22 Jul 2016
8 min read
1821 words
VMAG talks to Chandra Shyam Dangol, one of the very few artists in Nepal who crafts huge stone sculptures

You come from a traditional farming family in Khokana. Why did you choose to take up the arts and stone carving?

Farming in Khokana is not just a job. It is a way of life. Locals are extremely proud of their family farming structure, and families here are extremely close-knit. Farming is at the heart of the community. However, my father knew the importance of art and wanted to become an artist. He dedicated five years of his life to crafting metal sculptures. But he had to give up his dream because of peer pressure. I could tell from the look in his eyes that he really enjoyed his brief tenure as an artist. So when he suggested that I should give traditional stone carving a go after my finishing school, I took it upon myself to fulfill his dreams. Although at first, I thought it was a dirty job, I’ve grown to love sculpting. Now, it has been almost 23 years since I’ve been committed to my art. To be honest, I never thought I would become a sculptor, but it has been the best decision of my life.

To be honest, I never thought I would become a sculptor, but it has been the best decision of my life
How did you go about learning stone carving?

I started working with local artists, and after almost two years of tinkering with stone, I found out about Lalit Kala Campus. It was such a relief to know that we actually had an academy of fine arts with first-rate artists and educators. For the next two years, I absorbed as much as I could from my mentors, but I also got an insight into the dismal situation of Nepali traditional art. The realisation that our culture and tradition were under threat was what further pushed me to devote myself to art. Today, for me, art is not just a means of making a living but also my mission in life. I want to be one of the instigators to usher in a new renaissance of traditional art in Nepal.

What was the main thing that struck you when you joined Lalit Kala Campus?

Before joining Lalit Kala Campus of Fine Arts I was doing odd jobs with various local artists, but I didn’t have a clear vision of what I was doing or the knowledge of the rich history behind traditional art. Even today, there are so many artisans who are doing excellent work, but their only incentive is money. They don’t know where the art is coming from or the historical and traditional significance of their particular medium. That’s why I’m a firm believer in education, something I was lucky enough to acquire during my formative years as an artist. You see, to understand art, one requires more than keen eyes, one needs to have been embedded in art theory and art history—to be immersed in an art world where you can learn, reflect and plan for the future.

What kinds of struggles did you go through in the early phases of your career?

Money was definitely the root of a lot of my initial struggles. Without money you can’t hire workers and most importantly get the raw material for your work. The lean times as a struggling artist were tough, but it definitely made me the person I am today.

What was your most defining moment as a sculptor?

I found solace and escape in the wonderful world of sculptures. Carving a figure out of a slab of stone gave me immense pleasure. I worked hard, and my work sustained me. But at the end of 10 years, I realised that I had managed to save only around a hundred thousand rupees. I always wanted to work on colossal statues that stand tall and capture the imagination of the people, so I decided to take a gamble and invested all my savings on a couple of large pieces of stone. I also hired a few artisans and started overseeing their work as opposed to carving the rock myself. It allowed me to maintain quality control and also ensure that the project moved forward. As chance would have it, I was approached for the China World Expo 2010. They wanted four statues in six months, which was no laughing matter. I took the commissioning as a challenge, and somehow managed to finish three statues along with a 12-foot-high statue for the expo. That was definitely a milestone in my career, and it gave me name, fame and financial stability.

You’re also working on a 33-foot-high Manjushree statue in Chobhar. How did that idea come about?

The order for Manjushree’s statue came a couple of months after my work was exhibited in China. The organisers wanted something grand, but they were not exactly sure about the size of the statue. We collectively decided to create a 33-foot-high structure. It was also an honour that Shukra Sagar Shrestha, the renowned scholar and archaeologist, had sought me out for this particular work. We have been diligently working on the statue for the past three-and-a-half years. The foundation for the statue is already done, and we are now putting in the finishing touches. We are planning to erect the statue at Chobhar by the end of 2016.

What makes this work special?

The statue is a representational artwork based on the description of Manjushree in the 4th century book Moolkalpa. It is the second time in the history of Nepal, after the creation of the ancient statue of Budanilkantha (16.5 feet), that such a large stone sculpture is being created. At 33 feet, the Manjushree statue will be a record in itself, and to be a part of this momentous feat is a career high for any artist. We brought in 13 large stones from Pharping, and a group of nine to ten people have been working tirelessly round the clock to complete the sculpture. Financially, I may not be completely secure, but that hasn’t stopped me from taking out loans and investing in the project.

What’s the difficulty in making a large statue?

The main difficulty is getting the stone itself. If tomorrow I get an order to make a 50-foot-stone sculpture, I will probably have to decline the order. There are too many challenges in acquiring large pieces of stones. Another aspect I need to seriously take into consideration before taking on any large-scale project is the availability of craftsmen, and then of course, there’s the lack of equipment.

What do you mean by the lack of educated craftsmen?

I feel most of our artists work without any inkling of what they are doing or of the rich historical tapestry that informs their vocation. People here don’t even care about the work, and it applies to both the craftsmen and the buyers. In fact, only 5 to10 per cent of buyers actually know about the art they are buying and its literal and symbolic significance. Most of the people don’t even care about a statue’s iconography, sculptural form, or the historical significance attached to its symbolism. Such indifferent patrons will definitely produce subpar craftsmen. That’s why I feel Nepali art should be included in school curriculums. Of course, everybody’s not going to become an artist or a sculptor, but they all will at least appreciate a work of art.

What do you think is the significance of stone sculptures?

The longevity of stone sculptures makes them the silent witness to history. In Nepal’s context, the stone sculptures predate any form of artwork and can be traced back to the first century. Even the sculptures of the Lichchhavi or Malla periods reflect a distinctly Nepali artistic consciousness. We still have many old Nepali traditions thriving today, lovingly preserved by craftsmen and passed on from generation to generation. Of course, metal and wooden crafts had the portability and could be transported across borders; hence they proliferated across regions compared to stone carvings.

Why do you like to work with young students?

Growing up, I missed out on a lot of things because I didn’t get a proper education, and people were hesitant to share their knowledge. People thought that if they taught someone what they knew, they’d lose their marketability. When I started teaching, I was absolutely sure of what I wanted, and that was to inspire as many traditional artists as I could. That’s why I was elated when I was offered to teach the students of grade 11 at the Srijana College of Fine Arts, Lazimpat.