Sharada Chitrakar’s odysseyI was simply struck by the Chitrakar tradition of not giving their daughters the family art education
I have realised that despite scores of art reviews and articles I have written over the last several decades, the work of one remarkable woman artist had always remained invisible to me, perhaps because of the male domination of the art scenario in the country in terms of publication and dissemination. I realise now I wrote art reviews mainly for the ‘male fraternity’, though I have also written about a dozen serious reviews of female artists’ work over the period. But the reason why I have started the discussion from this sensitive question is that the Nepali chirtrakars, or painters, did not produce women artists in their families as shown by the past and the current times. A woman artist stands out in this male dominated history of art in Nepal. Her name is Sharada Chitrakar (born 1941), whom I have known in ordinary terms for decades. Now I know, to write about Sharada’s art means to write about her odyssey, her struggles and minuscule events of resistance.
The two great chitrakars that critics often mention are Bhajuman Chitrakar who accompanied Jung Bahadur Rana on his European trip in 1850, and ‘brought Western influences’ in art. And the other one is Tej Bahadur Chitrakar (1899-1971) who like Chandra Man Singh Maskey (1899-1984) who was not born into the Chitrakar family, did get artistic education in the Western school of art in India. Sharada Chitrakar is the daughter of Tej Bahadur Chitrakar and the great grand-daughter-in-law of Bhajuman Chitrakar. When she mentioned these names and connections, I was simply struck by the Chitrakar tradition of not giving their daughters the family art education that they bequeathed only to their male progenies. There are several other famous Chitrakar artists about whom I have written at different times, but here I have mentioned only these two names to show Sharada’s family connections to famous Chitrakars.
Tej Bahadur was a guru like Maskey who taught young people modern techniques of art. They introduced still life, landscape paintings and human compositions in art during the 1920s and 30s, which saw a shift of the religious art into representational forms. Sharada was oriented by her father to copy the eyes of the deities’ hanging on the wall, which she mentions in her memoir published in Kalakarma (number 9, 2065 BS). This artist recalls how she had to choose her own modus operandi in the art apprenticeship that she received from her father, who she said did not think it necessary to send her for art education in India like himself and her brother, the famous artist Madan Chitrakar. Her quest for realist objects and human life as motifs for her art, for which she was not fully trained and had to work with her limited degree of skills, is a very impressive story. She surprised her father by choosing her own motif, not just the eyes of the deities but also the artistically carved windows of the neighbour’s house, which she drew quite successfully.
Sharada whom I have seen actively working over a decade, at least at the Arts Academy and outside, said to me when I went to meet her and ask for the catalogues that she has published over this period, “I have no time to waste.” I could understand this sense of hurriedness that, to my mind, represents the main thrust of Sharada’s odyssey—the struggle of a woman to educate herself in art that had and has remained the monopoly of the males. Sharada Chitrakar chose not just the still life and landscape but cultural and mainly folk motifs for her art. A catalogue that Sharada showed me of the cultural journey of Bugadeo or Bungmati, which she followed about a decade ago and produced water colour images of, reveals how she has blended the still life, nature and culture in her paintings.
A lone researcher, a dreamer and a relentless worker despite her domestic chores and mature age, Sharada is taking up responsibilities at the Academy and outside. When I went to meet her at a makeshift tent on the lawn of the erstwhile NEFA place turned into the Arts Academy, she said she had prepared a pictorial catalogue of the art works trapped and probably rescued from the earthquake-hit old building. I was disappointed to see the poor standard of the works compiled in her catalogue. But I was more interested in Sharada’s own work, especially the latest publication of her book Pauranik Newar lok-kalaa (2013), a study of Newar folk art known as punjya. This book published by the Academy would have been enhanced with some academic analysis. But, as such projects no longer appear to form part of the Academy’s programmes, I am more than satisfied to read this senior woman artist’s book of the Newar folk art study with telling images.
Sharada considers this book as her discovery for one reason—the Newar women would not have allowed any other person to photograph and publish them. Sharada claims that she has brought the images out for the first time in the cultural history of folk art of the Newars, especially of Bhaktapur town. It seems Sharada has been working quietly and publishing books of folk art under her department in the Academy.
I have chosen to write about Sharada Chitrakar’s work for two reasons. First, her work, very importantly, represents the folk art semiotics of the Newars, especially of women. Second, this woman artist, a relentless worker, has spent many decades in her odyssey to assert a woman’s right to be apprenticed even as a member of the Chitrakar family. But very surprisingly, even today very little research is done about the contribution of the Chitrakar women in art. Nothing is known except, as Sharada says, their help to male artists in the family grinding or mixing colours and preparing the settings. Sharada’s personal odyssey should be viewed as model for women artists who could come out from the texture of a world of traditional art and transform that into modern art education.