09 Aug 2017
10 min read
Chitrakar has introduced the unique Nepali art form to people living all across the globe. He has even held exhibitions in countries such as Pakistan, Finland and Japan. In fact, 125 of his Paubha paintings are on permanent display at the Kanzouin Museum in Tokyo. Today, Chitrakar, along with his assistants, runs Simrik Atelier in Patan.
Why did you choose painting over other artistic expressions?
And why Paubha?
I am a Chitrakar—the Chitrakars are a Newari artisan clan—and ritualistic paintings were thus a huge presence during my formative years. During weddings and various festivals, I used to adorn doors with texts and paintings. I have always been mesmerised by gods and goddesses, and perhaps that’s why I choose to draw them. I honestly don’t know when, how or why I started painting Paubha.
What’s so special about Paubha?
Paubha painting is unique to the Kathmandu Valley, and it predates Tibetan thangkas. Paubha relies on ritualistic symbolism and tantric elements to depict gods and goddesses in their different mudras (posture). Yes, it is a religious painting, but to appreciate it, you don’t need to be initiated in a particular religion or a particular sect. The painting first draws people in with its vibrant colours, and as you home in on the details, the expression and the various elements in the painting incite queries. It’s the case of aesthetic attraction leading to gyan, knowledge. I derive great joy from painting, and even more when I see people enjoying it. Paubha is my pursuit of happiness. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and all I’ve ever done.
How long does it take you to complete a painting?
When I start a project, my focus is solely on the subject. I never think about the time that I might take to complete it, or I will just be discouraged. I don’t like to be confined by a time frame. The way I work is also one of the reasons I have stopped taking commissions. For me, every Paubha painting starts with an intensive study of the subject, including the religious aspects associated with it and the iconography needed to lay it down on canvas. I still have some paintings I am yet to finish that I started before my son was born, and now he’s 20 years old. A Paubha painting may keep evolving until the artist is satisfied with the final outcome. You can't rush a good thing—you can't rush art!
With such strict code of practice regarding Paubha, can a Paubha artist have his or her signature style?
Various religious philosophies are depicted visually in Paubha. A deity who represents a certain moral or spiritual aspect is always placed at the focal point. The gods and goddesses are drawn using strict codes of iconography, which have been developed over many centuries—the facial expressions, skin complexion, body postures and hand gestures all have symbolic value. Of course, every artist gets to play with his or her signature style for the elements in the background. These details depend on the artist’s discretion. If you have a keen eye for detail, you can easily point out the elements that distinguish my work from other Paubha artists.
Paubha is making a comeback in the Nepali art scene after a hiatus of almost two centuries. How can we ensure its longevity?
So much of our knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation, usually by word of mouth and through cultural rituals, and that has been the case in Paubha painting as well. The main problem with this method is that we lack documentation of historical paintings and of the techniques that were used. I had a tough time finding the right resources while trying to learn Paubha. I’m of the belief that knowledge cannot be confined to a particular caste, and that it should be propagated among all sections of people. That’s why I have been sharing my knowledge with as many budding artists as I can, to ensure that Paubha survives. I provide regular classes at my studio, and the 14-month course accommodates students who come from different walks of life—from foreigners to local tattoo artists.
How do we acquire knowledge in the art of Paubha paintings?
It’s been four years since Paubha was incorporated in Kathmandu University’s and Tribhuvan University’s curricula. But I don’t know if it’s owing to the lack of information that not many students have enrolled in the programmes so far. Student indifference aside, a major problem plaguing Paubha is the lack of resources. Some experienced artists lack formal certificates, so it would pose a problem if they were to be hired as teachers. If Paubha is to survive, it’s high time the government took an interest in the art and provided adequate platforms for artists, and found a way to recognise the artists so that the new generation could get encouraged to pursue this field.
Is four years enough to make you a skilled Paubha artist?
The basic academic skills one acquires in school can only take you so far; it’s your interest and persistence that helps you harness your skills. We have devised the curriculum such that it provides basic training that guides the participants through the steps to creating Paubha paintings that are aesthetically and technically correct. I have been doing Paubha for more than 40 years, and to this day my art is evolving. We are here to initiate you into the world of Paubha, but how an individual makes use of his/her strengths, skills, experience and knowledge is completely up to him/her.
What is your opinion of the current art scene in Nepal?
When I went to Japan in the early 90s, I was amazed to see the way they treated their artists. I felt rather awkward initially, but once they found out that I was an artist, they showered me with respect and admiration. Our self-worth is often based on what other people tell us about ourselves. Nepalis are like musk deer that are unaware of their own beauty and roam all their lives enchanted by their own scent. In Nepal, the first question that is asked about any profession is how much does it pay. Another problem that artists in Nepal still have to face is that here art and creativity is defined by religion and the caste system. But thankfully, there is a shift in mentality among the new generation. I guess with many artists leaving the country and making a name for themselves, people are starting to realise that our art and culture represent Nepal very well on the international stage.
How can we preserve and uplift Nepali art?
You cannot establish your identity until you learn about your own cultural heritage. Art is a medium through which we can preserve, celebrate, challenge and reinvent our identity. It’s my dream that some day some form of art-work will be displayed in every Nepali household. It is also important that we Nepalis respect our country’s heritage sites. It’s every generation’s responsibility to take care of the cultural monuments—for those who lived before them and for those who will come after them.