New ways of seeingNew realities–and ways of seeing–impress upon us the need to constantly ‘rewrite the books of the past’.
Inclusion and representation: Few ideas have polarised Nepali society in the past few decades as these. The conservative blowback against them was most visible during the framing of the 2015 Constitution. And as often as folks like to say they are for a more inclusive Nepal, inevitably the debate centres around its implementation. How does one make for a more inclusive, a more representative Nepal? There are far too many ideas, but little that has actually translated into reality.
The Kathmandu Art Triennale, which is currently exhibiting in five different venues across the valley, seems to have given us an answer: That if one were only to think beyond prevalent ideas and notions (and intellectualism), and that if one were to consciously acknowledge the marginalisation of communities in our society, inclusivity is possible. All one needs to do is care about the idea to start with.
What constitutes "Nepali art", to begin with? For most outsiders familiar with the country–and for many Nepalis, too–the idea of Nepali art is located in the three Durbar Squares, the exquisite sculptures of deities, and the latticed woodwork and pagodas that dominate old architecture within the valley. These ideas shape what we imagine to be "Nepali art", and for good reason, for their motifs are borrowed, morphed, or highlighted over and over–not just in popular culture, but in the arts too.
Consider the paubha: The traditional Newar painting style has transcended its religious connotations to being considered a prime example of Nepali art. But what happens when Lok Chitrakar, among the most well-known living paubha artists today, draws a "healing" singha (lion) around a boil or a shingle on someone’s back, as was done in Newar households once upon a time (including in mine)? Does the body turn into a canvas? Let’s consider one more element: That the caste of Chitrakars, or those who dabbled in such creative realms, were traditionally considered to be lower in the overall Newar hierarchy. So does the act of becoming a "healer" for a Chitrakar, as the Triennale explains, subvert "prescribed caste roles" that accorded the healing profession to Vaidyas?
By incorporating Chitrakar’s healing lions within the same exhibit as his more popular paubhas, the Triennale and its curators are challenging our "ways of seeing", to borrow from John Berger. In life, as in art, they seem to be saying, perspective is important.
What makes art?
Folklore and religion have influenced human art forms across the world. So it has been in Nepal too. One is, thus, pleasantly surprised to find terracotta Ghorwa horse sculptures that bring to life the Tharu lore of their clans descending from four ancestral brothers. Similarly, the Lhokor Chungni sculptures, made by Sindhupalchok artist Chenda Singe Lama, capture within them the 12 animals that make up the Tibetan calendar and encompass the cosmos itself. The relation between healers and art is once again highlighted in the paper amulets made by Nuwakot healer Chija Lama, who etches mantras into wood blocks and prints amulets for ailments such as insomnia and for protection. The Triennale explains, "The process not only involves Lama as an amulet-maker but also as an advisor, examiner, and listener."
One cannot also miss the delicate irony in Bhakta Bahadur Sarki’s wooden sculptures, which were once commissioned by upper-caste households (the Triennale exhibit is called "Mukhiya and Mukhiyani") in the Karnali region. Sarki’s work brings another perspective to "art" as we know it. Historically, in our part of the world, while the art itself has been commissioned and patronised by economically well-off or socially higher groups, those who make the art are mostly rendered invisible. Does a creative work, then, turn into "art" only when it is gentrified? Is creativity subject to the approval of those in power, even as the art itself is sometimes explicitly posited as an act of resistance (one need look no further than the example of the pseudonymous but super-popular–and super-expensive street artist Banksy, or the current Maoist displeasure over the song Pir)?
By incorporating these diverse art forms, the curators of the Triennale, in turn, force the ordinary viewer to acknowledge Nepal’s many people, breaking existing notions of what constitutes "art". Their careful selection of Mithila women’s art, the incorporation of Tharu women’s tattoos that both showcase the body as a "transcendental" canvas and as a traditional "tether to matrilineal bonds", and a firmly anti-colonialist worldview reflected in the works of many artists from across the world, are all instances of how inclusivity can be actually implemented in real life and not just be restricted to words.
The land as art
One Friday afternoon, I listened quietly as a Triennale volunteer explained anthropologist Nyima Dorje Bhutia’s exhibit on the evolution of cross-border trade in the Walung region of eastern Nepal to a group of school children. Inside a glass, case lay specimens of border citizens’ passes required for trade, an old LP record, and a transistor amid a plethora of other objects. On the walls were photos of Walung over the years, and a collage of Chinese consumer goods that had made their way down the pass.
The floor above had a massive triptych titled "Nepali Power", a collaboration between Turkish and Nepali artists Koken Ergun and Tashi Lama, which depicted Nepali dreams of development and prosperity as a result of the fabled train from Tibet and investment in hydropower. Next to it were two works by Uma Shankar Shah, both depicting how intricately connected the historic Nepal Railway once was to the people and their lives.
Between these three, all of which find inspiration in the land itself, inanimate objects such as borders, dams, or trains, and intangible processes such as dreams and desires are brought alive. The evolution of a border post over the years is a testament to consumerism’s great reach as well as a record of the very process of state-making and development in our part of the world. And then, of course, was the very act of introducing this new world to a group of young people, who listened attentively.
These new realities–and ways of seeing–impress upon us the need to constantly "rewrite the books of the past", as Borges once said was the duty of each generation. The only boxes are of our own making; sometimes, a sharp paper cutter and will are all that is required to push past supposed boundaries. So, it is with the Triennale, which sends out a message of inclusivity that all of us could do by incorporating within our own lives.