found myself unexpectedly taking the most banal and expected route: I asked for the two other immortals. The pyramid, and the Mona Lisa. Admittedly, I had just read the Da Vinci Code (I finally bought the book after ignoring it for a year on the bestseller’s list). Where was that goddamn pyramid? I.M Pei’s modernist pyramid sunk in the middle of the courtyard, oddly, sparked my imagination more than all the riches of Western civilization (and the stolen glories of Eastern civilization) put together. I hated modernist architecture. I hated new architecture mixed with old. Or at least, that’s what I thought. And then I saw the pyramid, and the post-modernist in me rose to the fore. The pyramid is stunning - the steel and the glass lose any innate ugliness and transform into lace in that beautiful courtyard. How could I have imagined the Louvre, housing all of the world’s treasures, could remain in a petrified, mediaeval shell? What had made me think that a new form would not add to the old? Change is inevitable, a law of nature that no human or policy can stop. Ask the Buddha. This artist made a life talking about change, and yes, his artwork survived him two and a half centuries after he was gone.
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A cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa had hung in my room when I was a teenager. How did it find its way there? I donâ€™t remember. All I remember is that Mona Lisa disturbed me. Not only was she ugly, but she also had that exasperatingly ambiguous smile pasted on her face. Or did she? The ambiguity drove me crazy. The misty colors, the sense of space falling away into nothingness, the feeling of a human subject being anchored to a fabulist space - all of this unmoored me. But I didnâ€™t throw the poster away. A decade later, when I found myself in front of the bored museum docent, asking her to guide me towards the Mona Lisa, I knew why. The Mona Lisa is nested in the corner of one large room that hosts 26 large paintings. And yet none of the hordes of tourists - from the stampede of Japanese with the latest cameras to the Spanish women who prefer to chatter in the back - none of them gave a second glance to the other 26 paintings. Nor did they give much attention to the long corridor one has to walk through to get to La Giaconda - a catwalk of Italian paintings from the 13th century to the 17th, featuring everything from bloody head on platters to tortured bodies, from the grief of war to the frenzy of men burning books during the Inquisition. Black paint predominates this four hundred years of Italian imagination. These, for sure, are the Dark Ages. Mona Lisa, when she emerges at the end, is like an egg â€“ a small egg of hope and promise for a better world, an egg made by a man who could imagine a new world, one where darkness could give way to sfumato - that ambiguous misty light of future change. A transient moment
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where anything and everything was possible. One where flying machines stood on the same level as a painting of the Last Supper. Leonardo Da Vinci could see immortality as easily as he could see the hooves of a horse, or the petals of a rose, or the strands of his own beard. A Renaissance man, Leonardo reinvented himself, and in the process, reinvented the world he lived in. Another inventor of the present, Bill Gates, now owns all of Leonardoâ€™s folios, hoping some of the greatness will rub off on him. Da Vinci needed to leave the world a portrait of himself - and many people have indeed seen remarkable similarities between the ugly La Giaconda and the grand old man. This portrait of a visionary, unlike great personages of his time, remains immortal precisely because he could envision a world beyond his time, one which was not black and filled with pain, but which contained the mystic, ambiguous smile of the future. February 2005
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THE M ARLBOR O NOM AD
ill Goucher’s exhibition brochure of the Khampas started with a photograph of a nomad
with a wry smile, holding a baby who pops out of a pouch inside his half-open woolen jacket. The baby, wrapped in sheepskin, looks less like a kangaroo and more like a wide-eyed alien. Goucher is from Australia, and that down-under sense of humor pops up more than once in the portraits of nomads with a very contemporary sense of style. Keith Gardner, the Australian Ambassador to Nepal, who opened Goucher’s exhibition in Kathmandu, followed up the theme of the alien by remarking, “Khampas look like people from out of this world.” He went on to talk about their elaborate hair-dos and love of jewelry (could the Khampa ambassador, if such a personage were to exist, have used the same words for an exhibit of photography about Australians?: “These warm, humble people have a great love of tattoos and eye-brow rings, which they love to show off along with their mozzy bites on their sickies on Mondays”?) Before anybody could groan at the diplomat’s exoticization, Mr. Gardner had already added: “But they are very much of this world.”
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Khampas, indeed, are very much of this world. Nepal knows little about the Khampas other than the fact that they were once going back and forth between the Nepal-Tibet border, fighting against the Chinese with funds from the Americans and the tacit approval of the Nepalis. After Nepalâ€™s relationship with Beijing improved, it started to get tougher on the famed guerillas. Many of them eventually found their way down to Kathmandu, where they today live on the fringes of the Tibetan refugee economy. Others lucky enough to get identification papers found themselves en route to foreign countries, especially the United States. The cultural capital of New York remains the sought-after destination for many Khampas who find themselves stranded in a legal void. Nepal, while culturally welcoming, remains a place where passports are impossible to extract from bureaucrats without generous bribes, not just for refugees but also for citizens. The communities in Boudha and Swayambhu remain the main hub of the Tibetan refugees. Many of them are now second generation immigrants with a Nepali identity. While the community remains tightly-knit, its members continue to be influenced by the emotional impacts of the outward flow of migration. The Tibetan diaspora has now become as global as the Chinese and Indian, and it comes as little surprise that the people left behind want to join their friends in the US and Europe, even though they are fully aware of the hardships they will encounter there as low-skilled workers. The Kathmandu reality may be very different from the nomads Goucher met in Kham. Or perhaps not. The global desire to travel, it seems, hits nomads wherever they might find
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themselves, in the high desert or the congested heart of a capital city. But these desire to move and flow goes both ways, with style making its way into the heart of Kham as quickly as the Khampas find themselves in Fifth Avenue. Scholars have been quick to point at the similarities between Native people in the Americas and the Tibetans of the high plateaus. Not only do they look similar, they even have similar rituals and rites, processes and worldviews. Some scientists posit that the new landmass that drifted off from what is now Asia and became the Americas was one big mother-continent. Whether it’s that pre-historical link between continents or the simple migration of new media that brought John Wayne to Kham, there is no question he has arrived, along with the Marlboro Man. The tilted hat of the cowboy is more than an aesthetic – it’s a lifestyle. The cosmopolitan adaptations of nomads in sheepskin sporting fedoras may seem out of this world. But no more so than middle-class folks in Sydney sporting tribal tattoos. February 2004
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T H E S C H O OL OF T H A N G K A
hrough one of the many winding lanes leading off the main shrine of Boudha, you can walk
past craftsmen hammering delicate silver jewelry, past workshops which manufacture wooden boxes, past a dump-heap where an old woman scavenges for recyclables, and into a large and spacious monastery. This is the Shechen Monastery, one of the many monasteries that dot the land around the main shrine. But Shechen, which is based on the Ningmapa tradition, has something different to offer. This warm February morning, a scattered line of animated foreigners carrying scrolls in their hands exit out of the building. As we climb up the stairs, we see photographs of thangkas framed and exhibited on the walls. On the second floor, monks rush about carrying trays full of tarts adorned with fresh fruits as students with diplomas are photographed. At the threshold, we meet Matthew Ricard, of “The Monk and the Philosopher” fame. Ricard, originally from France, is as famous as Richard Gere in some circles. He greets us, and shows us around the room adorned with fresh, ornate brocaded thangkas. It’s the graduation day
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of the first class of the Tsering Art School of the Shechen Institute of Traditional Tibetan Art. Charlotte Davis, a slim woman dressed in a Tibetan bokkhu outfit, is part of the graduating class of 13 students. Charlotte, who has a degree in Fine Arts from Australian National University, is from Sydney. “I was a Buddhist, and I wanted to practice art that would incorporate my spiritual practice,” she says. Charlotte arrived in Nepal in 1998, when the Shechen monastery had just established a new building. “I didn’t really know how it would go,” she says with a smile. “But the teacher Konchog Lhadrepa is very warm and humble, and very hospitable. This place became my second home.” Charlotte, who volunteers as an administrator and has her fees waived, says the school is still very affordable even for foreign students - the tuition ranges from Rs. 1300 (Rs. 65=US $1) a month for day students to Rs. 3500 a month for boarding students. The locals pay Rs. 650 a month for tuition, and Rs. 2000 a month to board. Pema Tsering, a charming young man with bleached hair and white clothes fit more for a pop star than a thangka master, says he was always interested in paintings. He spent a year learning from another teacher in Boudha before he found out about the school. Originally from Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Pema says: “My parents were very religious, so we would go to monasteries a lot. I used to take my pen and paper and draw what I saw. Foreigners liked what I drew. Eventually I found a sponsor.”
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After a year in Boudha, Pema Tsering joined the thangka school, and has been there for six years. He points out the thangka he did for his final examination for me. The Buddha, made with gold paint, is elaborate and beautiful. “It usually takes students 45 days to finish a painting, but I had to go to Bodh Gaya with my parents, so I had to finish it in 30 days,” he says with a mischievous smile. Tenzing Oser took all of 45 days to finish his thangka. Originally from Khasa, Tenzing, dressed in the robes of a monk, says: “We’re trying to revive the Karshoma tradition back.” He explains to me that there are many styles of thangka paintings, and the Karma Gadri paintings derive from the Karshoma School. The paintings are in high demand - three of the graduating class have already been sent to Hongkong to execute a painting there. The third floor is filled with old thangkas recovered from Shechen Monastery when the monks fled Tibet in 1959. A particularly striking one, rectangular and covering an entire wall, has details so minute and perfect it would require a microscope to see the details. Outside in the open-air balcony, students eat chocolate cake and fruit tarts as they meet the international guests who have come to attend the opening. The school was started when Matthew Ricard got together with a monk who volunteered to teach thangka painting. The school feels like an institution with Western-style funding, not the resource-poor institutions of Nepal. Funded by the Dutch government and a private donor, the school has many international students, including those
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from Japan, France, Korea, Australia, US and Denmark. Many locals hail from Mugu, a remote part of Nepal. Besides Sherpas and Tamangs, there are also a number of Bhutanese monks at the school. “One of our monks had a good relationship with the Bhutanese Queen,” Charlotte explains. “That’s why we have many Bhutanese monks.” The students, Charlotte says, don’t necessarily have to be artists, nor talented. But they do have to be Buddhists to keep the art within the context of the practice. Will Charlotte continue to practice when she returns to Australia? “ The art gives me the opportunity to combine my practice,” she says. “Its very meditative. I was here for six years, but I feel like I’m just the beginning. I can deepen my practice a lot more. I will return to Australia and continue my painting there.” Sechen Institute is an example of how the unequal balance of intellectual exchange between the East and the West - now skewed in favor of the West - might be rectified. Most young people from developing countries long to go to North America and Europe for their education, whether it is in the sciences, arts or humanities. Institutes of this nature, by offering an international and quality education grounded in traditional arts and indigenous knowledge, blaze a trail for new institutions to develop and flourish right here in Nepal. February 2004
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OBSESSED BY A VEST
he sight of a priest proudly displaying a tiny vest at the bhoto-display festival has been etched
into our national consciousness. Why this little vest became of cardinal importance for our national imaginary is beyond the scope of this article - there are probably a dozen anthropologists who can explain this much better. What this article can do is speculate on â€œOn the road with the Red God: Macchendranathâ€?, a documentary made by Kesang Tseten, where he takes a hundred and ten hours of footage of various acts of human ingenuity and devotion to what seems like a lost cause-namely, the construction of an unwieldy hundred foot chariot that gets tangled up in the electric wires of the city of Patan and tilts drunkenly as it is dragged and pushed and pulled by enthusiasts across flood-washed roads every twelve years, and where men get roaring drunk and get into fights all the way from Bungmati to Patan, and then repeat the process all the way back. Behind the vest rests a red god, known as the Red Macchendranath. This is the divinity worthy of all that work - painters, artisans, rope-makers and carpenters donate days of their time to build him that sky-high vehicle. Thought to be a manifestation of Avalokiteswor, the Buddha
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of Compassion by some, and Shiva by others, the Red Macchendranath (and his shiny vest) enjoy a popular cult following. While we have all seen this god in one form or another - postcard, photograph, television appearance, or real-life presence - what is not clear to most Valley residents is why this god in general, and his festival in particular, took on such national significance. Tseten’s film, by carefully documenting the entire process from the beginning, brings us a rare behind-the-scene glimpse of a production involving uncountable actors and decisionmakers, from the guthis of Bungmati and Patan to the hundreds of people who materialize to drag the chariot back and forth between the two cities. “You can’t coax people to come out for the other festivals, but during the Rato Macchendranath festival, all these people just appear out of the woodworks,” one man says wonderingly in the documentary. The festival can appear, on first sight, to be a classic excuse to get drunk and get into a good fight. Buff young men fight each other to get on the prow-shaped steering brake. The ousted men are unceremoniously pulled off. Acrimonious exchanges involving everything from the division of meat to the dogs (another form of Bhairav) at one aspect of the festival, to the assigned blame for the tilting of the chariot in another, is apparent. Scenes of conflict abound, and after a while you begin to wonder how people even manage to get that goddamn chariot upright, let alone drag it all the way from Bungmati to Patan.
