Nepali Art Has Ugly Faces - Too

Madan Chitrakar

In the past, endowed with vast medieval wealth - Nepali Art had many reasons to be proud and to be admired. For centuries, the traditions of Painting and Sculpture in particular, have remained so remarkable it could narrate innumerable stories of diverse imaginations, styles and beliefs in its expressions. The achievements also provided reasons to wonder how in spite of the harsh geographical adversity and the days of isolation then the ancestors managed and were able to create cultural marvel. Indeed amazing it may seem today, it underscored a singular fact – honesty, dedication and ingenuity of Nepali artists then!

But these are the things of the past. But today in view with the emerging not so pleasant developing culture amongst our artists brethren, a question troubling us today is whether we are carrying this legacy with equal honesty and dignity? Not really. It seems it is really a high time one should have the guts to expose and let the people know what has always been superseded by the high noise of fallacies.

To begin with let’s fast forward the beginning of modern era in Nepali society and see whether we were able to stay in tune with the call of the time in the recent past. In the genre of Painting, for sure, Nepal did not remain far behind when modern thoughts and modes of expressions when it just began to appear in the British-India. Two Nepali art students (Tej B. Chitrakar and C.M.Maskey) already for the first time in Nepali history had graduated from the British modeled art schools in colonial India as early as mid twenties of last century– thus ushering a new era of modernity in ‘Nepali Art’. It proved to be the earliest but a sturdy foundation for more modern and liberal expressions to come later.

And then it leads us straight to the early sixties when Nepali painters began to transform from the recognizable forms to the modern expressions. It was during these historic times, masters of modern art in India like Raza, Husain, Ara and other avante- garde painters were ruling the crest of art waves in independent India and thanks to the liberal grants of Govt. of India then, Nepali artists could learn and express beyond the known norms and break the established practices at such an early stage. And add to it the knowledge of graphic communications – absolutely a new genre in Nepali context but already well developed in India was introduced in Nepali art and social fabric. By all means, these early efforts did remain highly commendable and by every reason, were path breaking exercises.

Almost simultaneously, as if to add more feathers to these early feats, it was followed by some meaningful events like establishment of a first ever establishment of Nepal Association of Fine Arts (NAFA). Established as an independent state entity, NAFA honestly speaking, came into being as a result of the personal interest and initiative of the then crown prince late Birendra himself. It was meant to function as a state agency to look after every aspect - to develop, promote and nurture the artistic expressions of every kind and the people. As it was meant to promote and preserve all genres of art in existence, it proved a timely- morale booster. As a result, waves after waves of younger generation of artists began to practice and get attracted to forms either with academic undertones or with unconventional forms with modern ideas. It all sounded impressive and seemed doing all with honesty: and it seemed Nepali Art was then really poised for a great leap and hoped optimistically it would soon take on the international arena.

And as intended, for good reasons changes were really taking place. Nepali society in general and the intelligentsia in particular began to witness a vast sea change in people’s attitude and perception towards art. Common people began to find they are no more bewildered and perplexed looking at ‘modern’ works in display. As if to recognize or reward these honest efforts of Nepali Artists then, exactly during this early period one of the member artists from the SKIB, Batsa Gopal Vaidya managed to win the coveted Gold in the Asian Art Biennale held in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It all seemed surreal then that Nepali Art was taking such fast strides within a very short time. Moreover, an establishment of a permanent gallery – Birendra Art Gallery in the premises of NAFA, during this early period indeed offered a great hope to many that at long last there is going to be a place which would truly chronicle and narrate the growth and history of Nepali Art!

Symptoms of dark sides

But unfortunately, as the law of nature has it not always everything would go as intended. Darker sides always follow. So not long after, signs of ugly faces began to emerge in Nepali Art as early as seventies or even earlier. Firstly, the liberal thoughts offered by the modern expressions in painting and sculpture were interpreted by many opportunists as short circuit to name and fame. As a result, not soon after, Nepali Art began to witness many charlatans masquerading as avant-garde painters and many mediocre works began to appear as ‘modern art’ in Nepali Art scene. And secondly, as the creation of NAFA – the Nepal Association of Fine Arts, offered prestigious jobs like Member Secretary as the Executive Official and the posts of ‘Academicians’ representing Fine Arts in the then Royal Nepal Academy (RNA), never-ending power-struggles began to take place unabated amongst a set of power-hungry artists. To these select few, the ‘posts’ remained the matter of paramount importance rather than search for creative explorations. To them, the need for self-respect and dignity soon vanished. Sycophancy and lust for coveted jobs in NAFA and RNA remained the catch word - so unbecoming of a true artist! Objectively speaking, beginning with the earliest appointment of any artist as a member of ‘Academy’ to all the Member-Secretaries of the then NAFA, without any exception, have remained the end result of this perverted attitude and the phenomena of sycophancy.  Apparently, to the incumbents it always seemed the amount of the allocated budget remained their primary concern. The poor state of Nepali Art remains strong testament to all the inefficiencies and the open testimony of the inept performances. Beginning with the appointment of Lain Singh Bangdel in 1962 circa (and incidentally, his entire tenure in various capacities in the then Royal Nepal Academy coincided with the advent and the demise of much reviled Panchayat rule in Nepal) to the latest activities of present incarnation of NAFA which continues to carry the same legacy.     

