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JAN 01 - A few days ago, I received an invite to an art exhibition in Kathmandu. The event was titled "Peace." I felt enormously depressed seeing this title. Not because I don't like the idea of peace, but because I felt the word "peace" had become a cliché in Nepal by this point, and a rather meaningless cliché at that. So why on earth were artists, who are supposed to be the vanguards of social and political revolutions, using this overused and by now thoroughly meaningless word to signify their art?
Therein lies the dilemma of art—and also politics—in Nepal. Our political world stagnates. So does our art world. Maybe it's vice versa. It's like they are part of the same reptilian beast, one the head, the other the tail, and both of them are hibernating. Or thrashing around in seemingly energetic but ultimately useless turmoil.
If you look at social and political revolutions worldwide, artists have always been at the forefront. In Spain and Italy, museums are chock full of artworks that are tied to political revolutions. These artworks are radical and revolutionary. Many times they are shocking. At other times, they inspire awe. Picasso's Guernica, which depicted the horrors of war, comes to mind. At other times, they break with their own times and traditions to set off a wave of new innovation—Van Gogh being one of my favourite artistic examples. In New York, with its restless febrile energy, art is always breaking new grounds. New York thrives as a city of global proportions because businesses support artists, and see their art as integral part of their own identities.
In Nepal, it appears, artists follow politicians. If stagnation is the political order of the day, artists will play along with the party line. Therefore, we still get exhibitions lazily titled "Peace."
Despite our somewhat revolutionary moments of the past 10 years, politics was hardly able to tap into art as a revolutionary force. Sure, the Maoists sang and danced their way to the people's hearts. They made fabulously subversive tapes of songs (and a few bad movies). But where are these artists now? Why are they not in the national consciousness?
The art world in Nepal continues to spring out of bourgeoise impulses to create beautiful objects, and there is hardly any tie-in, if at all, with the politics of the day. Ashmina Ranjit may be one of the very few contemporary artists engaging with the political movement for democratic change, as it occurs. She has been able to harness mass attention to art events which she has staged in public places. Ragini Upadhyay, with her innovative paintings commenting on the political situation, is another artist—who though tied to the gallery—commands attention. Others have worked on artwork that reflects social or political concerns. But it feels these artists are few and far between.
In Nepali cinema, a paralysing stagnation of staggering proportions makes it impossible—even with the ease of access to the most modern technology—for our filmmakers to move on and make good films. Nepali cinema brings out a film every once in a while that boasts of cutting into a new period free from the previous decades of awful cinema. But sadly, each of those films are bogged down by the imperatives of commercial success. In Nepal, commercial success equates selling tickets to the lowest common denominator. And the producers do Nepalis a disservice by thinking we are not an intelligent audience. I can only conclude that the paralysis of cinema has something to do with the paralysis of our politics—and that they are mutually intertwined. Until filmmakers are free to think in Nepal, free of fear, free of financial constraints, and free of NGO conditionalities, they are not going to bring out an Oscar winning film which will make audiences the world over gasp with its power.
Interestingly, while commercial cinema continues to stagnate inside tightly-bounded imaginative boundaries, there's been a move towards creating independent films which is bringing a tiny bright spark into this otherwise dreary cinema world. A small, bubbling pool of talent and energy seem to be coalescing and floating around in Kathmandu, doing those most important and obvious things—watching movies from around the world, discussing them, talking about issues, and tying them to a larger political scenario other than just of technological aspects. Perhaps this incubator of talent will one day bring forth a Satyajit Ray, or a Mira Nair, in Nepal.
That is, if the international organisations don't get to them first and destroy their innate aspirations by making them make commercials about water or family planning. Don't get me wrong—the greatest filmmakers of our times started out working on commercials. Michel Gondry, one of the most cutting edge contemporary French filmmakers, has made cinematic ads of condoms and vodka. But for Gondry, the commercial aspect was always secondary to art. People always knew he was getting hired because he was an artist—not because he was technically competent with a camera. Sadly, most aspiring filmmakers in Nepal bow too easily to men with money who think they know what the purpose of a film is. Our young filmmakers don't push themselves to articulate their visions in a way that can really change the world.
Talking about men and women with money—sponsorship and patronage of art led to the Renaissance in Italy. Without rich men to sponsor art, and buy art, and appreciate art, there would be no turning points in art. Therefore, I think it's about time men and women in Nepal who run businesses and buy expensive branded goods also educate themselves about the importance of patronising the arts. For, they live in the country after all, they make their livelihoods from it—surely it is time for them also to support the arts, which acts as a catalyst for societal transformation? Instead of moaning about load shedding, perhaps it would be helpful if our rich people loaded themselves into their expensive cars and went to see a theatre play, or a musical, or a film. Or if the film is truly awful, then please put some money into supporting an innovative and brave filmmaker who can make a good one. In their defence, some of the newer ones are even putting in the time and energy to educate themselves about good
filmmaking techniques, and good storytelling techniques, by reading books and internet resources, and through work experience in Bollywood.
The only bright spot in the Nepali art world continues to be theatre. Without a break, a small but thriving community of theatre artists has managed to stage impressive works from all over the world in theatre festivals and individual
plays. While the funding mechanisms of theatre and how it is managed can be
disputed, not least by the actors who are ill-paid, we can at least point to
this as one arena where art manages to breathe its living spirit.
In Nepal, the pathway for art is clear. We can either continue the way we are going, in this paralysing inertia where few are asked to excel themselves, and where expectations for results is very low. Or we can demand excellence, we can demand high standards, and we can ask our artists, filmmakers and theatre artists about their responsibilities in educating themselves about the larger world of ideas and politics.
As we lose our way in politics and meander aimlessly, forgetting exactly where we are going with democracy, we also forget our way in art. So therefore it may be helpful perhaps—here I lay down a small seed of hope—if the artists themselves took the lead, forged ahead fearlessly, and cleared a path for politics.