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If the chariot falls down and touches the ground, bad things happen. Kings can die, royal families can get massacred, and the guthi people can mysteriously sicken and die in mass numbers. It also has to be rebuild anew in the event of such a calamity. So there rests a level of national responsibility amongst all the people involved in the venture. Some measure of cooperation amongst all the different people - from the men who run alongside and swiftly put a piece of wood in-between the wooden wheels to brake their impact, to the men perched on top who give the navigational directions, to the buff young men doing the steering, to the hundreds of volunteers who pull the ropes - has to exist. And donâ€™t forget the women who brew all that potent alcohol. After a while, the seeming chaos and loose organization takes on a logic of its own. In spite of the overt conflict, while gets hashed out at every level, it is apparent that the co-operative nature of Newar society remains the core spirit that guides the enterprise. While it started out as a local Newari festival, the discourse makes it clear that all Nepalis think of the festival as their own. When the chariot finally makes it into Durbar Square in Hanuman Dhoka, the level of mass participation and work involved in the process comes to fruition. When the priest takes out that tiny vest and displays it so proudly to the country, he is not just taking out a medieval garment - he is also taking out the symbol of a process in which, inspite of the conflict that exists
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at every level of society, the spirit of co-operation again triumphed over small differences and created a structure in which such a mind-bogglingly complicated event could take place. In both a literal and a symbolic level, the festival is an analogy of any large structure -i.e.; our nation-state. Conflict exists at all levels in every organization. The trick is to find a way to resolve it without major calamity. Tseten, by actively editing footage to show the reality of conflict and its day to day resolution, follows more than an chariot. He is following the god behind that vest - the god of compassion that can allow society made up of a diverse and heterogeneous group of people to come together and work on a national project without getting crushed.
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THE BUDDHIST BEHIND THE CAMERA
he oft-repeated complaint about Buddhists, especially Western ones living in Nepal, is that
they are so engrossed in their meditation practice they have a difficult time naming the Prime Minister. The outside world is perceived through a transcendental blur. Wayne Amtzis is a welcome exception to this stereotype. “That’s an interesting shape over there,” says Wayne, pointing to a crack in the concrete with a twinkle in his eye. “It looks like a Buddha. No, more like a rabbit.” The first impression of irrepressible Wayne is that he does not have any holy cows tied up in his backyard. In the garden, Wayne shows me sheets and sheets of his old poems which have been eaten by insects. When the poet, who kept no backups, found his old poetry in such shape, he did not get into a fit of depression. He went inside, fetched his camera, and took photographs of them instead. Those pages
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were placed with other objects: garden cans, prayer beads and bowls, leaves, street signs, a torn vest, a rubber doll and other random street treasures found by the artist, and digitally remixed in the computer. This series, featuring the reincarnated poems, was exhibited at the Siddhartha Art Gallery this April. Wayne looks at the darkness and light that makes up Nepal with the same clear-eyed and unflinching gaze, the same steady equilibrium. Unlike the aid workers purring by in their airconditioned Pajeros, Wayne Amtzis moves down the crowded lanes and streets, slowly and on foot, pausing to catch snatches of dialogue, facial gestures, the sound of street static. He has time to listen to a tired coolie over here, watch the spit come out of the mouth of a supposed madwoman over there. His poems start gently enough, leading you down a modern space full of cars and corpses, technology and organic decay. The dĂŠnouement, when it comes, comes abruptly, shocking the reader out of complacency - the suicide of a sixteen year old girl. The almost unbelievable story, reported in the Kathmandu Post, of a child suckled by a bitch. His photos, taken in black and white, are moved and angered by the same existence that troubled Prince Siddharthaâ€”stark portraits of a little girl struggling with a heavy steel bucket, a man slumped tiredly over himself holding the stub of a dying beedi, a body sleeping beneath wall graffiti which proclaims a national conference. Wayne has been writing poetry and creating photographs of Nepal for many years. His deep commitment to social justice is palpable. Unlike the Beat poets who came, saw, conquered
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the turmoils of their soul, and then left Shangri-La for greener pastures, Wayne Amtzis has stuck around for more painful times. Wayne’s contributions to the Nepali art field cannot be counted by the number of his publications or exhibits alone. He has translated poems of Nepali poets, and is currently at work on a book of poems about water written by a Newari poet Purna Vaidya. He, along with his wife Judith, who works for the Cornell Nepal Study Program, are also behind the scenes mentors to young Nepali artists and writers, providing vital and generous support to the burgeoning arts movement in Kathmandu. More importantly, he has allowed a sense of playful experimentation to creep into a world otherwise tightly regimented by gallery requirements and canonical dictates. After all, who but Wayne could dare put a torn vest found on the street up as an art object at a Nepali art gallery? At the opening of his photography series, Wayne read aloud his poems. “Listen to the sounds,” he urges us, “don’t try to assign meaning.” Like his photographs, which have softened with the passing of time, his words are full of compassion. Tears rise to my eyes as I listen to his voice. Outside in the streets, protests are raging. Blood flows and fear moves beneath the surface of the country. Listening to the impassioned voice of Wayne Amtzis, it is not difficult to hear that dukkha still stalks the people and land of Nepal. Nation Weekly Magazine, 2004
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PINK URINALS AND B R O K E N P L AT E S
ife intersected with art as your critic came down with food poisoning on her way to
Bhaktapur to see the first international arts workshop in Nepal. As I rushed past an inexplicable brick wall in the middle of the square to get to the bathroom, there it was! An urinal in that peculiar shade of pink so beloved to middle class Nepal. When Marcel Duchamp first took that profane object, the urinal, and put it into a sacred space, the gallery, and signed it: “R.Mutt”, he was not just being perverse. He was going against centuries of history of representational Western art that insisted that the mode of realism, which sadly still rules over Nepal’s gallery scene, was the only true art. Duchamp’s contempt of the art market and its machinations, which took art objects and turned them into commodities, was another reason for his brash, in-your-face display.
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If the idea of urinals as Art churns your stomach, and you’re wondering what was going on at Bhaktapur, there is no need for panic. Although the art exhibited at the historic square - clay pots arranged in nine circles on the courtyard, a brick wall with an umbrella resting inside one of the openings, origami birds flying over a dry water-tank - very clearly broke accepted traditions of realistic art within Nepal, there were no signs of profanity, transgressions or taboobreakings. Indeed, in keeping with the Newar dominated art scene (6 out of the 7 Nepali artists were Newars), even the undertones of political protest had a civilized texture to them. No torn sidewalks and stone-throwing was in evidence, although projects about instability, militarization, and desperation of civil conflict grabbed the crowd’s attention. The seven Nepali artists, along with seven international artists, spent ten days at the Shiva Guesthouse in Bhaktapur, creating art, explaining to the befuddled locals about their process and logic, and writing beautifully copy-edited musings about their philosophies. The art, displayed at various points along the square, draws curious crowds of Indian tourists, children in scout uniforms, and farmers. “What’s this?” says a farmer disbelievingly, pointing to the blue pots on the ground. “Art, Art!” says a volunteer impatiently, before breaking into a stream of Newari that hopefully explained to the curious woman all about innocence, and how children do not know the difference between right and wrong, and how those pots, some facing the sky, some the earth, attempted to grasp that ambiguity.
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Rajesh Lohala, a thangka painter who’s waiting out the recession of the civil conflict while watching 1500 domestic tourists walk by his shop every Saturday without a blink of interest, admits that the locals initially did not comprehend how people got permission to put a brick-wall dab-smack in the middle of the famous square. “It took us a while to understand,” he says. “Its modern art, that’s what it is.” But is it really modern? “Modern”, an easy term to stick on all sorts of phenomena, from women with mini-skirts to computer playing children, may or may not be the appropriate word. Lets rewind a few hundred years to see where we might be now. Modern art happened in the West between 1100 to early 1900s. The phase of “modern” art of the West – the experimentation with perception, the screaming of Dada, the surrealistic melting clocks of Dali, the abstractions of Piet Mondrian, Weimar Bauhaus, Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism –were triggered by powerful historical events like World War I and II and the Bolshevik Revolution. These movements, which included explosive changes in everything from architecture to poetry, literature to visual art, built upon, and in opposition, to each other. They were global movements, as our own modern littérateurs like Balkrishna Sama and artists like Lain Singh Bangdel testify. After the end of modernism came post-modernism, with its anti-Grand Narrative drive. No grand myths are allowed, only pastiches and references of previous glories.
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In Bhaktapur, it is hard to shake off the feeling that post-modernism is still very much resting on the grand narrative of Malla glory. This dramatic relationship was best demonstrated by “Bhoj”. Sitting in an open pati, Kalapremi invites curious locals to his “Bhoj” (feast) in flawless Newari. Some young men decline and move off, others jump up to sit on top of newspapers to stare at earthen plates with black and white designs on them. The plates, broken, are woven together by yellow wire with perfect craftsmanship. “You’re sitting on the news,” the artist announces. Kalapremi reads his poem, a biting elegy to the political conflict, addressing the audience in equally flawless literary Nepali. The poem and the art, explains the artist, was inspired by the greed (daridrata) he sees on the faces around him during this moment. Everybody’s plate is broken, he says. The bhoj, a moment redolent of abundance, has become one of emptiness and despair. The process may have befuddled the art-savvy locals, but not for long. The lines between post-modernism, modernism, and tradition are not that demarked, after all, especially in Nepal where things tend to go around in circles. One of the artists, who has woven straw circles to celebrate the notion of life cycles and completeness, has added a red string to denote the continuation of time. One hopes that time will continue to take art to new and different places. Nation Weekly Magazine, 2004
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W HO A RT T HO U ?
ig signboards painted on fabric greeted the viewer with this question this Sunday in Babar
Mahal Revisted. Usually, the answer would be: Thou art part of the expatriate crowd, the upper middle class and the poor journalists who frequent the openings at the Siddhartha Art Gallery. This gathering, fortunately, was a bit more mixed – it had attracted a substantial number of the Nepali art world, along with little girls decked out in fashionable outfits who had come to view their cousin’s art opening. Sujan Chitrakar, the artist, has published an entire text to accompany his artworks. The text, titled “Utopian Introspection: Random Expressions within Defined Periphery” is heavy reading, but as you read along you get flashes of insight, kind of like a hammer hitting a nail on the head. Sujan Chitrakar, along with colleagues Salil Subedi (sleepless in Kathmandu instead of Seattle), and Saroj Bajracharya (who has published his own equation on life of a traveler/life- a traveler) seemed to have spent a lot of time introspecting in front of mirrors, musing on the concept of nails
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and hammers, and arranging votive earthen diyas in perfect formation. In between, they thought long and hard about the question of life, which seems to have led them to the “mystery of man” as envisioned by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Even Dostoyevsky, however, might have been alternatively baffled and amused by what his words had inspired. The final art products, which must be seen to do them justice, are polished, technically sophisticated and full of the chutzpah that would make them equally at home in New York City as they do in Kathmandu. The excitement of installation lies in its novelty, its use of mixed media, its daring breakage of narrative. In Kathmandu, installation is still a new art form, still destabilizing the supremacy of painting. In Western countries where art has fallen over the edge, climbed up and mutated every season since then, installation itself is starting to take on a dated look and feel. Walking through a gallery in New York City, one starts to see installations that evoke deja-vu of a genre, like seeing yet another Monet inspired painting on Mc.Donald’s walls. Painting may be “sooo last season!”, but in spite of it all, old media (paint and canvas, photographs, film) are here to stay. Perhaps the reason why traditional media has stuck around for so long is its coherence, and accessibility. The challenge with installation, as with any other art form, is to capture this magnetism that keeps certain media like paint, photography and sculpture solidly entrenched in the popular imagination.
