Traditional forms contemporised

- Kurchi Dasgupta
Traditional forms contemporised

Jun 21, 2014-

The Nepal Art Council recently hosted a watershed exhibition, ‘Inter-linkage Between Art and Environment’, which ended last Sunday. It was a watershed event not just because of the obvious research and commitment that went into bringing together two very diverse genres of Nepali art—the paubha and Maithili—but also for the concerned foresight and engagement with history that inspired the organisers to bring these two together on an environmental platform.   

Perhaps for the first time in recent history, senior artists working within the paubha, maithili and madhubani (practiced across the border on Indian soil) traditions interacted extensively with young students during the workshop organised alongside the exhibition and imparted hands-on knowledge. The students, in turn, brought up issues and questions that incited the artists to push boundaries and interrogate conventions. The interactions culminated in an exciting talk delivered by Dr Dina Bangdel, Professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University (Qatar), in which she charted out the historical trajectory of the paubha. She ended her talk with select examples of contemporary hybrids that are reconfiguring the form in the West.

An interesting discussion ensued, with eminent artists on the panel and Dr Bangdel herself moderating. The traditional in art versus the contemporary was the issue in contest and Lok Chitrakar and Uday Charan Shrestha gave their views on the evolving nature of the paubha form and how their practice keeps pushing boundaries. By introducing dynamic, ‘realistic’ perspective (as opposed to linear motifs) and zooming in on focal images shorn of traditional structural requirements, Shrestha seems to negotiating his experience with contemporaneity. Experim-enting with newer mediums and surfaces like oil or acrylic on canvas enriches his oeuvre. In fact such experimentation has been afoot for decades now as the paubha takes on qualities of ornamental portraiture and is slowly moving away from its ritualistic associations. Lok Chitrakar, on the other hand, invigorates his practice with a return to the roots with strict adherence to natural pigments like malachite, arsenic etc, while playing around with various styles on the same pictorial plane but with an overall commitment to the medieval aesthetic. Dr Seema Shah, a renowned printmaker, added that her chosen mode of contemporisation is the medium itself, which she uses to enrich traditional motifs. Ashmina Ranjit, who belongs to the contemporary vanguard, gave a different turn to the discussion with her insistence that art today should be about the everyday experience around us and how the artist’s responsibility is towards sensitising us to the various issues that shape our politics, economies and cultural realities. Above all, in her opinion, art should materially help shape the future and not restrict itself to entertainment and beautification.

Surrounded as we were by exquisite pieces of maithili  and madhubani art, the discussion inevitably turned to the difference between art and the crafts and how most traditional art nowadays runs the risk of being termed ‘craft’. The traditionalists on the panel and in the audience arrived at the consensus that though the pre-mechanised ethos of the traditional does rely heavily on manual reproduction and occasional blind copying, forms like maithili, madhubani or paubha keep re-inventing themselves with visionary artists and their genuine, historically rooted contributions. For example, artists like Ajit Kumar Sah of Janakpur or Amresh Jha of Bihar are constantly evolving as they introduce new symbols, motifs and imagery into their work or restructure their colour palettes to cater to niche markets.

Artworks seeking the ‘post-modern’ and ‘contemporary’ label, on the other hand, enjoy certain freedoms as they belong to a globalised modernity and are at the crossroads of cultural specificity, ethical commitment and manipulation by demands of the art market.

Nepal Art Council is poised to turn itself into an art museum with support from the government as well as donations from other organisations and friendly nations. The President’s visit last Sunday brought further validity to a programme already strong in its commitment and diversity.

Dasgupta is an Indian artist and writer based in Kathmandu

Published: 22-06-2014 09:39

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