The Man Who Cares About DetailWalking into the Indigo Gallery’s weeklong show at the Taragaon Museum was like taking a step back into the recent past. Indigo Gallery no longer exists as a space, regretfully closing its location at a beautiful, old neo-classical building in Naxal in 2013.
Walking into the Indigo Gallery’s weeklong show at the Taragaon Museum was like taking a step back into the recent past. Indigo Gallery no longer exists as a space, regretfully closing its location at a beautiful, old neo-classical building in Naxal in 2013 but this was a pop up exhibition for all the particular, traditionally oriented beauties that the thirty two year old gallery was conceived to showcase.
Glowing paintings done with mineral pigment, carpets and textiles from the Himalayan region that are now very difficult to find, old prints that James Giambrone, the founder and director of Indigo Gallery, just happened upon one day in Thamel in 1971, lustrous bronze vessels of perfect size and proportion that give off a vibrant light in the ninety year old art nouveau glass cabinet in the centre of the room—these were the treasures in view for the short week of the show that ended on the March 12.
The stories behind the objects are what give them weight. You can buy a beautiful painting, but if you know the how and the why of how it came to be, it will make the object ever more precious. I am not saying that you can’t walk into an exhibition and walk out with a painting that you love knowing only the artist’s name and that you fell in love with it; but only that, sometimes, knowing where it came from, and who painted it enhances the work; adding another kind of value to an object that is already loved for its beauty.
When James arrived in Nepal in 1970, Jhhochhen Tol was thriving; and he was immediately caught up by the art that surrounded him. A decade later, in 1980, he met Mukti Singh Thapa, an untrained young Magar living in Bandipur who later moved to Jhhochhen to set up his own atelier. Today, Mukti is one of the most renowned and revered Paubha painters working in Nepal—a man who taught himself the disappearing tradition of devotional Buddhist painting that was originally practiced by the Newars. A year later, James set up the Indigo Gallery in 1981 in Thainti, Thamel (it moved to Naxal in 1993) just a little more than a decade after his first contact which turned into an enduring engagement with the Newa arts of Nepal.
Over the early years James and his colleagues worked with Mukti and other talented artists like Deepak Joshi, Purna Heju, and Roshan Shakya to bring back the old tradition of painting, using carefully ground mineral pigments, and painstakingly re-learning the balance between iconography and iconometry—the equilibrium between both makes for the harmony behind a truly great Paubha.
Working with these painters was an exercise in paying attention to detail. Today, it is that gift, inherent but honed, that has resulted in some of the most beautiful paintings in the exhibition. Giambrone has the uncanny ability to focus on a part of an immense wall painting, say from the Sumtek Monastery in Alchi, Ladakh, or a particular scene from a mid 17th Century devotional narrative painting of the Krishnalila now safely situated in the Patan museum, see its beauty apart from the whole, and have the knowledge of painters on hand, like Gyan Bhakta Lama, who are capable of creating copies of these stunning, historic, ancient subjects that then take on a life of their own, but varying in size and in situation; now adorning walls of homes instead of on ceilings or in temples where only the few can worship and appreciate them.
The painting of Swayambhunath, featured here, has a similar story. Giambrone spotted it and promptly bought this gemlike narrative painting that is an extraordinary example of landscape work depicting the Kathmandu Valley and the Swayambhu temple. Of unknown origin but dated to the early 20th Century, this image could have been lost forever had it not been happened upon by an art lover and now lovingly reprinted in a numbered edition of one hundred copies using modern digital printing on German archival paper and pigment ink, allowing someone like me to hang it on my wall and delight in its extraordinary colours and unique viewpoint.
Indigo Gallery was founded to foster the traditional arts of the Newars and then expanded so that Nepali artists could interact with international painters and artisans, creating a synergy that would move the tradition of painting and the fine arts forward—something that the Kathmandu Triennale, which starts this week, is focusing on. The exhibition on show last week had the palpable energy of the old and the new colliding in a stunning display of artistic talent that has been catalysed by people like James and Mukti Singh Thapa, among others, who have helped revive traditions that would otherwise have been lost. Those stories of how things came to be are the ones that add value to these new versions of an age-old tradition, allowing us to re-value the culture we had in its new, beautiful, significant iteration.
Sitting with James has the privilege of spending time with someone who truly loves the arts and has put that first all his life. Giambrone’s engagement with Nepali art began with bronze work; he once went to Bhutan in search of a twelve-foot repoussé work of the Maitreya Buddha made by Kuber Singh Shakya for the then King of Bhutan in 1938-1939. His trip in 2013 was made with Rajkumar Singh Shakya, the grandson of Kuber, and while they did not find the whereabouts of this reputed masterpiece, it is fitting that the photo that accompanies this story is that of James with Rajkumar and his work, the magnificent, fourty-nine metre high statue of Padmasambhava that now defines the skyline in Lungtse, Bhutan.