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The other challenge is more difficult—indigenizing a borrowed form. Chitrakar makes liberal use of recycled tinned milk cans as prayer wheels. In a corner of the gallery, one can find a panel pasted with objects that inspire memories – trinkets and junk one can only find in Nepal. As a viewer, I wished there had been more of these playful, juxtaposed forms that play with the notion of Nepal and Nepaliness, and less of the shiny hammered and nailed works that carry the stamp of generic transnational art that fill the main gallery. The enthusiasm of the artist dispels any confusion. Sujan Chitrakar is directed, engaged and intense as he talks about his art. Meditateonself.com, he says, an online website that is part of this exhibit, is a satire on how meditation is being commercialized and being brought straight to the home, like takeaway food. His mixed media work include within them symbols of four religions—Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism. He feels it is important to be introspective, and create an utopia within oneself, and not look outside for this divine place. He wants to share this ideas with his viewers. A work of art is the interface that allows a viewer to commune with the thoughts and ideas of the artist, its creator. Like being John Malkowitch, Chitrakar’s Utopian Introspection often gives the viewer entering the cavity of his thoughts more than what they bargained for. Taking the advice of the artist then, perhaps the best thing to do after viewing is to sit down, take a deep breath, and introspect. Nation Weekly Magazine, 2004
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SHOOTING KARM A
sering Rhitar stands by the reception area in the Sherpa hotel, directing his film. The film, titled
“Karma”, is a story about a nun who walks down from Mustang to Pokhara to Kathmandu to track down a man who owes money to the monastery. The nuns need the money to do a puja. The film, says Rhitar, is about the paradox of the co-existence of materialism and spirituality. “Use your own language,” Rhitar urges his actor. The director is wearing a brightly colored Nepali topi as he directs his multi-national crew – his cameraman Ranjan Pallit is from India, his actors are Nepali, and he himself has a partial Tibetan background. His shooting script is written in English, with scribbled notes in Tibetan. Little storyboards has been drawn in stick-figures next to the script. The dialogue is being translated from the only shooting script as I enter. “We don’t have to be politically correct,” says the director, as a discussion about the usage of the word “aimai” ensures. “We want to speak like people speak,” he says. The actor finally decides to use the colloquial word.
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The actor, who has worked with the director before, translates the gist of the dialogue into his own words. The crew waits patiently for the director to finish. Then the grip and gaffer move in with lights and translucent paper that act as filters for the low-budget film. Ranjan Pallit, the cameraman, says working with Rhitar is: “Very democratic. We can always make suggestions, and he will listen.” Pallit says he loves Nepal, and has been here ten times already. A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of Pune, Pallit has also worked with other Nepali filmmakers. The clapboard says: scene 73, shot 12, take 1. By the end of the hour, the take will have increased to 7. The sign of a good director is pefection. Rhitar is a perfectionist who works his scenes meticulously, getting take after take till he’s ready to move to the next scene. Pratap, the actor, is working on a comic scene where he leers at the nun and asks her for some Mustang apples. The line is said over and over again until the director is satisfied. In-between takes are long moments of lagtime as actors try their lines, check their postures and gestures, listen to the feedback from the assistant director. The process could try the patience of a saint, but the crew, remarkably, seemed to hold up well to the process. “And by the way, give me some Mustang apples,” the actor says, leering at the nun. The crew bursts out laughing – the line, finally has punch. “Don’t cut me!” the actor jokes as the director finally says: cut.
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“Karma” is being shot in digital video – which allows for the flexibility in multiple re-takes. Unlike 35mm film, video is cheap to shoot. Film scripts have to be more tightly rehearsed in order to get maximum mileage out of the budget. For Rhitar’s working process, which involves a lot of impromptu directing and rehearsing on set, video allows the flexibility of making mistakes, and correcting it on location, without a lot of expensive re-shooting. Digital video is becoming the medium of choice for many indie filmmakers who don’t want to be tied down to commercial constraints, and who can experiment without having to lug expensive and heavy equipment around in remote places. Padam Subba, brother of Nabin Subba, who directed “Numafung”, is assisting on the set of “Karma”. “Tsering helped us a lot during “Numafung”, he says. This reciprocity between the small and tight-knit film community has worked to its advantage – people share resources and networks, and this has allowed for a better working relationships between the different directors. Rhitar has been shooting for 25 days in Mustang. They lived and worked closely with the nuns at the Tharpa Cheling nunnery. The process, said Rhitar, was very moving, and the nuns made good friends with the crew. The nuns cried when the crew departed. Like many independent films produced internationally, Rhitar’s film is being personally funded by the filmmaker. The thirty lakhs budget just includes the production and post-
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production costs. The rest of the funds, including the telecine transfer process, will be raised by the filmmaker later. “I am not thinking about distribution at the moment,” says Rhitar. “I want to make it first, and then think about it.” He says he would like to have it widely distributed in the Nepali market, but that he also wants it to be available to the international market. Rhitar is a rare breed -- an indie filmmaker who follows his artistic vision and avoids the dictates of the market. Unlike many of his Nepali compatriots who spend their days hashing out virtual photocopies of Bollywood hits, Rhitar spins stories out of his own experiences and community. This integrity has brought him international recognition. Rhitar’s previous films include “The Spirits Do Not Come Anymore”, about the dying tradition of shamanism, which won an award from the Film South Asia festival. “Mukundo”, shot in 35 mm by the same crew as the one shooting “Karma”, won international recognition in film festivals from Japan, France, Sweden, India and the USA. It also won an award for the script from the Producers Association of Nepal. Shown at such well-known festivals as the San Francisco film festival, the film garnered respect, although it was never formally distributed on a commercial scale. In the Sherpa Hotel, the phone rings, a group of German tourists enter with huge backpacks, but the actor remains on his job. “Okay, another take!” he says enthusiastically. “Nice.
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Lights off,” says the tired cameraman. “Get into emotion, Pratap-ji,” says the director. “Don’t talk, anybody,” the actor says as he closes his eyes for a few seconds, and allows the noise to fade out as he enters his private world. A few seconds later, he opens his eyes and nods. He is ready. “Rolling, and action,” says the director. The actor says his line flawlessly. The last take goes fabulously well. The entire room of expectant spectators – burst into applause. A small miracle of film-making has just taken place. But there is no time for rest – its time for the next scene. Nation Weekly Magazine, December 2004
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T H E W O R K OF T H E W I N D
iovanni Battista Ambrosini is 59 years old, but as he crouches on the ground and assiduously
draws his signature image—a figure that could be a bird, a child, a spirit—with a white wax-stick on a canvas stretched out on the tiles of Babar Mahal Revisited’s courtyard, he appears centuries older. The white mane of hair looks familiar, so does the high forehead. Does Giovanni descend from a long line of artists in Italy? Did his ancestor exhibit alongside Leonardo da Vinci in some of Florence’s prestigious studios? This question goes unanswered. He seems as blithely unconcerned with the vagaries of history and parentage as he is with the sacredness of the canvas, which Nepali artists treat as a treasured space that would be sullied by the slightest disrespect but on which Giovanni directs four young women to dance with naked feet. Like the wind, the young women are his collaborators. He gets their dancing feet to make shapes and patterns on the two squares of white canvas. Giant copper vats, filled with green, white and red colors, are dabbed, thrown on the canvas, and then as the performance proceeds,
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sprayed on an unsuspecting audience. The four young women are joyous sprites who appear to break the solemnity of an art opening with their sequined veils and silver anklets. Sequins gleam in the strobe lights, and a small fog machine even exudes a slight exhalation of fog, turning the floor, however briefly, into a modern disco. The dances, repetitive and clichéd in other contexts, appear fresh and light when directed by Giovanni. For a moment the audience is mesmerized by the beauty of the movements and the riveting shape of the female form, as they should rightly be, instead of turning away from the mind-numbing ritual of yet another traditional dance. The young women dance lightly, amusing themselves, muses as ethereal as those of Greece or Rome, while the old artist bends, intent in creation. This re-contextualization of the familiar, it appears, is Giovanni’s specialty. The performance was part of the opening of Ambrosini’s exhibition, and like the performance, his paintings have gone through a special process. The artist allowed his canvas to hang like prayer flags alongside Maiti gomba, and the colors he spread on them bled and were washed out by the wind and the monsoon rain. The wind, with its playful fingers, spread the paint. The silicasprayed cloth, dirty, exuberant, and as earthy as young women sprayed with Holi colors, were then painted over with the same signature emblem—a bird, a child, a spirit. Giovanni says he doesn’t see a bird, or a child. He says the image is his own, something that will identify his work so that people will know who did it when they see it. Italian art critic
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Enrico Mascelloni, who flew in for the exhibition from Italy, calls this image a “cell.” If these images are cells, then Giovanni has constructed whole bodies out of them. One in particular, with a large upturned eye, or a black olive standing perfectly upright, is surrounded with the buzz of cells. Another one, orange and green, blinks on and off like a psychedelic body. A plywood board printed with the Hindu swastika shows black and white cut-out shapes of cells flying through brown wood. Upstairs, in the gallery, a red and black canvas seems to reflect the red and black moments of Nepal’s democratic movement. Ambrosini says he’s foremost an artist. His works are sold in Austria, France and Germany. But to make a living he does other work on the side: He’s an advisor to FAO on how to grow olives in the mountains of Nepal. “Do you know you have a wild olive growing in Nepal?” he asks. The artist’s face darkens as he talks about the way the olive is being promoted in Nepal. Pesticides and chemicals distress him. He likes to indulge in (and here I listen to catch the Italian accent) “biological thought”. Biological thought? Through the meandering phrases of Italian, I catch this wonderful line: “Even the olive is an art”. Unlike Nepal’s art world, which often sees art as a bloodless expression of paint on canvas, Ambrosini is still in touch between the flesh of food and the flesh of art. And the connection between the creation of the earth and the fire of creation, it seems, is still firmly interconnected for him.
