Art Connection

10 min read
10 Jun 2016
10 min read
1272 words
Dr Dina Bangdel, one of the very few art historians whose specialty is Nepali art, talks about her field

What makes Nepali art different from others?

I think I can write volumes on this topic. In the West, when we talk about Nepali art, we think of art from the Kathmandu Valley that has been defined as Nepali art in the museums and private collections. But when we talk about Nepali art, we also have to think about the diversity of ethnicities and cultures we have here; we cannot overlook the amazing diversity of Mithila art or of the Khasa Mallas from the western part of the country. From metal work and woodwork to delicate paintings, there is an unsurpassed sense of aesthetics in our art. Today, our artists still continue to model their work the same way as they used to hundreds of years ago.

Why is it important to exhibit Nepali art?

Most of the people in the West know nothing about the diverse artistic heritage of Nepal. There are many museums and collectors in the West that have Nepali collections, but people abroad have not seen works from our museums. That is why we have been trying to organise an international exhibition for quite some time now. However, it’s not just about taking our artwork to the audience in the West. We want the Nepali diaspora to see and learn about their own heritage. If this exhibition happens, it will be the largest one till date and will feature both historical and contemporary art from Nepal. We will be taking the exhibition to France, Austria and Singapore. The earthquakes awakened us to how our heritage can get destroyed and how important it is to document and exhibit them before any other tragic incident occurs. But to have this exhibtion, we need the government’s support.

How can we sustain art?

From ancient times, art has survived on the patronage of monasteries, temples, religious establishments. The prime example has to do with the three Durbar Squares, whose patrons were always competing with one another. The work on the squares were supported by the state, as in the king, with the backing of the community. So there used to be great investments in art, and art was not separate from the social fabric. Today, art is supported by people who buy art products. Our businesses and corporate houses should understand that supporting art is actually a good investment. In ten years, your initial investment in art will be worth tenfold of what you paid. The government should also invest in creating institutions that will support art education. People still think art is the last resort for those who cannot be doctors or engineers. Especially if you’re a girl, you are encouraged to dabble in art or become a graphic designer before you get married. I feel this mindset has to change—because art is so integral to society, and without having a visual culture, we really don’t have an identity.

What sparked your interest in art?

Of course, the most powerful influence in my life was my father, Lain Singh Bangdel. I grew up in a house that was filled with the smell of turpentine. My father was very much into documenting traditional, ancient artwork. He would drag me to all these nooks and crannies in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, as he searched for artwork to photograph. I didn’t enjoy lugging those heavy reflectors for him, but those trips inadvertently shaped my interest in art. Back then,  I never thought I would dabble in art, but life has a funny way of panning out; while studying anthropology in Bryn Mawr College, I took an art history class and got hooked. I did my master’s degree from Wisconsin, where I studied South Asian art. Today I head the Art History Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, Qatar. The main difference from who I used to be is that I don’t paint these days. I study artworks as cultural documents. I believe I’m one of the few, and the only woman, Nepali art historians who specialises in Nepali art. Of course, the irony is not lost on me that I had to go abroad to study my own culture.

Have you faced discrimination in your field because you are a Nepali woman?

First of all, I was not allowed to see and touch a lot of things—because traditionally women haven’t been allowed to do so in Nepal; so I did face that challenge during my field research. I also had to overcome the discriminatory attitude many have against Nepalis—in that, foreign scholars would have easy access to information whereas locals like me would have to dig deeper.

My knowledge was at par with, if not better, than any Western scholar’s, and yet I had to work harder to prove myself. We can still feel the undercurrents of this colonial attitude, and it’s because of this that our art and culture are still being validated through Western eyes.

Do the traditional arts stand a chance in the modern era?

Our traditional art has survived from the sixth century until now. There will always be changes in the way art is made, but they have to be happen within a strict framework provided by the older foundation. Artists can, however, break free of traditional art’s limitations by making use of contemporary art ideas: they can be extremely creative with the compositional elements, the representative elements and the conceptual philosophies. That said, traditional art is still prevalent in our society, and to sustain it we need to make our younger generation aware of it. We need to educate the younger generation about out heritage and encourage them to attend exhibitions because it is they who will preserve our art and culture.

What are your future plans?

One of my dreams is to open the Bangdel Foundation, in memory of my father. I have a museum dedicated to my father that I want to turn into a cultural hub for artists, writers and cultural personalities and also have it be a hangout place for youth. I always feel my feet are planted in two different continents. But because most of my work pertains to Nepal and I’m completely rooted here, I have been thinking of moving back for good in the near future. I am definitely excited about moving back.