27 Mar 2017
14 min read
1772 words
Art & Culture
Pravin Chitrakar shares that the increasing interest in the provenance and authenticity of handicrafts in Nepal is bringing about a renaissance of the arts and crafts

Pravin Chitrakar, founder and director of Patan Handicrafts, and the creative director of Yala Mandala, decided to take a chance and embrace the age-old advice—follow your heart. Since he made that decision, life, for him, has been all about learning about preserving and furthering Nepal’s rich artisan traditions. He has been in the skill-based business of arts and crafts for more than a decade, since 1992, but his love and passion for Nepali craftsmanship remains alive and shows when in conversation. In a chat with Alok Thapa of M&S VMAG, Chitrakar shares that the increasing interest in the provenance and authenticity of handicrafts in Nepal is bringing about a renaissance of the arts and crafts. He also talks about how our country needs more critical thinkers who can foster creativity and passion in this industry so that Nepal can carve out an identity as the nation of the finest handicrafts.

Why did you choose the name Yala Mandala?
The word ‘Yala’ in Newari means Patan (the literal meaning of the word is, ‘I love it’). I was born in Patan Durbar Square area and grew up immersed in Yala’s art and culture. So, for me, there’s no better name than that for the art gallery. I believe handicrafts are a direct reflection of a culture. We want to promote Yala as a brand so that we can inculcate an appreciation towards handicrafts and give due credit to people who give continuation to our rich cultural heritage.

Tell us about your childhood.
I belong to the Chitrakar clan, also known as Pun in Newari. My grandfather used to paint Agnadeva, the god of community (in every tole), and his paintings were always celebrated. As a kid, I often wondered why my grandfather’s paintings were regarded as having so much value by the community. I wasn’t too sure about what he was painting either, but I think this ignorance sparked my interest in the arts and crafts. Also, I grew up behind the royal garden of Patan Durbar Square, and while commuting, I’d cross Mangal Bazar a few times a day. Although I did not necessarily stop and marvel at my surroundings every day, subconsciously, I think that seeing the local arts and crafts had a profound impact on my psyche, and ultimately, my destiny.

When I got older, I went to India to study engineering. After I came back, I felt pressured (by myself) to make a decision that would align with my authentic self. It was quite tough making the decision, but luckily for me, arts and crafts came naturally, and it didn’t take much to convince myself that this was what I wanted to do.

How did you convince your family?
I’ve always believed in living for myself—I don’t live my life seeking validation. So after graduation, I asked myself if I was really studying what I wanted to do in the future. When I decided that I wasn’t, I chose to get into the handicraft business. Of course, I was faced with opposition. Many even thought I had gone mad. There were times when people mocked me saying that this was not a dignified job. But that motivated me even more; it became my mission to dignify the artisans who toil away behind doors, making works of art. I must appreciate my family though; they were always supportive. My father, especially, believed that progress would not be possible without deviating from the norms (or the mundane). It’s been 25 years since I have been engaged in the skill-based business of the arts, and I’m very happy.

Tell us about your experience so far.
We started Patan Handicrafts in 1992, and it’s been five years since we started branding Yala Mandala. For two decades, we worked for international clients. These years were like a gestation period for Yala Mandala because it helped us to hone our abilities. It also taught us a lot about marketing. My biggest challenge in this process has been changing the mindsets of people regarding handicrafts; for many, it was, and still is, just limited to decorative items like statues and thangkas. My argument has always been that anything that requires the touch of an artisan’s skill is a piece of art. Over the years, Patan Handicrafts has stayed very low-key and promoted the speciality of Nepali artists’ skills in the international arena. But I think it’s about time that we started bringing these customised artefacts to the Nepali diaspora because times are changing, and people are slowly starting to appreciate local craft.

So you think there’s been a renaissance in the appreciation of Nepali arts and crafts?
Like I said, for the past 20 years, we have been working exclusively for our international clientele, but compared to, say 10 years ago, I do sense more and more people in Nepal who are interested in our work—from both a design and craft perspective. That’s also one of the reasons why we’re excited about building our own brand. People, today, are more aware that they have a choice: to buy off-the-shelf or to pick a high-quality craft item. See, you’re buying a unique piece of art that has a story. That makes it precious.

What do you think is your biggest achievement?
There were people who used to ask me if everything was alright, albeit lovingly, because half of them didn’t understand what I was doing. It all stems from our society’s preconceived notion about handicrafts—many still think that it’s insignificant (or cheap) work. That is where I put my foot down; I refuse to consider artefacts as mere showpiece items. Our stance was always to appreciate handicrafts as pieces of artwork that have been made by skilled hands working collaboratively. Previously, I may have been looked down upon by people, but that has changed now. Many people are embracing a similar line of profession, and that feels like a victory. I feel happy when people copy us because I believe the arts and crafts depend on skills being passed from person to person.

How important is it to contemporise traditional artwork?
We live in an age of global commerce, communication and community. Contemporising traditional arts and crafts has to do with how you add to traditional forms and techniques without harming them. You add your personal style to the older pieces to reflect modern culture and sensibilities: fashion, styles and statements. I’m not a fan of extremism—too traditional or too contemporary—so the trick, for me, is to find the perfect combination of these two for an individualised expression in the product.  

What concerns you about the handicraft scene in Nepal?
Many handicraft outlets in Patan are just set up to make money. I don’t have an issue with the business side of enterprises, but there needs to be passion in what you’re doing. What we need is an association of critical thinkers who can inject creativity, ideas, and most importantly, passion into this industry. If you just sell a piece of art, it’s a mere business transaction, but when you encapsulate it within a story, then you are gifting the buyer an experience. I feel that more people are prepared to pay and wait for a piece that has a personal story. If we are to glorify the Nepali handicrafts sector, then it has to start with the professionals in the industry. The main game-changer would be to involve educated people who are passionate about arts and crafts.

Talking about stories, the building where you have set up Yala Mandala has a very interesting history. Can you share that with our readers?
I’m told that this house is at least 350 years old. It belonged to one of the Rajbhandaris (actually this entire tole belongs to the Rajbhandari clan). It is said that the then Rana prime minister, Juddha Samsher Rana, used to come to this place and rest in the courtyard and conduct official work while having his tobacco fill. Also, this is a Newari house, renovated by Rohit Ranjitkar, and it consists of the traditional bahal, ankhijhyal, stairs and other traditional embellishments. Before getting this place, I remember that I didn’t even have enough money or an idea about what I wanted to do with the house; all I knew was that I had to lease it. Today, this quaint little house is the showroom for our brand, Yala Mandala. We are also in the process of renovating the small backyard garden with its neo-classical Rana-esque building into a small, intimate café for lovers of art, tranquility and the open air.

If you could talk with the Pravin of 25 years ago, what would you guys tell each other?
We would probably give each other a pat on the back and say, “No regrets”. I would probably tell my younger self that the risk he took by leaving engineering and embracing Nepali arts and crafts was the right thing to do. Hopefully, he would look at me and say that I, the older me, have justified his actions.