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Ambrosini says he went to university to study architecture, but he never practiced it. “I went to work in the fields instead”, he says romantically. Well, not quite: He went to the fields instead to test out an interesting scientific pursuit. He spent 10 years trying to develop new kinds of “plants in geometric form that modify the landscape as they grow, like a sculpture”. Perhaps this invention would only occur to an Italian. In Tuscia University he was a faculty member in agriculture, and worked in landscape design. In 1999, Ambrosini came to Nepal to work on olive production. But art was never far from his mind. In Bajura, west Nepal, he experimented again. He built a ‘paint machine’, a wooden box in which he allowed rainwater to collect. The tannin from the wood stained the water brown, and when the box was full it flowed out, coming in contact with iron. The resulting oxides—dark green, brown, yellow—flowed to the canvas. The villagers changed the canvas and sent each to Kathmandu as the paintings were done. Does the artist find Nepali art similar to Italian? He shakes his head. “Nepali art,” he explains, “is influenced heavily by Lain Singh Bangdel, who trained in Paris with the Expressionists. So Nepali artists are still working with Expressionism.” He doesn’t say much more, but I get the impression that the varied experiments in which he himself has taken part in are not something he sees Nepali artists easily indulging in. Which Nepali artist would take oil
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and smear it on their canvas? And yet for Ambrosini the olive oil is, itself, the paint. Food and art are indistinguishable, as are earth and rain. The land and water are not separate from art: They are part of it. If this sense of curiosita (curiosity) and experimentation is what characterized Renaissance art, then Ambrosini has it in good measure. “Of course, he’s Italian, its part of him,” Mascelloni says. Ambrosini’s son, who runs the Nuovo Marcopolo restaurant in Thamel, continues the Italian tradition of art in another form: food. He’s married to a Nepali woman, and they have a young son, making Giovanni a proud grandparent. The sense of exploration, it appears, has been passed from father to son, and may leave its trace in Nepal in more ways than one. As the performance comes to a perfectly timed and choreographed end, the musicians’ stop their flute, sarangi, tabala and guitar. The evening, though cold, was enlivened both by a potent spiced wine and an amalgamation of the different arts. In the words of the artist, the performance brought together “the tantric aspects of earth, fire and water”. And there couldn’t have been a better way to spend a November evening. ECS Magazine, November 2007
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PA N TO M I M E I N T H E H I M A L AY A S
ocation, location, location, said Hollywood, and made a billion dollar industry out of it. If
location was anything to go by, Cinderella, the annual production by Shakespeare Wallahs, was going to be a miserable experience. The hall inside the British Embassy compound seem to lack that great American invention—central heating. They had, it also appeared, spared no expense to replicate the joys of England—draughty halls, inhospitable corridors, straight backed chairs with meagre padding. A glare of great fluorescent lights shone in our eyes as we waited for the pantomime to start. The British may have inherited a chilly, dimly-lit island (no fault of theirs), but they sure know how to make something out of nothing with it. Recent reportage claims Britain’s greatest exports are its culture: literature, art, cinema, personalities. As soon as the wicked stepmother and the two ugly sisters stepped on the stage, decked out in their atrocious outfits, the audience
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knew that recent reportage was right. As long as the British provide the world with a Wicked Stepmother, the sun will continue to shine on their empire. English pantomime has some special features: the dame is always a man. Male roles are sometimes played by women, and vice versa. The audience is prompted by signs to boo, ahhh, or warn the actors to look behind. The Wicked Stepmother, aka Baroness Hapless (BOO!) made a big entrance. So did the two ugly sisters (BOO!), who arrived in a gracious flurry of fiercely clashing purple and orange polka dots and synthetic wigs. David Lowen made a giggle-inducing wicked stepmother. His brother is a professional comic, and this seems to have rubbed off on David. The two ugly sisters, Marcia Chadwick and Jackie Creighton, were delightfully ugly and totally synchronized as they preened their hair and swayed to the “party, party, party” Bollywood music. Cinderella, played by beautiful Kavita Sreenivasan, is feisty, modern and insists on her rights. She is disgusted with the word “Cinderella,” and demands to be called by her real name. None of this wimpy, waiting by the kitchen in rags for this emancipated woman: she pokes her stepmother so hard in her breast that it (an air-filled balloon, actually), pops. Things heat up when Prince Charming, played by Adele Pennington, sweeps on stage with some rather long peacock feathers attached to her head. From the moment the Prince opens his
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mouth and says: “Zees is the way I like it,” the audience is in love with this charmer. The Prince has some special quirks— he likes to speak with a fake French and/or German accent. His father points out that the fake accent is not the way to snag a princess bride, but Prince Charming insists on doing it his own way. Sure enough, Cinderella is totally taken by the accent (never mind if Cinderella’s the one who speaks perfect French, and the Prince has no idea what she’s saying), and before long they’re hitched. Greta Rana’s script, with its smart satire of contemporary mores, resonated with expatriates and Nepalis. The stepmother is filthy rich because her ex-husband ran an NGO. She carries a box saying SPAM, which has three meanings: the spam fed to British troops during World War Two, which was meant to look and taste like real meat but which was made out of old bread and tasted “horrid”; the junk one receives over email, derived from the same word; as well as the spam (literally, junk) that the coalition government is feeding the people of Nepal. There’s an off-hand mention of Green Cards. In the spirit of sibling rivalry, there is a sly dig at the American embassy’s commissariat, which provides “alcohol to teachers.” And in keeping with British obsession, there’s lots of talk of money and class: the paradox of all class no money, all money no class is revisited.
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“We planned to stage “Lady Windmere’s Fan,”” Greta says. “But then my father died, and the actors were not going to be around in May.” Besides, Greta had had enough of Oscar Wilde. Winter was the pantomime season. It occurred to Greta it might be interesting to stage one. Pantomime dates back to Roman comedian Plautus, later revived as Commedia dell-Arte in Italy during the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The script is fairly open and actors can improvise. Like Gai Jatra, the aim is to lampoon and satire. The Internet unearthed a pantomime script—but it cost 1500 pounds and was written for an English audience before Tony Blair stepped down. In other words: expensive and outdated. “I can write a better script than this,” Greta thought. That’s how it started. Pantomime troupes in the past traveled around European villages and towns, hung out till they caught the local gossip, then spun their story around the locale. Greta thought she could try to do the same. As a writer, she’d written pages of satire for her own amusement. She could write a pantomime script with it. Greta knew stock characters have an universal appeal through personal experience. She wrote a satire of an imaginary country, titled “Guest in this Country”, in 1994. People said they recognized so-and-so in the story. “You’re in the wrong country and the wrong plot,” Greta
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answered. People insisted they knew the characters. That’s when she knew she knew she could create characters which the audience could recognize. The actors were a mixed bag of nationalities: Nepali, Indian, Sri Lankan, British and Australian. Yet they fit their roles perfectly. The secret: Greta wrote the roles for the actors, not the other way around. The characters were constantly aware of the plot they were in—a self-reflexivity shared by both pantomime and postmodern cultural theory. There’s a Nepali edge to the satire. Greta says she watches Teeto Satya, a Nepali program, on Thursdays. The actor she likes most is the young boy. “That kid has a real sense of comedy,” she says. Greta enjoys watching school plays and seeing retakes of Broadway plays, but she wishes that children in Nepal would have more scripts based on their own experience. “Kids can be very satirical. They need to tell their own stories.” The real audience of a pantomime, of course, is children. They’re supposed to get the slapstick but not the double entrende. Like all good writers, Greta sounded nervous as she talked about the audience on Saturday. In her case, the real proof of the pudding would come from her grand-daughters. As the central heating kicked in (so the British have figured out this great American invention, after all!), and actors filed out to enthusiastic BOOs to the fish and chips supper, it
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was clear that Harry Potter had competition. And pantomime had found an enthusiastic audience in the Himalayas. Greta says next yearâ€™s bag of laughs will be Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The Nepali audience was priced out of the market (Rs.1000/ticket for charity), but perhaps next year there could be a free show or two for children. Or better yet: a script-writing workshop to spread the art. ECS Magazine, December 2007
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OF CABBAGES AND MEN
hen people ask me: why do you need to earn all this money? After all, you have no children
to look after, nobody to take care of. What are you planning to do with all this money? I tell them: “Oh, I’m hoarding it so that I can have a shroud stitched out of one lakh notes made for me when I die. So that all the passerbys will look at the body and say - oh, look at that. It must be some grrrrreat person who has just died.” The humor is infectious. Standing by the window of her studio, surrounded by paintings of women that have transformed into mountains, and mountains that are in the process of turning into women, Sashi-Kala Tiwari bubbles along with her usual mixture of acerbic and transcendental humor. The paintings, representing a body of substantial work of one of the first contemporary women artists of Nepal, show signs of the mischievous streak - there are Ganeshes with outlandish trunks, Krishna playing his flute on the tree while the gopinis search, puzzled, for their vanished clothes below, and even - wait, are those heads over there cabbages, or are they men?
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The painting is small, and I would have missed the significance if the artist hadn’t been there to explain. This is the painting that the artist has not sold even when investors from abroad have come by offering generous sums. “I don’t show that publicly. I’m holding on to it, waiting for the time when a Nepali who can appreciate the significance can buy it,” she says. The painting depicts one of the most famous scenes of the Mahabharata - the fateful scene where Duryodhan tries to pull off Draupadi’s sari in the middle of the court of Hastinapur. All the men sit, silently watching, not lifting a finger to stop the crime. The heads of cabbages at the bottom of the painting could almost pass for cabbages - until we go closer, and then we see that they could also be representations of men. “I couldn’t help it,” says Sashikala. “How could they have sat by silently, without saying a word when this idiot was committing an atrocity? That’s why I showed them like that - because they acted like cabbages. So they deserve to be shown as cabbages.” That sense of moral outrage imbues the work of an artist who lives in a culture where women, whose values are still measured by their worth as daughters, mothers and wives, now have to maintain the double burden of their public and private lives. Beneath the laughter, one can sense the paradoxes. “My family has always been very co-operative, very supportive of my work. I can work whenever I want. That’s the first place where I was encouraged.” she says. At a time when everybody studied science and went on to become doctors (three of her family members became doctors), her father allowed her to switch from science and join the fine arts college in Baroda.
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“People asked my father: Why are you doing this? It will be hard for her to live. But he understood that people did well in the fields that they were interested in, so he let me go.” She believes that doctors can be constructed, but writers, poets and artists have to be born with the instinct. What is that instinct? “Well, you have to be creative. Every time, you have to be different. You have to feel. You have to get involved. You have to get into the work. Every time, it has to be original.” This instinct for originality is not unmixed with the instinct for devotion: “People used to create art before for temples and churches, as an act of worship. They never got paid too much money. But now, people rarely create art for devotional purposes.” Now, art has become a commodity whose value has become synonymous with its price. “That’s why I don’t like to give my art away for free,” she explains. “People say to me: Sashi, can you give me the ones that you are throwing out, ones that are just lying around on your floor. But I never do. If I give them away, tomorrow, when people are moving out, they will put it under the stairs. Or put it out in the rain,” she says, doing a grimly accurate parody of an irritated man telling his daughter to throw out the trash. “But if people pay for it, they will take care of it. My buyer and I have a relationship. They buy my work because I have expressed something in my work that they could not express - their unarticulated emotions. When I sell a painting, I know they are taking care of a piece of my affection.”
