Rajman Singh: A Lost Nepal found in LondonNepali art took a radical turn from the traditional to a contemporary European vein towards the mid 19th century and the earliest known Nepali artist to have incorporated western realism in his work was a local artist from Patan, Rajman Singh Chitrakar.
Nepali art took a radical turn from the traditional to a contemporary European vein towards the mid 19th century and the earliest known Nepali artist to have incorporated western realism in his work was a local artist from Patan, Rajman Singh Chitrakar. Virtually unknown even in Nepal until the turn of the millennium, his works are rare in his own country. However, the appreciation for his work in Europe is somewhat different.
There was a time when it was believed that Bhajuman (Bhajumacha) Chitrakar was the first realist painter of Nepal. While Bhajuman, who accompanied Jung Bahadur Rana to England in 1850, continues to be an important historical art figure, Rajman was already producing realistic artworks from as early as 1844. In Britain, fifty of his architectural drawings were already being used for comparative research by James Fergusson as early as 1876 for his book on Indian architecture. On the other hand, in Nepal, Rajman was lost to oblivion until as late as 2005 when Harihar and Indu Joshi published a monograph titled The First Pioneer Nepali Artist: Rajman Singh Chitrakar.
Not much is known about Rajman Singh but it is a common consensus that he belonged to the clan of Newar artists, the Chitrakars, from Patan. This belief was further confirmed, when Harihar Joshi located Rajman Singh’s name in the family genealogy of Chitrakars at the residence of Neel Bahadur Chitrakar, which showed Rajman to be the eldest son of Jugaman Chitrakar.
British resident Brian Hodgson trained Rajman Singh in realism, and commissioned drawings from the early 1820s till mid 1850s. The artist’s early drawings consisting of Buddhist monuments from Kathmandu are now preserved in Musée Guimet in Paris. It was also his zoological drawings of hundreds of birds and animals of Nepal that led to as many as 97 research papers by Hodgson. Accounts of Rajman achieving critical acclaim as an artist in the European art circle by 1830s have been included by DM Waterhouse in his 2004 publication ‘The Origins of Himalayan Studies: Brian Houghton Hodgson in Nepal and Darjeeling 1820-1858’.
In Europe, Rajman’s works continued to receive appreciation by noted personalities which, for a Nepali artist at the time, was unprecedented. In a letter to James Princep in 1835, Hodgson has praised them as ‘wondrous works for a Nepalese … which I dare any artist in Europe to excel’. While Alfred Foucher, the father of Gandharan studies, found them ‘slightly fantasising’, Cecil Bendall appreciated Rajman for making pleasing compositions by even ‘inserting a temple from another place’. From the Buddhist iconographical perspective, Rajman’s works were deemed important by none other than James Burgess, the director-general of archaeological survey of India. Moreover, former curator-in-chief of the British Library, JP Losty also noted his works for their artistic quality of amalgamation.
Even the British surgeon Henry Ambrose Oldfield who visited Nepal later in 1850 seems to have followed Rajman’s routes in capturing the sights around Kathmandu. This is particularly evident from two instances. Now preserved in the British Library (item no 3331), Oldfield’s 1854 painting of Gosainkunda clearly mentions ‘from the sketch of Rajman Singh’. Then, again, his book titled ‘Sketches from Nepal, Historical and Descriptive’ published in 1880, has an interesting footnote on page 162. Tracing the route from Nuwakot to Gosainthan, it reads ‘compiled from description and notes by Rajmun Sing, Chiwallar, August 1854’—such a minor mention that it even went unnoticed by Diana Wooldridge in her dissertation on the works of Oldfield in 2014.
As Rajman belonged to a Chitrakar family, it was normal for researchers to believe that he used to practice traditional Paubha painting before undergoing training in western realism with Hodgson. This had remained a general assumption without any evidence. However, on December 7, 2017, I examined an illustrated manuscript at the art dealer Sam Fogg in May fair, London. Titled ‘Nepalese Artist’s Manual’ (catalogue no 8454), it was an 84ff 70 x 155 mm yellow-stained Nepali paper. It consisted of Sanskrit shlokas in Nepal script, with a total of 97 illustrations. On its back folios, the artist made notes in Nepalbhasha as a record of when and where the manuscript was copied. It had a mention of king Rajendra Bikram Shah Dev with a date of Nepal Sambat 954, ie 1834 AD, and the work was clearly credited to artist, Rajman Singh.
Rendered in a purely traditional style, this manuscript proves that the legendary artist had a traditional Paubha background before also adopting European realism. It further adds to our knowledge of his career-graph as an artist, at a time when the local artist communities in Nepal were being exposed to external influences. This London discovery also suggests that a possible reason for the rarity of Rajman’s works in Nepal could be their popularity in London, especially within the scholarly circles of the 1840s.
Ten years after the above manuscript was copied, Hodgson resigned as the British resident of Nepal. After a brief return to England, he decided to further his ethnographic studies in Darjeeling where Rajman joined him again. Their house, ‘Brianstone’ in Jalaphar, still stands as a part of St Paul’s School in Darjeeling. Right before leaving in 1844, Hodgson seems to have commissioned Rajman to draw the heritage monuments and landscapes around Kathmandu. Fifty of his architectural drawings from that period are now preserved in Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) of Great Britain and Ireland, London (catalogue no. 22.001 – 22.050).
