Print Edition - 2012-08-25  |  On Saturday

Impressions of the Valley

  • There is so much more to being an artist than just working in the studio. Living in Nepal has given me a better sense of that. I feel I am experiencing life from a beginner’s perspective—dynamic and open
- RACHEL STEVENS, Kathmandu
Impressions of the Valley

Aug 24, 2012-

My day began with a 7 am yoga class. It was a beautiful morning like any other, but I noticed there was less traffic than usual as I walked Kupondole’s wide boulevard. “Maybe there’s a parade or a festival,” I thought, even though I’d heard nothing of the sort. Sudden shouts interrupted my thoughts and I saw a man rolling a tyre on the street—not a bicycle tyre typically used for the common balancing game, but a bigger version. A boy beside him was also doing the same. I quickened my steps.

The agitated man then came to a stop and let his tyre spin out into a group of policemen standing just up ahead. Usually, policemen in the Valley are unarmed. Today, many of them were brandishing rifles. I walked faster. The shops were closed and few women were to be seen. Clumps of men were gathering on street corners. Faster, faster, faster.

I arrived home without incident. My landlord Diamond Shumshere Rana confirmed my suspicions—a banda had indeed been called, in protest of the government’s raising of petrol prices. Since an accountable party does not exist at the moment, the Seven Party Alliance can raise prices with limited incident, which it has been doing with regularity, first inflating costs, then making as if to appease the masses by dropping them anew—with enough margin to make a resounding profit, of course.

It was an unnerving experience, but nothing compared to last spring’s mass protests that preceded my arrival.

August 24

When my Fulbright colleague Prashanth Nyer expressed an interest in visiting Santosh Shakya at his statue shop in Patan, I contacted him immediately. Santosh, however, seemed stressed and upon inquiry, explained that he and his girlfriend Puma had just eloped. Life can change so fast.

Today I met Santosh’s uncle Sunil for the first time. Sunil owns the icon-making workshop that I was shown less than two weeks ago. As it turns out, the workshop and the Shakya family residence share the same compound. Prashanth and I spent several hours there before returning to Kathmandu for an earthquake orientation.

August 28

At the Shakya home, Santosh showed me photos of his wedding ceremony. Puma looked exquisite in her red sari, bejeweled shawl and headpiece. They recalled the intense heat of the night, how they had sweltered in their wedding clothes.

Santosh and Sunil had asked to see images of my sculptures and I had brought along my laptop. To my delight and surprise, they were enthralled with what they saw. It was a wonderful feeling; a degree of mutual admiration I don’t remember experiencing too often. 

Since arriving in Nepal, I’ve had plans for a sculptural installation comprising of cast copper bicycle tires. I floated the idea to Sunil and Santosh—would they be able to help me? They expressed ready interest and we made a series of drawings. Sunil will have a wax prototype prepared in a few days. If I like it, if the price is right, and if the time frame is feasible, we’ll get to work together! 

Sunil then took me on his Vespa to meet his friend Pal, a master wax worker, whose home is filled with huge plaster molds and elaborate wax castings of a bodhisattva’s shoes, Buddha’s arms, and a disembodied head. He was currently constructing a wax vessel on the second floor. I watched him push wax coils into form, struck by the ease with which he worked. I soon learnt that Pal is a revered wax sculptor who has created deities for Bertolucci’s film Little Buddha and Agra’s Golden Temple. He has also met the Dalai Lama twice, and on one occasion, even received a personal call from him.

Afterwards, we visited another workshop, a huge barn-like space located near the banks of the Bagmati. Inside, three enormous statues were in progress: two implied from bales of tightly wrapped straw, and the third covered in rich, black mud. Sunil explained that this deity will be covered with clay and modeled in wax before the casting process begins.

August 30

I’ve been exploring Patan by way of its back streets (re: muddy lanes), taking in seas of rice paddies and piles of construction, circumventing mud and puddles and circumambulating stupas. I am coming to enjoy these neighbourhood sojourns; they are walking

meditations.

October 4

My landlord has a logjam of shoes outside his door. Family members are flocking here to receive his blessing. People are flying ‘fighting kites’ from rooftops. There is hardly a tree or power line that doesn’t have remains of paper kite dangling from them. Dashain is in full swing.

October 12

Work has resumed at Sunil’s workshop. In an upstairs metal carving room, sections of my eight-spoke cast copper dharmachakra wheels were being chiseled with great skill. I watched as the surface of the copper was brought into clear focus. Two other craftsmen were carving ornate padmasambhavas or logs at their workstations. The juxtaposition of the cast tires/Buddhist wheel hybrids and traditional statues felt improbable and yet perfect at the same time.

Meanwhile, a warm homecoming was taking place in the Shakya home. Sunil’s brother, wife, and daughter had just arrived from the US. As we talked about life abroad, a gaggle of matriarchs—three sisters with varying shades of graying hair—came by to visit the returning ‘American’ family. It was very endearing.

Santosh then took me to a small foundry where additional sections of the dharmachakra wheels were being cast in copper. A barefoot man fed copper sheets into a coal-fueled clay furnace. When the copper reached temperature, tongs were used to remove the glowing crucible from the furnace. As he poured, the molten copper missed its port, and splattered on the ground. Somehow the man’s feet were spared injury, and he continued to work without fuss or interruption. I, on the other hand, remain haunted by the memory.

Work has also started on my second project, a sculptural installation whose form is inspired by the bodhi tree. Sunil hired a wax master named Bisoo to execute a model-sized version of the tree. Bisoo worked from my odd model made of foam and hot glue, skillfully executing the idiosyncratic gesture that comprised my idea and creating a workable prototype.

When I arrived in Nepal in August, time had appeared to creep along like a slow-moving train. Now, two and a half months later, and perched at the mid point of my grant, I feel the pistons pumping fast now, its engines burning cleaner. My sleep is light; my mind is swimming with ideas and hopes for the second half of my stay. Reviewing my time here, I can see that it is in surrendering to serendipity that my life has been able to unfold in the most beautiful way. Perhaps the outcome of my art is less important than the people I’m coming to know and care for, the dharma I hope to continue practicing, and the daily experiences—pleasant, unpleasant—that enable me to feel more complete as a human being.

The relationship between art and life is symbiotic, but I’ve not honoured that connection in recent years. Sure, I’m a ‘responsible worker’ and have maintained decent studio practice for a long time. I’ve always told my students that they should believe (for a period of time) that art is the most important thing in their lives, and in doing so, let the mind create a desire to work. But there is so much more to being an artist than just working hard in the studio. The fuel for one’s creative fire is not independent from life—it is contingent upon it.

Living in Nepal has given me a better sense of this. I feel I am experiencing life from a beginner’s perspective. Tika-smeared deities, sacred architecture, music, language, food, trash piles, pollution, traffic patterns, rice paddies, the diverse beauty, and decay of the people—it is all new to me. I’m expertless here, an ‘unscholar.’ But being a beginner means my vision is dynamic and open, and I want this excitement to translate into my work.

Stevens is Professor of Sculpture at the New Mexico State University and was Fulbright scholar to Nepal in 2006-7. Nepal Diary contains excerpts from her stay during this period

Published: 25-08-2012 09:26

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