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Although financial success is a pleasant spin-off, its not why she does it. “I enjoy it, that’s why I do it, not because of the return. After all, a person doesn’t have to eat gold and diamonds,” she laughs. “One guava is fine for lunch.” “I don’t expect everybody to like my work,” she acknowledges cheerfully. “Not everybody likes everybody’s work. People have particular tastes. If they like different books, different food, different clothes, of course they are going to like different styles of art. But people who like the feeling of my work, the way I have expressed things usually buy them.” Her subject matter ranges from mountains and trees, birds and flowers to women with many dimensions. But whatever the subject matter, most of them exude an inner emotion, something so fragile and ephemeral they can only be sensed in the layers of mist through a painting. She draws pretty flowers and birds as well, but after getting a sense of her whole body of work one can see that they too are tinged with those layers of misty color that are a signature of her style, layers of greens and blues filled with some of the same existential questioning. “I don’t want to live my life like a cat or a dog,” she explains. “Most people just live their life, eating and sleeping. I am constantly aware that time is short, and that we live only one life - so we should use it wisely.” Metaphors are her weapons to subvert the banality of everyday life - “I don’t want people just to see a stone in a stone. I want them to think, to see that mountains are also like human beings, and that there could be a mysterious female form in there.” The
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anthromorphism is well done. In a recent painting, it is hard to say where the mountains end and the woman begins. The mountains are omnipresent. Lurking beneath the form of a Ganesh, or even on the wings of a peacock, we can sense fragments of their presence. “Everyday, I see them differently.” she says. Perhaps the illusions are also one reason why she has always wanted to go and visit the mountains, one desire that has, uptil now, not been fulfilled. “People say that if your desires are not fulfilled in this life, we will be reborn in another life to fulfill them. Maybe if I can’t go to the mountains in this life, I will go in another.” she jokes. “I need many, many lives to express everything that I want to say. But I know life is finite - so I don’t hoard for tomorrow. Because there might be no tomorrow.” “My other desire is to be a dancer. That’s why I make all the figures in my work dance.” Desires aside, she spends a lot of her time roaming and talking - but her mind is always busy conceiving new ideas. The actual implementation of the work doesn’t take time, she points out. It’s coming up with the ideas that take time. How do people relate to a Nepali woman with a successful career and financial independence? Most of all, how do they relate to an unmarried one? “It’s my life. Other people can’t lead my life,” she says. “Women in the old days in Nepal had to depend on their families financially. They had to be with their husbands. Sometimes, they got beaten. I’m kind of a homely person but I can’t take shit. I have only one life to smile. I don’t want to spend that sitting in the corner of a room, doing nothing...”
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She points out that married life is not ideal sometimes. Sometimes, both people are unhappy in a marriage but they cannot leave because of the all important - “What will people say!” A woman also marries the whole family, not just a man - which means that many decisions that affect her life can only be taken with the consent of other people. Any problems that arise are blamed on the woman. “Women are like bullocks,” she says. “They are expected to earn and do the traditional housework as well, putting a double burden on the woman. And men cannot give a hand because it is beneath their dignity.” The system is not ideal - it makes men suffer as well. She laughs as she recalls a story of a friend, who upset at being yelled at by her husband, started screaming at her four month old son: “You’re born to harass some woman!” Women are made to live with double standards in their public lives as well - it is ok for a man to talk to women in his workplace, but catch a woman doing that and she is stigmatized. “Women are human beings as well. They can’t just shut their mouths and be wives and mothers and housewives and minting machines. They also have feelings,” she says heatedly. Financial independence means that she can live her life as she wants it. It also gives her time for herself that most women in Nepal, taking care of the household and the children, doing the cooking and running off to their jobs cannot afford. But single life does have its limitations in Kathmandu. “I can’t go off to concerts late at night. I used to think: maybe if I was married, my husband would have taken me.
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But one of my friends told me: Sashi, don’t be too sure. Maybe he would have hated classical music and broken all the strings of your instrument. Maybe he would have been ashamed to be following his wife.” “But you cannot satisfy people.” she says. “If I don’t marry, people say: why didn’t you marry? If I did and didn’t have children, they would say: why don’t you have children? If I marry late, they will say: why did you marry with one feet in the ghat? You can never satisfy people.” Then there was the time when she went to attend some conference of the arts and they put her on an all male panel with a nameplate that said: Mr. Sashikala Tiwari. People asked her later: “Why didn’t you ask to have it changed? She replied: Well, how come their big eyes didn’t figure out that I was a woman? Maybe they thought I was a man because I earned my own living. If they couldn’t figure this out by themselves at the end of three days, there is really no point in me complaining, is there?” Which gets to the gist of the matter: “There are more important matters than for me to be sitting there thinking about being a mister or a miss.” It may be a man’s world - and women are surely marginalized, but for Sashikala Tiwari, this is not a problem that she cannot tackle. “Other women say it is difficult to survive in a man’s world, but I’ve never felt discriminated,” she says. Besides, she knows how to put men in their place in the vegetable kingdom if they start acting up. She can, as one of her friends might say, take care of herself by being her usual dominating and independent self. Earshot: A Kathmandu Alternative, published and edited by Sarina Rai in 1998.
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RAI KO RIS
1. Why Rai Ko Ris? Because it’s a typical thing we say out here and I am a Rai-nee so it was partly a good Nepali name and partly a good joke. Nothing to do with how great Rais are or anything. All people will behave the same...i.e. what benefits them. You can’t say you’re different coz you’re this or that ethnicity in the end. 2. What were the three things that turned you into this punk-rocking guerilla artist? I don’t know about artist...I’d say more music-person. I think guerilla is spelt “guerrilla”. I was always surrounded by cousin brothers who played geeetar and I was not satisfied just being an on-looker. I wanted to rock out too. And I was always screaming and shouting my own songs since I was tiny- the squash racquet (guitar) and hairbrush (microphone) act. I loved loud, fast, rock music. At 17 I had a band in high school called Skinhead Barbie. At 20 I formed a duo band, Bruce Lee. Just me on guitar shouting and a girl, a really good friend Neng Mohammed (Malay)
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on drums. Our friends called our sound “canto-punk”. It was just a natural punk sound. Our lyrics were very socio-politico... a lot about being “asian” in a western dominated media culture. And then later Rai ko Ris. I was inspired by people like my ‘tikka’ brother Milan Rai (War Plan Iraq, Chomsky’s Politics) who I used to stay with a lot in UK when I was a conflicted teenager..ha ha. He listened to anarcho-punk and was the first to introduce me to the band Crass. Today, Rai ko Ris’ lyrics are very socio-political, very ‘socialist’ in what we talk about, and down right anti-capitalist. 3. A childhood memory about “home” - where’s that, and why? Were you ever homesick - for what? Boeing 747 was home. My big sister throwing up on the plane and me disposing the air sick bags to a tarted-up stewardess. (They get all dressed up to dispose throw up bags.) I was homesick homesick homesick because in this situation you are a small child, without your parents and a home where you can be you and where people genuinely love you. 4. Have you ever wanted to beat somebody up? Details, please. Yeah, I wanted to so I did. They were bullying me and wanting to fight me so I had to fight back. That’s why there’s something a bit suspiciously intellectual about “peace” sometimes. Like the
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situation here in Nepal. Everyone, especially the educated elite and foreign NGOs saying peace no violence. But if you saw your sister or mother raped and tortured and then shot in the head, it’s hard to talk about peace (man). 5. Did people ever tell you you couldn’t become a musician because you were a woman? Or they always encouraged it? They just said I SHOULDN’T do it coz I wouldn’t be rich. I don’t want to be rich so fuck off. I got encouraged a lot by all them cousin brothers I mentioned before. Women can take great examples from men more than women sometimes. 6. What’s been your best moment so far as an independent, motorbiking, free-thinking chick? I don’t have a motorbike (I used to borrow one from a friend), I use safa-tempo. It’s cheaper and it’s convenient. I don’t know what free-thinking is. It must mean that you do what you think is right for yourself instead of letting others decide, which is the same as independent I suppose. I don’t think I’m very “chick” ish. I never wore make up (that’s one of the immediate thoughts that came up when I saw “chick”, sorry)...and I’m really not good at fashion. My best moments are when we’re playing with the band, rocking out and hopefully introducing another viewpoint
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of the world through our lyrics that move people to get off their arses and participate/be active to not let bullies run our lives for a massive profit. I think Iâ€™m more of a guitar/bass wielding, scruffy-looking, step-mother of two little French girls. Sorry to destroy the image. 7. If people were to ask you what you live for, what would you answer? Same as above. Which for me I think means, live for today i.e. apply all the above everyday, not just part-time, half-assed. Action means now. Can I just add, support your local farmers becoz they feed you, not God. This interview was published in suskera.com, a portal of Nepali literature.
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A G I F T OF T H E H E A RT
Why Nepal?, I ask. Pourquoi Nepal? Chloe translates. Christian ponders, then shrugs that slight French shrug. He taps the left side of his chest, where his heart is, with his right hand. “It is a small question with a big answer,” he says. Why would an art dealer from Paris up and leave his successful business of dealing in nineteenth century European paintings and antiques, sell his apartment, and move to Nepal? Looking at Christian and Chloe, his wife, I see that shrug mirrored between the two of them again. “It has always been a big dream of mine to move to Nepal,” Christian says, finally. I dig a little further. In classic French fashion, the big answer is to be condensed in one stylish answer: heart. Or to use Christian’s accent—it appears to be a matter of the ‘eart. “Nepali people,” Christian says, “have given us a lot of love. A lot of friendships. There are other places with mountains and landscapes. But Nepali people have ‘eart.”
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This, then, is why Christian and Chloe now live in a sunny bungalow in a housing complex in Sitapaila, near a dusty bus-stop in the Ring Road. The house is furnished with Newari antiques; pottery made by Kalapremi, a friend who they’ve known for almost a decade; and a rock garden underneath the stairway. The sofa is designed by Christian, and so is the table made of two upturned garden pots resting on each other and painting in bright reds. Christian says he’s a self-trained artist. Upstairs, two rooms are filled with large, colorful paintings he’s made. These paintings, which will be exhibited in Indigo Art Gallery in February, are the way he’s going to make his living from now on. The couple own no television, and buy nothing but local magazines. Any essential information about day to day life in Nepal, they get from neighbours. After fifty years of a high-paced life as an art dealer, information is no longer their priority. “There is so much information, it becomes disinformation,” Chrsitian says. Now, their priority is learning about Nepal and its culture, and to make art that is a gift back to the people who’ve given them so much. Christian and Chloe first came to Nepal in 1981. Or maybe its 1982. “It was a long-long time,” one of them finally says, after a lengthy discussion about the exact date. They stayed seven weeks the first time around. One week was spent with Thakali people in Marpha. A festival featuring archery was in progress, and Christian took almost 800 photographs of that single event. They liked it so much they came back a year later, and stayed for four months. Since then, the couple have been have thirteen times.
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Nepal changed Christian and Chloe. For almost twenty years, Christian had worked eighteen hour days, selling to people all over the world, attending hundreds of openings and events every year. “My life was only my job. I progress, I progress, I learnt a lot,” Art and antiques, and its dealing, was his passion. And yet, he was very, very tired. “It wasn’t good for his health,” his wife says quietly. And Nepal beckoned. After almost twenty years, Christian gave up his fast-paced Parisien life and went to Honfleur, a seaside town in Western France, and opened up a shop featuring Himalayan art. He ran this for three years. “I had ethnographic, primitive art and antiques,” he says. He also promoted Nepali artists like Kalapremi and Manish Shrestha. Chloe started a handicrafts shop, selling Himalayan artworks, incence and other curiosities. French customers were not familiar with the items, and Chloe found herself explaining the meanings of the items and their usage. Today, this shop is run by their son, an avid Nepalophile. Christian laughs when I tell him Nepali people want to leave Nepal. And yet here he is, giving up a life in Paris to be in dusty Kathmandu. “The problems are the same everywhere,” he says. “The life is also the same in US and France. I always dreamt of living in the Kathmandu Valley.” Even Chloe’s eighty year old mother wants to come and visit them as they live their dream. Christian’s goal is simple: he wants to give back some of the love he’s received in Nepal. He does this in small actions. Some of it comes in the form of counsel to people who need help.