An Eye Opener

A stark example of the complete wastage of time and money thus spent in the past is made when a simple request made by a foreign art-enthusiast to advise him on a book on ‘contemporary Nepali Art’ – preferably written in English. It is a pity that no such material ever existed or even attempted. For sure, a common curiosity of a foreigner unintentionally ridiculed the concerned institutions and the entire intelligentsia how distressfully unprepared and intellectually shallow the state of Nepali Art and the art-writing is in. It made a shameful example of intellectual poverty of those artists who always sought power in the name of art: and it makes one more angrier and sick of the fact that as stated earlier ‘Fine Arts’ always remained included as a genre of equal concern in the Charters of the then Royal Nepal Academy since its very inception in 1962. The task should have been commenced by the Academy as an ongoing project a long time back!

So then where did the fault lie? Always appointed on the strength of sycophancy, to none of the consecutive incumbents throughout, ever occurred to them a need to engage in academic exercises. So no wonder that those six decades of state budget and endemic perks went down the drains and resulted in a blank zero. In comparison, the efforts and achievements made by Bangladesh – a country of similar size but with a larger population to feed, put us in great shame. An independent entity only since 1971, Bangladesh – today hosts a large international art event every two years since 1979 - leave aside the volumes of art publications every year! 

The Art infrastructures

Now let’s see the state of infrastructures of the Nepali Art, we have today. It is indeed a matter of shame that to this very moment Nepal – a sovereign country and we take so much pride of our rich with cultural heritage, do not have a venue we can describe as a modern art gallery- with amenities of international standard. The incumbents of the NAFA or the then Royal Nepal Academy or the concerned ‘Member’ throughout this long period had never thought of renovating the existing antiquated physical conditions of the so called exhibition halls in the premises of Bal-mandir. Thoughts of creating a new ultra-modern ‘Art-Complex’ apparently not only remained a far away dream but it never occurred to them.

Thanks to the initiatives of late king Birendra that a permanent ‘Gallery’ was mercifully created then. Birendra Art Gallery- a place envisioned to be a central repository of all historic and modern works of meaningful consequences was provided with adequate budget to make purchases of monumental works every year. However without any prejudice, it makes one really sad to note that what really happened to this institution with such noble objectives is a story of despicable acts. On many occasions the incumbent members of the Academy, did succeed in transforming the provision into a virtual cash cow to purchase own or the works of the cronies with arbitrary price tags. A unique example is set- it is really sad to note, by Uttam Nepali while he was in the chair. He managed to compile as many as seventeen of his own works in this prestigious place and pocket the funds into the pocket. Similarly, quite a few of his cronies each has minimum ten to fifteen works sold to NAFA as historic pieces while many many works of historic consequence remain grossly ignored and dismissed. Nothing can be more disgusting show of utter disregard for the declared objectives of the Gallery. Today if one chooses to make a surprise visit to the ‘Gallery’- it would not be really far from the descriptions made here. One would find- leave aside a system of proper display and the supporting literature, it would leave an art lover literally cry at the sight of gross negligence and mismanagement. One has to see to believe the state of disorder and dilapidation in the creaky dust ridden ‘Gallery’!

The other visible casualty of the recent times is the increasing degeneration of innovation, honesty and the sense of dignity in Nepali Art. True that advent of modern forms has brought a visible change in the perception of Nepali art. But it is also understood by many imposters as an easy refuge to make a quick name – or a convenient camouflage to brand oneself as a ‘contemporary or modern artist’. People from different walks of life as diverse as physical fitness trainers to men least familiar with even the basic rudimentary knowledge about art began to emerge as artists or art writers.  Most of them continue to make ‘Shows’ at every interval with mediocre works calling it modern or ‘abstract’. Such flagrant abuse of modern thoughts only helps create misunderstanding about essence of art in the minds of the people.

