Sangeeta Thapa’s art recoveryNepali artwork must be classified, catalogued and preserved so our icons can be saved before it is too late
Today, I feel creatively bewildered when I think of Nepal as a country that is replete with tangible and intangible artwork whose management is in a quandary, particularly after the earthquake of April 2015. The efforts of individuals, the state and friends are very crucial in this matter. The reason why I feel bewildered is that the talks concerning the restoration of the lost art sites hit by the earthquake have taken a somewhat bizarre turn. From among the many great monuments and sites that house precious art objects, the Nepali state has declared its resolve to restore Bhimsen tower, which was reduced to rubble by the earthquake, yet treats the other great losses of art rather coolly. There is no mention of the restoration of other great art sites, and almost nothing about the ways of ending the misery of the people who were hit by that natural calamity and have been living in dire conditions for three years. But I focus on art and curating art in this writing.
Giving due credit
Nepali and foreign scholars have written some important tomes about Nepali art objects, sites and monuments. Comparatively, foreign writers have done more work in this regard. But art activities are organised by native art curators, artists and some art departments of universities, and in the past, were organised by the now near-defunct Art Academy. Some individual artists too take the initiative to arrange such activities. On the whole, holding art exhibitions has become an important modus operandi in Nepal; this is an important indicator of the modern aesthetic transformation in this country. We should also make sure that we do not forget about the people who have dedicated their time, energy and resources to restore, preserve and disseminate the Nepali arts.
I have chosen to talk about Sangeeta Thapa for this discussion because she is an individual institution of Nepali art, a nationally and internationally known art curator, art critic, and organiser of mega international art festivals in Nepal. A desk calendar entitled “Kathmandu Triennale 2017” stands before me, featuring art works of Nepali painters on each page. The Kathmandu Triennale was an event that she organised. Publications of two similar international art events she organised prior to the triennale are at the other end of my reading desk. They mark a history of successful art exhibitions, events and projections. I wrote these words about her in this newspaper after the exhibition, “Sangeeta Thapa who is a great curator and connoisseur can be instrumental in the production of more such needed works. It is difficult for the viewers to see all the exhibitions of the triennale scattered all over the places because of the worsening road conditions, madly honking vehicles and gridlocks” (The Kathmandu Post, April 2, 2017). I should share one piece of news about her health among art lovers here. She wrote some time ago that she is receiving radiation treatment for the tumour located in her brain and will be home on the 1st of May and is “looking forward to continuing with (her) involvement with the arts once (she) return(s).” That means she will resume her work concerning Nepali art exhibitions and the organisation of usual art colloquiums at Siddhartha. A separate article is needed to write about her work. I have been closely associated with her galleries, exhibitions and art works for nearly three decades, and have always seen her moving from strength to strength. In a country where narratives of the minor treatment received by people in power in foreign hospitals are circulated, news of artists’ and writers’ struggles in hospital does not come up anywhere. But times are changing.
Need for preservation
One productive topic of discussion should be the role of art in terms of liberal education and its creative use in life. Contemporaneity is linked to art even though the style, delineation and selection of motifs by the artist may not be hooked on to any single or selected national theme. Nepali art does not necessarily reflect jingoism. Artists in this region and in this geopolitical context have created works of art that reflect the nuances of life and visions. The value of being human in this space can be seen in the cultural and artistic work that include buildings, monuments, canvases, wood, stones and fabrics.
There is one paradox that Nepal faces now. When it comes to the question of the restoration of damaged precious art and cultural objects, those who are engaged in art preservation works naturally have to solicit the help of state. But the state has its priorities, which may be guided by a policy to save only those icons that may be considered important to augment a political sense of nationalism. And this very attitude will be costly for the preservation of art work. The question of who will work for the preservation, creation and dissemination of art in Nepal has become very important. It should be properly debated before it is too late, and Nepal’s art objects and monuments lie in ruins, permanently neglected.
There is another side of art preservation. I recall one incident here. I had seen beautiful portraits of Jung Bahadur Rana’s family members executed by painter Bhajuman Chitrakar, who had accompanied Jung to his visit of Britain in 1850, at the house of a very cultured and enlightened MK Rana while taking photos to include in the book of my friend John Whelpton entitled Jang Bahadur in Europe: the First Nepalese Mission to the West, in 1983. After several years, I received news that the house of MK Rana was gone. Panicked, I mentioned this to Sangeeta Thapa who took it seriously to find the missing portraits. Some years ago, she said she had located them, which in her words, was “a great day for Nepali arts.” Sangeeta also treats preservation as classification. She told me that she was shocked to see so many wonderful art objects of different genres just stockpiled in unattended rooms while working at the art museum in Swoyambhu. To classify, catalogue and preserve them was urgently needed, she said. However, this requires the involvement of the concerned department of the state. Nothing much has been done so far. I have written to her saying that, “we should discuss and write about it once you return after successfully completing your treatment.”