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A Tamang friend whose monastery collapsed found Christian willing to go and spend three weeks reconstructing his monastery. Another friend whose old Newari home needed repairs found a willing helper in the artist. Christian also has larger plans: he wants to start an art school in Kathmandu. He has talked with the owner of an old Rana Palace in Teku—the aim is to renovate the palace, then run the facilities as an art school. Christian tries to insulate himself from the political divisions of Nepal. The artists in Nepal, he says, tend to work alone, split by ideology. If they worked together, they would be strong. “When Nepali people are unhappy,” he says, “We are unhappy.” Besides an outsider mediating energy, Christian brings with him his years of knowledge of art. “There can be no good art without good philosophy,” he says. He is keen to expand the notion of art history amongst the artists of Nepal. The cave paintings of France, the antiquities of Greece and Rome are important to the production of contemporary art. These classic influences, he says, are important for creating new artwork. While its not copying, its important to look at “another mind” in order to be inspired. “Modern art,” he says, “is all ‘eart.” He puts his hand on his heart. “Its not possible to learn, unlike traditional art, which is technical and can be learnt.”
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But is modern art even art? Christian is not sure. “People tell me you are a big artist in France,” he says. “But I am not sure. I think: this is your idea, not mine. I think modern art is about expression. Ideas and expression.” This idea that the viewer interprets the work through his own lenses is very important with him. As we go through his work in the upstairs room, Christian stresses: “I want people to be able to interpret it their own way. I want them…” he hesitates for a word: “I want them to be free.” This then, is the core of the French philosophy: la libertie. Everybody has the liberty to read the work their own way. Once a text is put out in the world, the author of that text dies, said French philosophers. Then it is up to the reader to dechiper and interpret the work through their own minds. Which leads us to Gandhi and Marx. “Marx was a very nice man,” says Christian. “Very good philosophy. But then people take his work, and they transformed it.” This revolution, which has killed 13,000 Nepalis, distresses Christian. He wants to be able to bring Nepali artists together through peace and art, like during the Vietnam war. He is planning a surprise gift for Nepal. Are we allowed to know about this gift he has in mind? “It is a surprise,” he says, smiling. Whatever the gift is, we can be sure it will have a lot of heart. ECS Magazine, February 2008
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HO W TO B U I L D A N E PA L I T E M P L E I N T H I R T Y D AY S
id the title get your attention? Did you think, as I did, that it would be fun to have a how-to
book on building a Nepali temple—after all, our ancestors seem to have indulged in this pastime in generous measure, and there is no reason for us to give up on it just because bungee-jumping and bar-hopping are now the more popular past-times. How come we don’t know how to do it? Perhaps it’s the missing how-to book? Enter “Elements of Nepali Temple Architecture” by Puruswottam Dongol. The largeformat book is generously illustrated with photographs of Kathmandu Valley temples. While not a modern how-to book, the book has elements that an ingenious architect may use to think about ways to create a new temple. All of us have gazed at Nepali temples, been mesmerized by the red runners that wave in the wind, watched pigeons flutter up towards the gabled roofs, and then let our eyes travel upwards towards
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the symmetry of struts, carvings, and slanted roofs. Without having the words to describe it, we’ve been awed by the geometrical precision, the richness of stone and wood carving, the mythological bases, the intertwined meaning that seems to permeate each inch of space in and around a temple. And if you’re like me, you’ve also been a little frustrated at the lack of knowledge about what that awesome figure actually symbolizes, what that mermaid is doing up on that golden arch over a low wooden door, what kind of ghosts those guardian figures are keeping at bay. If you’re like me, you may even have become impatient and walked off without taking the time to learn about the minute intricacies of each art that makes up a Nepali temple, from stone to wood, carving to sculpture, from Buddhist and Hindu iconography and philosophy to the long copper banner that floats down from the sloping roofs. While the book does not explain everything, it gives a simple overview of the most basic temple structure, from the minute visualization of the tantric base (one temple, for instance, is visualized as tantric triangles laid on top of each other), to the use of color, to the logic behind ornamental features. Starting with a history of temple construction, briefly discussing the non-denomination aspects of Nepali temples which incorporates both Buddhist and Hindu iconography, the book moves to a discussion of traditional construction techniques. There are separate chapters on pinnacle, roof, strut, cornice, windows, torana, door, column and plinth. The simple diagrams help to identify key structures and concepts.
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The architects of these exquisite structures had to figure out a way to stop the rain from seeping in and eating into the wooden timbers, and they solved it through an ingenious method—notched tiles that interlock and stop rain from going in. A brick that sticks out may act to prevent moisture from seeping into cornice designs. A wooden arm, mimicking an human arm, may hint at the architectural backbone of wood that holds the bricks up. The delicate balance of the wooden frame, seismologists have long known, allow the temple to sway during an earthquake, and may allow it to absorb seismic shock with more resilience. The grinning skulls keep bad spirits away—and maybe even a thief or two. The low quality photos might bring on an initial yawn, but be assured that once you read the text, the photographs will come alive. Newari classification of each architectural feature (Newars being the original architects of pagodas) is broken down and explained in simple language. The torana, for instance, which is the wooden or metal board above temple doors, is not a mass of strange mythological figures: it usually features Chhepu, a fierce beast that holds a snake in his mouth as it attempts to escape; Ganga and Jamuna, the two river goddesses (or two mermaids known simply as “Nag Kanya”); apsara angels; and at the bottom two makara ( a seahorse looking creature.) Puruswottam Dongol, the author, is the member secretary of the Kathmandu Valley Town Development Committee, and has been involved in the promotion of traditional architecture in the Kathmandu Valley. He is also the deputy director general of the Department of Urban Development at Babar Mahal.
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There seemed to be no hard and fast rule about temple architecture: indeed, the variations of design seem to be up to the individual team of artists and architects who make it. This fact came alive to me as I watched two temple constructions take place before my eyes. One was the Bishalnagar Chowk’s temple, which went from a peepul tree with vendors and a trash-heap to a beautifully constructed sacred art complex. I ask the shopkeepers who built this new temple. “The community,” they answer. One active member of the neighborhood decided to raise funds, and through that they rebuild a small, exquisite wooden pati (resting place), along with a series of statues that rest directly underneath a giant peepul tree. The only hint that we are in modern times is the iron bars that now keep out thieves who do not respect the sanctity of public deities. While the shrine may have displaced the vegetable sellers, they have not gone very far: a concrete shelter on the other side of the street provides them with the same modest roof that the tree once did. As I walk by, I see three men discussing some issue of importance on the pati: this public space, it appears, is fulfilling its age old function. The other temple that catches my eye is the one close to Sanepa Chowk. The bamboo girders hint to a new construction, and so do the new bricks. As I climb up the flimsy bamboo stairs, I am aware of being in a new construction site. This is a grander project than a statue underneath a tree. The temple is larger, more traditional. The decorations over the door, and on the courtyard, hint towards process being followed according to tantric rules and norms.
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The woman sitting inside and presiding over the temple is large, and dressed in a white sari. A middle-aged man sitting with her addresses her with great respect as “Ajima.” He tells me that Ajima was the one who commanded to have this temple built: I am uncertain whether he’s referring to the woman before him (who I later realize is his mother), or to some metaphysical Mother Goddess to whom the temple is dedicated. As the conversation proceeds, Ajima tells me that she has spent six years trying to build this temple (Yes, thirty days was an optimistic estimate). The land is her own. The money for construction comes from donations and loans. She is in debt, but she still has to finish the temple, she says. There is still so much to be done, but they’re not hurrying. Everything has to be done as it should be done. The mortar is still inches thick, with lentils, molasses and all the other ingredients people used hundreds of years ago to strengthen their temples. On the way out, her son says to me that each time they have been in need, the universe has provided, and people can come forth to help. Ajima, he says, is always there, and has always helped. For a moment, the two of us stand underneath the door, look at the half-finished beauty and precision of the temple, and feel the truth of his words. To support other temple construction projects, call the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust. ECS Magazine, February 2008
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Photo by: Hari Maharjan, ECS Magazine, 2008
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Photo by: Ajanav Ranjit
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A N A N I M AT E D L I F E
hen Ajanav Mohan Ranjit told me that he’d created the animation filled with Nepali
dancers and farmers that heralds the Kantipur news-hour, I said spontaneously: “I always wanted to meet the person who made that!” And it was true. There is a magical touch to that particular digital art that no other Nepali animation has been able to match. I ask Ajanav what the secret is—is it 2D? Or 3D? He laughs at my confusion. “It’s a mixture of 2D, 3D and life action footage. We took a Kantipur van and went to Thimi. We started to take footage of everything. An old man came, carrying a basket. We asked him if we could shoot him. He said yes. As we started to set up the shot, he wandered away. “Money, money,” he said, so we had to offer him some.” Also in Thimi, they found out traditional potters no longer used wooden wheels, but tires to make their pots. So they made a special request for a wooden wheel--one unused for fifteen years was found. The dancers came from a dance academy. The
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final image, composited out of three techniques, is the one we see daily on television. The animation continues to be shown after Ajanav left the station—Kantipur hasn’t replaced it partly because there is no artist with the same skillset in town. Ajanav’s life is full of dynamic action, rather like his art. Despite the obstacles, he has forged his own path in a culture hostile to creative thinking. Ajanav’s philosophy, like his animation, is striking. He wants, in his own words, “to do something different.” This may not appear striking until we remember that to veer off from the doctor-engineer career paths of Nepal is to court contempt, misunderstanding and ostracization. Which is what Ajanav got. “My friends would laugh when I told them. Fine arts? Why? They would ask. They even told me that fine arts was just for Third Division students –why was I, a First Division student, studying it?” Despite these reactions, Ajanav joined Lalit Kala College of Fine Arts. In the broken down and dilapidated environment of the college, he felt a second level of frustration. The students were still doing still life illustration after the first year. On the first day, a professor announced that their education was limited, and they’d have to go abroad if they wanted to study for a MA degree. This was not the art school he’d seen in Hollywood films.
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In an attempt to keep his options open, Ajanav joined commerce classes. During basketball sessions, he listened to conversations about future careers. Young students studying commerce aimed to go on to steady salaried management jobs at Rs. 10,000. “I can do better with fine arts, I felt,” Ajanav says. And this is when his journey to self-learning began. Ajanav took a course with Hariram Jojo, an Indian artist who taught him the importance of field trips. He started to wake up at dawn to sit in temples to sketch. During this time, Ajanav observed that the art world of Nepal was predetermined in many ways. “It was already decided who’d win the prizes at the exhibitions. The senior artists were all set,” he says. He chose not to participate in any exhibitions for this reason. Ajanav’s first break came with an offer to illustrate the Himalayan Pavilion in the Expo 2000 in Berlin. The pavilion, a mixture of Swayambhunath and Changu Narayan, was exhibited amongst many other artwork in Berlin. This pavilion won a Gold medal. His second break came with an offer to do a 2D animation. “It was the first time I’d thought about animation. I didn’t know anything about it,” he admits. Infocom was developing Prince of Persia game for the US market, and they hired him. Other offers followed. Wild Storm DC hired him to do digital paintings. This work experience gave him the opportunity to learn about interactive multimedia graphics, and introduced him to 3D software.