Recent dramas and antics

Yet another ugly phenomenon seen these days is the rise of antics, hypocrisy and the use of gimmicks in the name of art-primarily to draw attention of the power centers and the public. A glaring example is made in the recent past when someone known for gimmicks, created funny antics by dropping bundles and bundles of cloth down the balcony of Bhimsen tower (Dharahara) for no good reasons. With meaningless random scribbles painted over it, bundles of cloth rolled down the balcony and it was described as an ‘art’. What a shameless way of fooling simple Nepali people.  Thanks to the simplicity and ignorance of Nepali people, they had to swallow it as if it is a real work of art. It was by all means an outright bluff of a highest order and a ridiculous stunt. Can anyone explain to this date what purpose did this senseless and meaningless act served to the cause of art- except to make noise? The traders who may have donated the cloth bundles should know it better.

Rise of Opportunism, sycophancy and Greed

In 2006 circa, the country witnessed an epochal upheaval politically: suddenly the country got transformed into a republic. Expectations were raised high and everyone remained euphoric that bad days are over for good. So did the art and the art fraternity. But the first thing to happen in the art fraternity was to witness a set of super-jealous artists seeking to offer themselves as the art-wings or the art-cadres of the chosen political parties. The only reasons behind doing so were the greed, to gain close access to the power centers and then avail themselves of the rewards for doing so. Primarily driven by greed and partly to compensate their own academic short comings needed to acquire prestigious posts- such acts so unbecoming of true artists, remained the general pattern of their ‘Lalit-kala Abhiyan’ or the campaign for Art.  So unfortunately after 2006, the state of chaos and bluff in Art for sure, nosedived from bad to worst. In short, it was as if a kind of vicious viral disease was spread amongst the artists. No wonder that today each major political party has bunch of artists serving as sister -organizations in art– in par with labor or peasants’ groups.    

The coming of ‘Nepal Academy of Fine Arts’ in place of earlier Nepal Association of Fine Art in April, 2010 –now independent with more clout and hefty budget is the most visible and glaring example of a wrong decision made in complicity with such vice groups as stated above. By the term ‘Academy’, one understands it is a place where a group of wise and learned scholars from respective genres or fields sit together to steer and provide the leadership on the strength of their knowledge and past experiences. In a normal circumstance, the state decision makers always make a serious thinking on choosing the very right people to man such an august institution – never on the strength of continuous lobbying and caving in to such petty groups. Unfortunately, it is really a matter of shame that the present ‘Art Academy’ remains an out right end-result of such constant pestering and lobbying made by one of those vice-groups seen in the Nepali Art today. The present Academy is led by and all the Office holders have all remained the cadres of similar groups. The result is open and for everybody to see. It is a motley crowd of people from extreme opportunists, monarchists to just anarchists or with disparate back grounds. Most of the ‘Academicians’ are not only members of sister organizations, about half of them are also still enrolled as regular students in TU to this very moment. And paradoxically, some members have never seen a face of an art institution in their lives. It is not that one should have qualms on being a political cadre but the primary issue is one should have proven ability to accomplish the noble academic tasks as enshrined in the given statute. Imagine a scenario if people doing Bachelors or Masters in Science are appointed the honorable members of an academy of science or technology? This is what precisely happened in Nepali art today and thanks are entirely due the culture of extreme political meddling and the desire of the leaders to reward their henchmen.

Now it is more than one and half years, the ‘Academicians’ have been appointed and since then enjoying from the state funds - the hard earned tax-money paid by the poor Nepali people. So it is also time to expect some ‘academic’ works in return. But the returns are hard to find. Agreed that the period is too short to make tangible long term works but it is too long enough to at least chart out an outline of future course of actions to come. The accomplishments made so far it seems limited to purchase glossy limousines, make elaborate refurbishment of office cabins : and to exhaust the given state given budget and wait for another budget to come. And a defensive argument may come that a ’National Art Exhibition’ has been organized. But it may well be noted that it remains a poor continuation of an old ritual initiated by late king Birendra some forty five years ago with a meager budget. What the people expect from an ‘Academy’ is academic works. No less!

Forget ‘academic‘ research works, instead a recent news coming out from the ‘Academy’ in public says ‘Academicians’ are now at each other’s throat over the issue of commission spoils coming out of the new car purchases- amounting millions. On 16th this July, with a liberal display of ‘Khukri’ and followed by ransacking of office premises, the so-called ‘academy’ unveiled its true face before the world making the entire art-fraternity of Nepal’s head bow low.  For these acts of shame, the ‘Academicians’ are not to be blamed for what had happened -because they are known for that. The blame and fault entirely lies in the poor judgment of the members of the Selection Committee albeit they remain of questionable integrity and the political decision maker who wanted to reward his henchmen above the principle of right men in right place.

Unfortunately in short, the present constitution of present set –up would sure to go down in the annals of Nepali Art history not only as an absolute mockery of meritocracy but also as an intentional affront to the people who had helped shape a modern face of Nepali Art.

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By: bhishan, Kathmandu (2012-04-27)
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