Representing, re-imagining Nepal

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Published:
22 Dec 2017
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8 min read
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A handful of institutions in Kathmandu are today producing the sort of artists that contemporary Nepal has sorely needed

Nepal has undergone a whirlwind of changes in the last few decades. The absolute monarchy has been replaced by a parliamentary democracy; more and more people are going abroad to find work opportunities; and urbanisation shows no sign of abating. The country has gone through the cellphone revolution and the information revolution, and for a nation that was mostly shut off from the world outside until the middle of the 20th century, these changes have occurred within a time span that is orders of magnitude shorter than the time it takes for these changes to occur in most other countries. 

It’s in this mercurial crucible that Nepali artists—the narrators of these changes—have to create art. The Nepali artist has to create works that speak to a Nepal that has fostered so many different ideas of identity, society and class. But to do so, you need artists of a certain calibre, artists who have gone through a training system that allows them to capture contemporary Nepali reality, and create art that speaks to and of this reality, instead of merely aping and borrowing from the West. 

Fortunately, the aforementioned changes in Nepal have also included the establishment of exceedingly well-designed, professionally run institutions that have helped produce music and visual artists who can cater to the contemporary market’s needs. Here, we feature some of these institutions.

Kathmandu University School of Arts (Center for Art and Design)

Kathmandu University School of Arts, Center for Art and Design (KU Art+Design) was established in 2003, a time when Nepal’s art scene was relatively stagnant. Only a handful of art galleries existed then, and the works of Nepali artists seemed to lack variation and vision. Even those who wanted to push their boundaries couldn’t do so, owing to the lack of resources, information and mentorship. Nepal’s overall arts scene seemed to be stuck, to say the least. The government-run Lalit Kala Campus, of course, did what it could, but it lacked the overall infrastructure needed to develop students ready for the 21st century. Moreover, politics was an ever-present—and often hindering—force in Nepal’s government campuses. It was in this state of chaos that KU Art+Design made its foray into art education, with the aim to provide aspiring Nepali artists with a proper platform through which to sharpen their skills and vision.

“I think KU Art+Design was established at just the right time, 14 years ago,” says Sujan Chitrakar, Academic Programme Coordinator and Assistant Professor at KU Art+Design, and an artist who is known for his installation art. “It was high time that Nepali artists realised the value in the subject matter around them, and figured out how exactly to approach the subject matter, but that isn’t possible without a sound foundation in our own history as well as in art history. We needed artists who were highly receptive and informed.” 

The school currently offers a highly rigorous, 139-credit BFA course (in Graphic Communication or Studio Art), the first two years of which is devoted to providing students with a solid foundation in art history and skills of their choice. The curriculum itself goes through occasional revisions, so that the students’ education is still relevant after they graduate. According to Chitrakar, KU Art+Design graduates are very adaptable, by which he means that they can still perform when removed from their comfort zone. “Many of our students are currently studying in reputed institutions in India, Australia, Japan and the US, among others, and they’ve had no trouble blending in their new environments.” 

At KU Art+Design, students are also taught business skills and other commercial skills, so that they have something to fall back on if they hit a creative wall. In their last academic semester, students are free to create art using their medium of choice, under the guidance of mentors. “Ultimately, art is supposed to move people, and ideally, subvert the status quo, but that’s not something that the university can force the student to do,” says Chitrakar. “We don’t pressure our students to change the world, because that again is a restriction of sorts on their creativity. But if they so wish, we believe, they are equipped to do so.” 

Notable alumni from KU  Art+Design 

Kabi Raj Lama

Kabi Raj Lama is an artist who is known for his lithographic and woodcut works. One of his lithographs recently sold for Rs 10,00,000. In 2005, Lama joined KU Art+Design’s BFA programme, majoring in painting. “I was part of KU Art+Design’s second batch, and our teachers were very helpful, approachable and qualified,” says Lama. “The university would frequently organise for us talk programmes and workshops, and we even had foreign artists come in and give us lectures and workshops. During a time when resources were scarce, KU really helped us stay updated with the contemporary art world.” After receiving his BFA degree from KU, Lama went to Japan, where and he ended up specialising in lithography and woodcut. Since then, Lama has participated in many exhibitions and residencies, and he’s currently preparing for a fellowship and visiting artist programme at Harvard University.

Kailash K Shrestha

Kailash K Shrestha is an artist and lecturer who has taken part in several international group exhibitions, curated shows. The Dolakha native came to Kathmandu in the hopes of becoming a banner artist. “I wanted to study at the Lalit Kala Campus of Fine Arts, but my family wanted me to take up commerce in Public Youth Campus (PYC),” says Shrestha. “Before my classes at PYC started in the afternoon, though, I would spend my time at Lalit Kala in the mornings. My time there did somewhat widen my horizons, but I was still seeing only the tip of the iceberg. It was only when I joined KU Art+Design in 2004 that I realised what education and art actually is. It was KU that introduced me to the global art scene. I provided me access to so many resources, and because we were the first batch, the experimental batch, we were very well-taken care of. And it’s owing to that foundation that I’ve been able to do so much.”

Shrestha is currently focusing on his upcoming solo exhibition, and his visual arts centre, Artudio—where artists come together and share knowledge. Shrestha has also started an art centre in his hometown, Dolakha, after the 2015 earthquakes left his village in ruins. His project is an attempt to rehabilitate the children there through art.

Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory

For the longest time, jazz music’s essence hadn’t properly registered in the Nepali public’s consciousness. People associated trumpets and the saxophones—instruments that define jazz—with local bands that dressed up in red and golden, and played renditions of popular Hindi love songs in the streets during jantis. Sure, there were jazz music festivals such as Jazzmandu, but most Nepalis still harboured the wrong notions about jazz. And if a Nepali wanted to pursue jazz music in Nepal—for which you need a solid grounding in music theory and a complete mastery of your instrument—there were no institutions you could go to. That’s a gap that Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory (KJC) sought to fill. 