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“This is great software, I thought. I can see the top view, side view, bottom view. It really made my work easy.” In order to boost his knowledge, Ajanav took a one month course in 3D software, but the class, conducted with one computer and 15 students, taught him nothing. “I didn’t learn anything there. Then I started to surf the web and read up on web tutorials. I’d stay up all night. My mother’d come down at 5am and scold me for not going to bed.” This passion, Ajanav guesses, may have led to his breakthrough. Restless to boost his skills further, and understanding that more skills would make him employable in Nepal’s tiny marketplace, Ajanav took a four month course in the now defunct Institute of Film, Television and Performing Arts. The course taught him the skills to become a film director. During this time, he heard a big television station was to start in Nepal, and he wanted to prepare himself to join it. “I’ll be there someday, I thought,” he says. Sure enough, Kantipur network came to town. Soon, the place buzzed with the best people from Nepal. Ajanav was one of them. The energy was tremendous. “We really believed that change would come out of this. We went to work early and stayed till midnight. Sometimes we worked all weekend—it was so much fun.” Ajanav, placed in digital broadcasting rather than in production, became inspired watching a showreel done by Belief, a company that made animations for the Indian industry. “We can reach this level, we thought,” he says. And this is what led to the famous news animation.
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After two years in television, Ajanav felt his learning curve fall. In addition, he met Suyogya Tuladhar, an animator setting up a 2D animation house. “He had set it up very nicely to do animation. I was impressed.” Ajanav wanted to work with Suyogya and suggested working in 3D, instead of 2D. He’s learnt about a worldwide CGI community and was hooked to the global network through the web. Ajanav heard an animator from Disney was coming to town. Kiran Joshi was known to have worked on Disney films like the Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and others. “To work in Hollywood is a dream for an animator. I really wanted to meet him. Finally, he came to Kantipur for a television interview. He became my idol,” says Ajanav, smiling. “Lets do something for Nepal,” Ajanav said. Kiran Joshi, who’d taken a look at Ajanav’s impressive work, promised to return and do something. “He said that he would come back to do something. But for me, it was like somebody telling me they’d pick me stars from the sky. He worked in Hollywood. How would he come back to Nepal?” In 2002 Ajanav quit television and started a commercial advertising company with a small group. They did more than 50 ads, including all of Dabur’s, within two years. “We were doing very well. But the domestic market is so small, and I was competing with my best friends. One night we would drink, the next their project would come to my desk.”
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Ajanav decided to take a break and visit Bombay. “My aim was to stay there for a week, get refreshed,” he says. But as usual, Ajanav got lucky. The old friend who he called up worked for Sony TV. Anjan Gajurel, who worked as art director for mainstream Bollywood movies like Murder, took Ajanav to his workplace. “He was doing so well, and noone in Nepal knew about his work,” Ajanav says. “If people knew, they would be inspired to go and do fine arts.” Through Anjan’s connection, Ajanav visited Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chili Studio, where the visual effects for the movie Don was being created. The supervisor, Puran Gurung, was a Nepali from the Northeast. Puran gave Ajanav a tour, leaving him impressed with the level of development in the Indian film industry. Ajanav’s next stop was the Prana Animation Studio. Dibesh Maskey, another Nepali who worked there, gave him a tour of the world-class studio and facilities. The studio, based in the ILFS building in Bandra, was gigantic. The grandeur of the architecture, and the scale of the enterprise, struck Ajanav. A large hallway led to a room with a huge dome inside. About 300 animators worked on projects, including Tinkerbell, a Disney film. “It was like going abroad,” says Ajanav. “The place was so nice I could have worked for free.” Maskey shared news about the latest software. He asked Ajanav what he used. Ajanav recalls saying: “I am a jack of all trades, master of none.” The pressure to know a little bit of everything,
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crucial to survive in Nepal’s tiny market, was useless in India, where a particular skillset was emphasized. He got himself an interview and an examination in the studio, and got a glimpse of their management methods. “That’s when I learnt about how an animation studio is run,” he says. The Bombay trip inspired Ajanav to do something in Nepal. Now he had a clearer idea. “If Indian animation companies are doing Hollywood movies, we can do it too,” he thought. “They’ve built up their manpower. Lets do something similar in Nepal.” In December 2007, after months of preparation, Kiran Joshi, Suyogya Tuladhar and Ajanav Ranjit’s destinies came together with the opening of Incessant Rain production company. The company develops international animations for the global market. Today, Ajanav works in this spacious studio on projects for both Nepal and abroad. He hopes that young people from Nepal will not have to migrate because there is no options inside the country. “We’re trying to create a new platform for youngsters here,” he says. “We’re creating hope even in this difficult time when everybody wants to go abroad.” So what made Ajanav, a fine art student who could have ended up making temple paintings for tourists, to lead such an interesting and successful life at a young age? What led him to pursue course after course of creative skills? What led him to break a path into a new and unknown world? “Some friends ended up in huge industries. Some still make traditional paintings of
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temples,” he says. “It all depended upon how they thought. If I had not thought differently, I would not be here today.” Ajanav hopes that people who think of fine arts as an “optional subject” will rethink their views when they learn about the work done by artists in film, digital art and animation. “I want people to rethink their view of fine arts,” he says. “I want it to lose its stigma.” Next time we turn on the television to see the news and see that dancer come on, lets hope for a slight shift in that perception. ECS Magazine, March 2008
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CONNECTED CENTURIES, CONNECTED CONTINENTS
ea Karhof has a twinkle in her blue eyes. “Its such a dark day, isn’t it?” I say, shivering a little
against the cold. “Yes, but it is sunny inside,” she replies, beaming. This emotion seems to encapsulate her artwork, which is lit with the warm light of a world that is both ancient and modern, fantastic and realistic, humorous and serious all at the same time. Gea is here with friend Nan Mulder to show her work at the Siddhartha Art Gallery—the exhibition is part of a four woman, three country show. The two have been friends since they met in college nearly forty years ago. Nan moved to Scotland, married and divorced, and then the two started to travel together nearly twenty years ago. For both of them, place is an important element in their artwork.
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Gea lives in Edam, a small town about 20 kilometers out of Amsterdam, known for its cheese and cartography. Her husband, she explains with the sweetness of somebody who’s lived a good life, owns a chocolate factory. The couple own an old home that they’ve renovated. There is a well-known school of cartography in Edam, and the Emperor of Japan owns many of the maps that were created by this school. In Gea’s “Connected Centuries”, five neat and narrow houses stand side by side, rather like they’re lined up in a street in Edam. But there the resemblance ends—they are crowned by fantastic roofs, pagodas and domes. Inside, Thai dancers sway on boats as Superman descends with a girl in his arms, acrobatic girls build pyramids on top of each other, and Cambodian dancers fold their hands to Bette Boo. The house in the middle shows a Japanese woman in a traditional kimono—the outfit, explains Gea, is 650 years old, and 650 years ago was when Edam became a city. A red figure rises up balloon-like behind the costumed figures—this is Geertje Dirkx, one of Rembrandt’s models who also originated from Edam, and around whose story Gea’s daughter has created a performance. “So Edam is the center of the world, rather like Jerusalem?” I joke, and Gea acknowledges that the spiritual center of her home is indeed central to her artwork. The pagodas and stupas that appear in her artwork were drawn in her studio in Edam before she finally decided to come to Nepal and see them for herself four years ago.
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Travel and experiences of different cultures is also central to both artists’ art. Egypt was their first destination. “I started to make connections between the old and the new. I realized that time was nothing—there were artwork in Egypt that are four, five thousand years old. Art, I realized, is incredible,” Gea says. We tend to assume that modernity is linear, but this isn’t so, says Gea, who says the spectacular nature of ancient artwork stunned her with their precision and beauty. In a “View from Heaven,” ancients and moderns share space as they look down from a circular opening in the ornately tiled sky. The people looking down are winged, and of many nationalities. Outside, dinorsaurs parade in a circle. “That’s the first life on earth. And if you look closely enough, you can see a prehistorical Mickey Mouse,” Gea says, smiling at her own visual joke. What appears to be the ornately cracked tile background is actually text from Dante’s Paradiso. “They are looking down, we are looking up—its double vision,” Gea says. The ceiling was inspired by a trip to Guatemala, when she looked up and saw a hole in the roof, and also by the summer home of a friend in Venice. Just as Gea’s work is shaped by place, so is Nan Mulder’s. Nan married an Englishman and moved to Scotland and then to Ireland; divorced him, then returned back to Scotland with her children. “Holland is a crowded country. I always wanted to move abroad—I’ve lived abroad
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for thirty years. I don’t belong anywhere, or else you can say I belong everywhere,” she says. “Dutch expatriates blend in. They don’t group together like other nationalities.” Just as Gea exudes a sunny, blue and gold aura, so Nan seems to exude a gothic aura. Her work is primarily black. That velvet black, she says, is what drew her to the technique. She works with mezzotints, which is a rare technique that few people still know how to make. She received a scholarship to go to Kracow, Poland, to learn the technique from artists who were still working with it. Mezzotint is called “The black art” in French—it’s an elaborate technique in which black is scraped to reveal the light. “I listen to a lot of music while I work,” she says. “Its very difficult to see what you’re doing. But I can sit at home and do it.” Nan works a lot with ideas of rooms—rooms which are inside oneself. “The whole world is my home. The one place where you are wherever you are is the room inside you. This is everywhere…or nowhere,” she laughs. Just as the grounded sense of being part of a small community defines Gea, so the sense of being an uprooted foreigner defines Nan. The elements of a person who doesn’t have a home keeps returning. “I was always very, very happy when I started to travel. In Nepal and India, I am a foreigner. This gives me freedom, and separateness…it also makes me feel lonely,” she says.
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These combination of sentiments define her art. “My doors have eyes. The outer world looks to the inside. The inner world looks outside.” After meeting a Japanese artist who combined techniques, Nan also started to use photo etchings and other techniques. This gave her a great deal of freedom, and allowed her to make more prints in a shorter time. “Infinity in the palm of a hand,” her etching of a hand offering a marigold in an Indian temple is classic in its simplicity. A bandh was what led them to their fortuitous meeting with Ragini Upadhay and Seema Shah. Unable to travel, the two decided to explore Kathmandu’s modern art world instead. The Nepali artists welcomed the two artists into their studios, and were very hospitable. This led to the idea of the joint exhibition of the four artists. “We all work with realism, even though its not pure realism,” Gea explains. The two artists took time off to give workshops of their techniques to students at Srijana Art College and Tribhuwan University. They are also sending paper back for the students as a gift. Gea hands me the tiny copper plate which has her work embossed on it. The stamp, she explains, was commissioned by the Post Office in Holland, who commissioned her to make the images of mermaids and curliqued clouds to give as a gift to their directors. The stamp has interesting shapes on the background. “I discovered a new technique by accident,” she explains. “I
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printed a little string, and it gave a beautiful design, so I started to use it.â€? This accidental invention is now in the hands of art students in Nepal. The spirit of exploration and travel, it appears, continues to be passed on in the form of new mappings and new techniques by artists who know no boundaries of place.
