28 June, 2004


June 27, 2004, Nation Weekly Magazine

Sushma Joshi

Life intersected with art as your critic came down with food poisoning on her way to Bhaktapur to see the first international arts workshop in Nepal. As I rushed past an inexplicable brick wall in the middle of the square and entered the bathroom, there it was! An urinal in that peculiar shade of pink so beloved to middle class Nepal.

When Marcel Duchamp first took that profane object, the urinal, and put it into a sacred space, the gallery, and signed it: “R.Mutt”, he was not just being perverse. He was going against centuries of history of representational Western art that insisted that the mode of realism, which sadly still rules over Nepal’s gallery scene, was the only true art. Duchamp’s contempt of the art market and its machinations, which took art objects and turned them into commodities, was another reason for his brash, in-your-face display.

If the idea of urinals as Art churns your stomach, and you’re wondering what was going on at Bhaktapur, there is no need for panic. Although the art exhibited at the historic square - clay pots arranged in nine circles on the courtyard, a brick wall with an umbrella resting inside one of the openings, origami birds flying over a dry water-tank - very clearly broke accepted traditions of realistic art within Nepal, there were no signs of profanity, transgressions or taboo-breakings. Indeed, in keeping with the Newar dominated art scene (6 out of the 7 Nepali artists were Newars), even the undertones of political protest had a civilized texture to them. No torn sidewalks and stone-throwing was in evidence, although projects about instability, militarization, and desperation of civil conflict grabbed the crowd’s attention.

The seven Nepali artists, along with seven international artists, spent ten days at the Shiva Guesthouse in Bhaktapur, creating art, explaining to the befuddled locals about their process and logic, and writing beautifully copy-edited musings about their philosophies. The art, displayed at various points along the square, draws curious crowds of Indian tourists, children in scout uniforms, and farmers. “What’s this?” says a farmer disbelievingly, pointing to the blue pots on the ground. “Art, Art!” says a volunteer impatiently, before breaking into a stream of Newari that hopefully explained to the curious woman all about innocence, and how children do not know the difference between right and wrong, and how those pots, some facing the sky, some the earth, attempted to grasp that ambiguity.

Rajesh Lohala, a thangka painter who’s waiting out the recession of the civil conflict while watching 1500 domestic tourists walk by his shop every Saturday without a blink of interest, admits that the locals initially did not comprehend how people got permission to put a brick-wall dab-smack in the middle of the famous square. “It took us a while to understand,” he says. “Its modern art, that’s what it is.”

But is it really modern? “Modern”, an easy term to stick on all sorts of phenomena, from women with mini-skirts to computer playing children, may or may not be the appropriate word. Lets rewind a few hundred years to see where we might be now.

Modern art happened in the West between 1100 to early 1900s. The phase of “modern” art of the West – the experimentation with perception, the screaming of Dada, the surrealistic melting clocks of Dali, the abstractions of Piet Mondrian, Weimar Bauhaus, Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism –were triggered by powerful historical events like World War I and II and the Bolshevik Revolution. These movements, which included explosive changes in everything from architecture to poetry, literature to visual art, built upon, and in opposition, to each other. They were global movements, as our own modern littérateurs like Balkrishna Sama and artists like Lain Singh Bangdel testify. After the end of modernism came post-modernism, with its anti-Grand Narrative drive. No grand myths are allowed, only pastiches and references of previous glories.

In Bhaktapur, it is hard to shake off the feeling that post-modernism is still very much resting on the grand narrative of Malla glory. This dramatic relationship was best demonstrated by “Bhoj”. Sitting in an open pati, Kalapremi invites curious locals to his “Bhoj” (feast) in flawless Newari. Some young men decline and move off, others jump up to sit on top of newspapers to stare at earthen plates with black and white designs on them. The plates, broken, are woven together by yellow wire with perfect craftsmanship. “You’re sitting on the news,” the artist announces. Kalapremi reads his poem, a biting elegy to the political conflict, addressing the audience in equally flawless literary Nepali. The poem and the art, explains the artist, was inspired by the greed (daridrata) he sees on the faces around him during this moment. Everybody’s plate is broken, he says. The bhoj, a moment redolent of abundance, has become one of emptiness and despair.

The process may have befuddled the art-savvy locals, but not for long. The lines between post-modernism, modernism, and tradition are not that demarked, after all, especially in Nepal where things tend to go around in circles. One of the artists, who has woven straw circles to celebrate the notion of life cycles and completeness, has added a red string to denote the continuation of time. One hopes that time will continue to take art to new and different places.

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