“KJC’s goal is to train people properly in the music arts,” says Manoj Kumar KC, Director at KJC. “We want to formally impart jazz-music education. We also give lessons in various instruments, music arranging, improvisation, jazz and Hindustani music theory and history, ear training and electronic-music production. For this, we wanted a faculty comprising people who were first and foremost good teachers. Initially, most of our faculty was made up of foreigners, but we now have many Nepali teachers too, all of whom have teacher training. If anybody takes classes with us, it’s never about learning a few chords and playing a few songs. We always start from the ground up. Our students go through a rigorous curriculum comprising harmony studies, rhythm studies, ear training, compositional studies, music theory and lots and lots of practice.” 

Students at KJC have only one class a week, and this schedule is usually met with disapproval from people who enroll at KJC. But they must realise that music education differs from academic education in that it takes time for the mind and the body to get used to a new musical lesson. Even top music schools like the the Berklee School of Music follow the one-class-a-week model. 

“If songs are poems and essays, jazz is a conversation,” says Isu Shrestha, a guitar teacher at KJC. “It’s all about improvisation, but to improvise, your instrument has to be almost an extension of you, and that calls for a lot of practice and a lot of learning. The rigour, I think, also goes on to help Nepalis better understand, and even preserve, Nepali music. There’s still a lot that can be done with Nepal’s sounds, but that requires a good understanding of the language of music itself—and that’s something that a jazz musician possesses.”    

KJC has, to date, produced quite a few respected musicians such as Jacko Wacko (trumpeter) and Kiran Shahi (drummer of popular rock outfit Jindabaad), to name a few.

Nepal Sangeet Vidyalaya

The establishment of Nepal Sangeet Vidyalaya (NSV) in 2006 was a major milestone in Nepali music history. For the first time, Nepal had a formal music school established with the permission of the Ministry of Education of Nepal, and this school would go on to be vested with the responsibility of developing the curriculum for formal music education here. “Prior to this, music was still technically an extracurricular activity,” says Iman Shah, principal of NSV, and also a guitarist, composer, music teacher and audio engineer. “It’s still regarded as extracurricular activity by most Nepalis, though. But I think the inclusion of music in the SEE curriculum is a major step forward in changing how society perceives aspiring musicians.”

Shah, after finishing his audio engineering course in the US, returned to Nepal in the late 90s and started his own studio, Sacred Soundz. Nepal had its share of recording studios then, but none of them were adept at working with rock or metal. Shah helped many rock and metal bands, such as Albatross, Monkey Temple, The Shadows, and The Edge band, among many, many others, refine their sound. He has mixed and mastered over 3,000 songs, and he is still pushing for further developments in music education in Nepal. 

“In 2010, the government made music an optional subject in class 10, but what has changed now is that the State has adopted music as a major subject in technical and vocational schools,” he says. This means that students at NSV can now have their core subjects be music-related (subjects such as Fundamentals of Music, Instrumental Studies, and Music Technology, among others), while also studying general subjects such as English, Math and Nepali. NSV’s curriculum was designed with assistance from Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, and the teachers at NSV, too, have undertaken a two-year teaching course.

NSV also offers non-credited music courses, and many artists who have shaped Nepal’s contemporary music scene—artists like Almoda Upreti and members of bands such as Topi--have been educated at NSV.  

“In Nepal, music as an industry hasn’t really blossomed yet. This industry needs to be fed with a supply of talented, accomplished artists, and formal music schools like ours seek to produce artists who meet that demand,” says Shah. “Nepali society still doesn’t acknowledge music as a viable line of profession, but I think these notions around music will change only after a revolution in Nepali music education.”  

Sattya Media Arts Collective

Established in 2011 and known for their many murals around town, Sattya Media Arts Collective is a resource centre and a collaboration platform for artists, filmmakers, photographers, activists and other creative types. Sattya can arguably be credited with bringing mural culture to Nepal, and they’ve had much to add to the overall arts scene through the affordable workshops they organise.

“Before Kolor Kathmandu (Sattya’s street-art project), most walls in Kathmandu only featured political messages or graffiti,” says Suraj Shakya, Creative and Media Manager at Sattya. “Through Kolor Kathmandu, we painted 75 murals—to represent Nepal’s 75 districts—on walls all around Kathmandu. I wouldn’t say we started mural culture here, but we were definitely catalysts.”

Sattya often collaborates with NGOs, INGOs and activists to help them with social outreach. “We’re just the medium, though,” says Shakya. “Because we don’t have the expertise to advocate for social issues, we usually tag along with an expert who knows these issues thoroughly. Sattya operates in the spirit of collaboration, so you’ll usually find us working in tandem with with other organisations and helping them get their message across through our art mediums. For example, we regularly organise Bato ko Cinema, for which we travel to remote areas and screen documentaries for the locals. We screen, say, a documentary about the life of migrant workers in the Middle East, which is followed by discussions facilitated by the experts tagging along with us.”

Sattya also helps people dip their toes into various art forms through their highly affordable art workshops, usually with experts of a certain art form. “Our workshops, apart from being a source of income for us and the person facilitating the workshop, is an attempt to expose more people to various types of art,” says Shakya. “People don’t usually join month-long courses that cost a lot. But Sattya provides relatively shorter, highly affordable high-quality workshops so that people can gain exposure to these art forms, no holds barred. We usually don’t provide certificates at the end of the workshop, because we don’t want to be judging your artwork and approving or disapproving it. We believe everyone can create art.”