While over population with rapid urbanisation is inarguably the major cause for most of the everyday problems faced by Kathmandu today, Rajman’s drawings present Kathmandu in the 1840s as sparsely populated. Occasionally, his landscapes reveal that there used to be stunning open fields in what is now a concrete jungle. If we compare sketches of common sites by Rajman to those by Oldfield a decade later, the growing population density is obvious. This was a time when Jung Bahadur Rana was at the height of his power, giving shape to a major political upheaval in Nepal, and the Valley was extending its ties with the outside world. In his 1841 compilation titled ‘Illustrations of the literature and religion of the Buddhists’, Hodgson estimated that the population of Kathmandu was around 250,000. By 1851, captain Orfeur Cavenagh’s estimate has risen to 400,000 as stated in his book ‘Rough notes on the state of Nepal’. Although not drawn from an actual census, these estimates do offer a rough idea of the doubling population density within a decade.
For instance, when we compare Kavindra Sattal or Dhansa Sattah as drawn by Rajman in 1844 and Oldfield in 1857, the crowd in the marketplace of the courtyard has doubled while the use of temporary tents by pop-up shops has been replaced with proper roof-like structures erected on four beams.The same can be said about their depiction of the Kasthamandap edifice.
The heritage structures in Rajman’s drawings are not all intact either. Pieces of destroyed monuments are seen occasionally. By the time Oldfield visited them, most of the heritage buildings are seen in a dilapidated state, especially those beyond the vicinity of royal courtyards.The decline is starkly visible within the gap of 10 to 15 years, eg in the Kathya Swoyambhu Vihar drawn by Rajman in 1844 is in a glorious state but is almost falling apart in Oldfield’s watercolour from 1854.
While this was not yet the case with Rajman’s collection of drawings, those by Oldfield do show the emergence of British neo-classical architecture in Kathmandu. The latter’s Kumari Jatra piece depicts
Hanuman Dhoka with a white limestone painted façade and tall green windows. Another Oldfield piece on Bhaktapur Durbar Square dated 1858 shows the restored western face with a whitewashed front containing five tall windows in dark red. Rajman’s works are all free from such architectural fusion.
Many of Rajman’s drawings are also rare records of the kind of costume that was generally worn by the inhabitants of Kathmandu around the 1840s. They also show the kind of tools and other household items used by people in that era, thereby suggesting the main activities of the majority of people in the region were farming, weaving and animal husbandry. One of his drawings shows a temple’s courtyard being used during a feast for a group of around 20 men, women and kids. In what appears to be some kind of religious community event, they are seen sitting around in public, which must have been a more frequent sight back then.
When found labelled, Rajman’s drawings also list the original names of many localities and shrines, which gradually changed over time since the valley’s invasion by the Gurkhas. These heretofore unknown names often carried a meaning that was related to the history of the place therefore sometimes bringing to light other lost aspects of history. In some instances, the names are modified enough to make no sense, eg Cho Vihar meaning convent on top of hill in Nepalbhasa, is what we know today as Chobhar. From Rajman’s records we can tell that a complete renaming has taken place for many religious sites over time eg Kwachhe Deval is today’s Balkumari Temple, and Khasa Chaitya is now known as Bouddha. Also, the scribbles
in Rajman’s drawings are in Devanagari script which shows that the variation that existed then was slightly different to what we use now eg all v characters are written simply as if, and the number % is written without a tail.
Other than indigenous Newar inhabitants, Tibetan travellers are also frequently seen in Rajman’s drawings. Mostly seen wearing wide boots and a gown with wide sleeves, they are also identified by a typical Fu Manchu moustache and sometimes are seen with a horse. Interestingly, such distinctive features are not to be noticed in Oldfield’s paintings which can be attributed to his being an outsider who was perhaps more interested in depicting sites than the people. Moving beyond the core Newar settlements of Kathmandu, Rajman has also drawn the neighbourhood of other communities like Tamang and Khas whose houses represent a completely different vernacular architecture common to the outskirts of the Valley. These works include a Khas house near Bhim Dhunga in the northwest of the Valley, and a Murmi house in Gokarna that lies in the hills to the northeast.
How established Nepali artists so easily adopted a realistic style from the west without an established school or critical art circle, is a question that is often overlooked. To the outside world, they have always been projected as traditional masters but the appreciation for their versatility and later stylistic achievements has been long overdue. Before the 1990 People’s Movement in Nepal, the effort during the Shah regime was mainly focussed in creating a national identity that revolved around the monarchy but also made use of traditional Newar social and artistic achievements as signifiers of the wealth and power of the conquering state. No wonder, authors like Percy Brown were still finding Nepali art as quintessentially religious until as late as 1930. As the earliest known project to implement western realism, the successful partnership between British resident Brian Houghton Hodgson and local artist Rajman Singh Chitrakar in the mid 19th century appears to be the first of such syncretic efforts. You cannot say of the works that they are an innovative fusion of styles but they are perhaps the first examples of an artist from Nepal adopting principles of western realism in order to fulfil a commission that demanded he do so. The purpose of the commission was not to bring Nepali art to the world or to give an innovative artist some exposure. They were made as rare visual records of a place and a life barely seen by westerners and so were highly valued in that way. With that said, such a commission did demand inventiveness in composition (as seen by the nonexistent temples and idols he inserted in his pictures for the sake of composition) and adaptability in style from Rajman who happened to deliver beautifully.
Acknowledgement: Nancy Charley, Assaji Tanchangya, Madan Chitrakar, Sandip Maharjan, Rukshana Kapali, Sanjaya Shrestha