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EN VOGUE: PRABAL GURUNG, BILL BLASS
ogue, one of the world’s premier fashion magazines, features actress Angelina Jolie
on the cover of its January 2007 issue. Jolie wears a raspberry rayon matt jersey evening dress that drapes across her body in perfect, sensual symmetry—there’s a sari-like hint to the drape of fabric against her legs. The classic, elegant look comes from the design table of Bliss Blass, a New York couture house with clients as diverse as Oprah, Laura Bush, and Sigourney Weaver. What most Nepalese don’t know is that one of the designers of the label is Prabal Gurung, whose rise to meteoric New York success rivals those of the best stars. A St Xavier’s graduate, Prabal was the only one of his class to study this field in 1990. Like all boys, he struggled to belong, but was made to feel different. However,
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this very sense of being “different” helped to push him to define his sense of identity later on in life. Prabal went to Delhi, where he attended the National Institute of Fashion Technology and worked for the Indian designer Manish Arora. So when he was accepted to the Parsons School of Design, New York’s most prestigious school of fashion, of which Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford and other influential designers are alumni, he was already a veteran industry insider, as well as a student with a deeply serious interest in his art and business. Prabal went on to win the Best Designer competition between Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2000. The next year, the faculty asked him not to compete, but to open the show instead, which he did featuring 15 looks of his work. The designer Cynthia Rowley, who was a judge at the show, was so impressed she offered him a job on the spot. After three years with Rowley, Prabal moved to Bill Blass. And the rest, as they say, is history. I knew Prabal in New York (he was at Parsons, I was at the New School’s graduate program in anthropology a block away). The stress of student life in New York was alleviated by fun evenings with Nepali friends, and Prabal was always a key
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participant. He sang, danced and displayed an incredible memory for old radio Nepal jingles, and a hilarious talent for parodying Nepali pop songs. His side-splitting Tara Devi imitation: ko hoo ma? Kay hooo ma? (Who am I? What am I?) is pure genius. I have hours of video footage of Prabal that makes me suspect he would be as good in the acting world as he is in the fashion one. He can dredge up an Urdu shairi, switch effortlessly into mainstream American chit-chat, then return to a slap-dash Nepali insult within the space of a sentence. I was impressed by Prabal’s ability to navigate through multiple cultures simultaneously. But while Prabal is undeniably at home in New York, he never forgets his Nepali roots, or his family. “The most important influence in my life,” says Prabal, “is my family. My mother a strong, opinionated, hard working and extremely compassionate renaissance woman whose sense of style, grace and ability to look like million dollars even in a shoestring budget has left a huge impact on my life. My drive and desire to succeed has come from her. I am a product of her in every sense. My father’s sartorial elegance, optimism and relentless pursuit to provide us with better education made me confident to hold my own today.” He also cites his sister, brother and brother in law as a major source of inspiration and support.
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Having a close and supportive family network helped him not just to weather tough times, but also to share, communicate and articulate his dreams in a way that served him well in the hyper-competitive environment of New York. Prabal’s mother had faith in his dreams, and refused to listen to people who said she was a fool to let him study fashion design. Yet she believed in him, and her faith was eventually justified. I was often amazed by Prabal’s ability to party, while simultaneously excelling at work. There was no doubt he was the best amongst his peers. What is your secret? I asked him once. And he told me: “The key is to make it appear effortless by working hard when nobody’s looking.” As we looked through the beautiful drawings of his portfolio, we had no doubt that Prabal was working extraordinarily hard at the job he loved best. One evening I showed up wearing a mirrored Gujarati shawl, which Prabal took from me and meticulously molded, twisted and shaped into a dozen different outfits—a skirt, a shirt, a dress, a hairband, a wrap. Watching him at work was akin to watching a painter rapt with his painting, or a musician with his instrument—there was no doubt that I was watching a master of his art working on his creations.
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Prabal’s daily routine these days is the stuff of fashion magazines. He dresses the First Lady of the USA, and her daughter. Oprah Winfrey-- “the most influential woman in the world”--according to some commentators, chose to buy and wear a Bill Blass dress not just on the cover of her O magazine, but on the very special day on which she opened her $40 million leadership academy in South Africa. But despite these successes Prabal is not satisfied. “I have lots to achieve. This is something I have learned from my mother. With every achievements and success she always asks me: “That is great, but what’s next?” so that kind of zeal and drive has kept me going,” he says. “I will feel a real sense of achievement when I am able to give something back to my country. The day I can make a contribution to Nepal, socially and/or economically, I’ll consider that a job well done.” Prabal eventually wants to create his own label—one that would show the world that creative minds can also come from a small country known mostly for its exotic factor. Prabal’s farewell party when he went to New York left people gasping as he showed up—fashionably late—in an outfit that Kathmandu had never seen before, and probably never will. His ability to leave a shimmering impression of imagination,
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longing and fantasy will no doubt show its hand again when he returns, time and again, to visit his home country. Fashion design falls low on the hierarchy of doctor-engineer obsessed Nepali culture. But fashion is a billion dollar business globally. In places like New York, fashion has received its due as a significant shaper of contemporary culture, and a potent hybrid of art and commerce by being featured at institutions like the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Its time Nepal embraced its own artists in the fashion world with credit thatâ€™s long overdue. Kantipuronline.com
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Illustration by: Prabal Gurung
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ECS Photo by:
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THE UNIVERSAL L ANGUAGE OF MUSIC
irateswor is located on an obscure hilltop in the Pashupati temple complex, but many
people can navigate their way there with effortless ease. That is because for the last fifteen years, classical musicians have gathered to play instruments and share their art every full moon, drawing crowds of reverent listeners. The last full moon was no exception. The chaitra moon was almost crimson in its intensity, and the music of the ishraj, a little known instrument, dissolved the listeners to a perfect balance of melancholy and joyfulness. Santosh Bhakta Shrestha was accompanied on his ishraj by Navaraj Gurung on the tabla. The tabla is a special instrument at any occasion, but especially in Kirateswor where its rounded, full-bodied sound seemed to echo the dancing footsteps of Shiva, painted in full dancing posture on the stage.
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We climb up to the little pati and sit next to the baba-ji who’s a permanent resident at Kirateswor. He dips his finger in his fire and gives me a tika of grey ash. My friends and I speculate that the Sanskrit slogan painted on the wall says: Anybody who doesn’t know classical music is like an animal without a tail. We laugh about this for a while, wonder if our Sanskrit guess is accurate, and then get lost again in the music, which moves into a high-pitched crescendo that one friend describes as a description of classical angst. Indeed, the musical moods seem to reflect the human mind—moving from horrible melancholy to a slower sadness, then exhausted into a calmer state, climbing up to a small spike of joy, then launching full-fledged into ecstasy before again quieting to introspection. My sister-in-law, who learns harmonium and classical vocals from a guru, talks about a state called ananda when listening and singing to music. I am sure this ananda she talks about with such reverence is different from the casual ananda we talk about in colloquial speech. This full-fledged feeling of being one with the universe comes more easily when submerged in music, and today I feel it. Closing my eyes, I can feel the layers of sound dissolving down towards the knowledge of sansar, the worldly universe, down towards a more fundamental truth. (And no, I wasn’t smoking anything.) The last set, with Bobby Gurung on the ghatam and Jeevan Rai on the tabla, got too competitive and too playful for the spiritual setting, but otherwise the music was exceptional.
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Sarita Mishra, a musician who is secretary and co-ordinator of the concert at Kirateswor, says that it took a while to build it upâ€”when they first started the concert fifteen years ago, there were no women and barely any men. Now, the courtyard is always packed and people linger on after the concert is over, despite having to walk home in the dark. This month seems to be a month for music. The the other concert to delight Kathmandu music lovers (besides Sabin Rai at Tamas) was the Viejos Flamencos with Jorge Pardos, a legendary 52 year old flamenco musician from Madrid who flew in to play to a packed hall in the Hyatt Regency Hotel on May 10th. Jorge played the flute and the soprano saxophone, El Chispa played the cajon (a wooden box with an opening at the back, and played by beating hands on the front), and Juan Diego the Spanish guitar. Jorge Pardos was eighteen when Paco de Lucia, the musician who changed the way the flamenco guitar is played, hired him to tour together. In 1999, Jorge stopped touring with Paco, and started to do his own work. He did a big tour with Chick Corea, a legendary American piano player, in 2004. After an hour of uplifting flamenco, the Nepali band Sukarma came on stage to jam with the Spanish troupe. The musicians had never met before, and yet they managed to play comfortably for an hour with harmonic symmetry. My friend whispered: I like them better when
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there’s a whole ensemble. The musicians took turns to play—with Dhrubesh Chandra Regmi on the sitar, Pramod Upadhayay on the tabla, and Shyam Nepali on the sarangi, the stage came alive with both Eastern and Western rhythms. Music is a language that requires no translation, and quickly the instruments learnt to speak to each other. The drummers delighted in finding out that they had the same beats—21 year old El Chispa (“the spark”) found a likeminded companion in Pramod Upadhayay, and the two jammed on their drums, uplifting energy and spirits. Dr. Regmi played the sitar impossibly fast, while Jorge responded with the flute. As Shyam Nepali’s sarangi played a melancholy riff that raised the hair on the back of our heads and left the hall dead silent, the Spanish guitar was the only instrument to respond with its own empathetic chords. The hall was a bit too gigantic, too air-conditioned, and too chandeliered for flamenco, but no doubt the Hyatt has the good sense to make their new jazz club more intimate. The event, organized by the Delegation for the European Commission and the Hyatt, was a fundraiser for the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory, a new music school started in November 2007. The conservatory was started by Mariano Abello, a Madrid musician who arrived in Kathmandu on September 11, 2005. “I escaped from the USA, that’s what I did,” Marino says. Marino was teaching in the universities of South Florida and feeling unfulfilled when his brother
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called. “My brother asked me for help for some stuff he was doing here. I contacted Jazzmando. Me and my wife we fall in love with the Nepali people, so we stayed. We love this place. Here we are trying to give something we know. Not to give--to share.” Marino’s wife, Janine Lusposa, an interior designer, designed the new and soon-to-open Jazz Club at the Hyatt. With fifty plus students ranging in age from six to fifty (three are non-Nepalis), the Conservatory seemed set to continue the jazz tradition in Nepal. Lets hope the funds raised--Rs. 2000 per ticket from over 200 enthusiastic supporters—will help to sustain this new institution. I ask if they will be here for a while, and Marino answers with a smile: “Yes. For a while.”
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eople often ask me about the art world in Nepal. They are seeking not just formal
institutions and well-known artists but also “the underground”. Many things still remain unlisted or word of mouth, but those who seek will find: a rich and burgeoning theatre and performance culture, a fluid music world, an ingrained culture of poetry, and also small but important steps being taken in the world of painting, sculpture, photography, film, documentary, digital media, and literature. Highbrow culture gives way graciously to slapstick: television sitcoms featuring comedians are Nepal’s most favored form of art and entertainment. Nepali remains the lingua franca but regional languages are becoming more audible with the wide distribution of FM and satellite radio. An infusion of donor funds into the art world has brought mixed results—on the one hand, it has broadened access and sometimes supported stellar products and institutions. On
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the other hand, it has encouraged a culture of mediocre content which incorporate the latest buzzwords but lack a knowledge base, often churned out hastily and without a great deal of thought by NGOs for a donorâ€™s need for deliverables. Transnational channels of international artists, the historic migration of Nepalis in and out of Nepal, and art movements inside Nepal that question the status quo, are a few factors that bring a cosmopolitan and post-modern view to Nepali arts. The easiest way to access these worlds is to ask a fellow artist.
Photo By: Jose Reguera
Sushma Joshi is a Nepali writer, filmmaker and artist. She is a graduate of Brown University. She lives in Kathmandu.
If art reviews are meant to be insightful, this is it. Sushma Joshi’s essays on the art scene in Nepal cover paintings, sculpture, photography, film, theater, graphic animation, music, poetry, literature and architecture. And the artists—some Nepali and some foreign, some covered well by national media and some from ‘the underground’, some sacred and some profane, some traditional and some modern, or both. Best of all, the book is inspiring and fun to read. Don Messerschmidt, Associate Editor, ECS magazine, Kathmandu