Gateway to Nepali artNewars create artwork in almost everything and everywhere, and the doors to their homes are no exception.
Anyone who has been to Kathmandu cannot miss the sight of front doors painted with a pair of eyes, parrots and Kalash on either side. Many of us must have wondered why they are there. Born and brought up in Kathmandu in the late 1970s, I used to take every aspect of our art tradition as granted. However, it was not until 2006, when I returned from my first trip to London, that I started documenting these doors which are now to be seen few and far between.
Although the city of Kathmandu boasts a 2000-year-old history, it was opened to the rest of the world only 70 years ago. The culture of the Newars, believed to have originated around 300 BC, flourished in and around the Valley. Today, their cultural heritage forms a part of the proud collection of almost every museum in the world. Particularly noted for their mastery in art, Newars create artwork in almost everything and everywhere, and the building of their residences is no exception.
Yet to be studied
Much has been written about their ritual act of drawing the manda: or mandala on the floor, but their door art is yet to be studied in depth. Even in the local language, Nepal Bhasa, there seems to be no fixed name for the artwork around Newar front doors. While senior traditional artist Lok Chitrakar refers to the door art as Cha-Chin, meaning clay symbols, author Ishwor Man Sinya has called it Anga: Kipaa or wall art. Veteran traditional artist Prem Man Chitrakar identifies it as Lukhaa Dvaa, meaning entry gate. Unlike the floor art of manda: or even the Indian counterparts like Rangoli or Kolam, geometrical patterns do not form the basis of door art. It is mainly associated with decoration used to welcome the new bride which also signifies the status of women in the community, according to researcher Bal Gopal Shrestha.
The idea of a sacred or honorific gateway, or a torana, is quite popular in most Hindu and Buddhist traditions in South Asia. In Nepal, while Buddhists paint Pancha Budhha on top, Hindus paint Bramha-Vishnu-Maheshwor-Ganesh-Kumar. This variation within the tradition of door art is in itself the hallmark of Nepal’s age-old religious tolerance. Historically, skills were passed on from one generation to the next within the family lineage of Newars. Families involved in creating artworks were from the occupational caste called Pun or Chitrakar. According to Prof David Gellner, Newars can be divided into 64 castes. Gérard Toffin identified some 20 different occasions when Chitrakars were supposed to provide their artistic services.
Nepali artists have been heavily involved in creating art for centuries. However, the least importance was given to documentation and dissemination. As a consequence, we have come to the present situation when neither the practitioners are able to explain anything clearly, nor can the consumers of art appreciate its essence. Even when clients commission a door art, they have it around their doors as a ritual requirement without necessarily knowing its inherent meaning. While veteran Prem Man Chitrakar rightly notes the varying design of eyes among Buddhists (meditative) and Hindus (wide open), the late master artist Gyankar Vajracharya saw the Swasti-Chi, a unique auspicious mark with which most Nepali scriptures start, as another regular inclusion just above the parrot. This symbol is also seen in the door diagram in a 200-year-old artist’s notebook possessed by Vishnu Bahadur Chitrakar of Bhaktapur, where the late Gyankar was also from.
Lok Chitrakar agrees that in light of no available records, there is a lot of confusion as to why these symbols are actually painted. Culture expert Tejeshwor Babu Gongah assumes the parrot as a representative of wisdom or perfection, eyes for vision and Kalash for completeness and prosperity. Prof Tulsi Lal Singh suggests if it has any connection with Shuka-Baakha, an imported Nepal Bhasa fable involving a parrot. These are but entirely their personal interpretations based on no available records.
The historic relationship between Kathmandu and the Tarai cannot be ignored. It must be noted that unlike in Newar art, parrots appear quite frequently in Mithila art. Cultural exchanges during the medieval period could have influenced the local art scene as well. It was not until I examined British surgeon Henry Oldfield’s paintings from 1850 that I found the eyes as the original symbols on the doors, and then the Kalash, but parrots were nowhere to be found. Either peacocks as the vehicle of Kaumaari, or swans for Brahmaayani are the only two birds making frequent appearances in classical Nepali paintings. Parrots can very well be a more recent addition.
Perhaps Nepali door art can be considered as one of the most interesting and rare phenomena in traditional art history in light of how it was exploited by the Panchayat system (1960-90) to fulfil its undemocratic policy of 'one nation, one language'. Not only did it marginalise ethnic languages, but it also misrepresented traditional art; the evidence can be seen in various public gates erected in Kathmandu, including New Road and Tundikhel.
In an attempt to force false patriotism, the then government insensitively contaminated the profound meanings of traditional art elements with symbolic replacements—like the cow which was declared the national animal, and the rhododendron, the national flower—that grossly misled the known theories of iconography.
The hitherto isolated Nepali traditional art took its biggest turn some 170 years ago when Bhaju Macha Chitrakar was allowed to join South Asia’s first diplomatic visit to England, led by de facto ruler Jung Bahadur Rana. Although we know very little about how photography started in Nepal, thanks to Susanne von der Heide’s account of Dirgha Man Chitrakar’s career and works, we know that the Chitrakars were expert cameramen by the late 19th century, finding themselves busy taking portraits and family photos of the Ranas. Puns or Chitrakars, who were hired at every wedding or any other occasion for their painting services, today stay away from the Newar doors which used to be incomplete without their art. Their clients happily go for a much cheaper alternative of custom-made prints on paper.
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