Breaking the mould
- Kathmandu’s traditional metal artisans can’t survive without modern copyright laws working on their behalf
Jan 23, 2015-
The art of working with metal is an ancient practice in the Valley, believed to have flourished some 2,500 years ago. It is still a thriving business—especially in Patan—but for how long the tradition will sustain, in this chaotic modern-day Kathmandu, is a matter of opinion.
Two forms of metal craft—lost wax casting and repousse techniques—have been practiced in the city traditionally.
Referred to as shee lhwoka dhaleyagu in Newari, the lost wax technique is a cast technique where a clay mould is created over a wax model, which is melted and drained to make positive space for molten metal to cover. Once the poured liquid-metal cools down—a process that could take from 30 minutes to 24 hours depending on the size of the product—the mould is destroyed to reveal a completed sculpture, which is then filed and polished and finished.
The repousse technique—thwajya majya in Newari—is a relatively different technique. Here, malleable—mostly sheet—metal is beaten by hammer and other tools from the reverse side to create shapes and patterns. The metal torans (tympanum) we see at the entrance to Malla palaces—most famously in the durbar squares—are examples of such craft.
These are the processes the Shakya families have been making use of, traditionally, to create Buddhist motifs and idols of gods. The profession was something that the Valley was known for during the medieval times. The metal craftsmanship from Kathmandu was well recognised in neighbouring Tibet and other parts of the world. And in recent times, Nepal has exported metal art to Europe, the US, Japan and Taiwan and still continues to do so.
Despite how promising the business of metal art looks, there seems to be another story behind the profession. Contemporary artist Tejesh Man Shakya, who also runs his family business of metal crafts, says a lot of skilled artists are migrating to China because of better opportunities and so many others, whose families have been doing the business for several generations, have started to opt out of it. He says this is happening mostly because unethical business is being done in the Capital.
The business of copying
“There are many unregistered foundries that copy works originally done by other artists, mass produce them and make a lot of money,” says Tejesh.
A collaborative survey of 200 foundries around the Valley, conducted by Kathmandu University’s Department of Engineering and the Centre for Art and Design, revealed that close to 90 percent of the foundries were unregistered.
Tejesh shares his experience of having been copied. He says:
“I’ve been in talks with lawyers, but we do not have the criteria [for evaluating copied artwork] through which we can claim a copyright, even when there is a copyright law now.”
Because most artists are working with the same traditional motifs, it is not an easy feat to differentiate between works. But Tejesh says he has been making efforts to explain to lawyers how even the slightest alterations matter.
“I use the example of the two Spiderman film franchise. They are based on the same concept and the same character, but the design of the character from one franchise to the other is very different. It’s the same with traditional art,” he says.
So, the artists who come up with original designs are not too happy with the way the market works right now. The price they determine also includes the remuneration for their creative input, but there is another foundry next door who is buying one original sculpture, creating a silicon mould out of it, mass producing statues and selling them at a cheaper price mark.
Tejesh says authorities and organisations who need to stand up against this practice are keeping quiet, even though there are several associations and companies that have been established to work for the welfare of the craft and the craftsmen.
“NAFA [Nepal Academy of Fine Arts] has included metal crafts in the traditional arts section, but even they aren’t doing anything to support the artists,” says Tejesh. “I had even put forth a proposal to work on the papers to develop copyright criteria, but people do not show support,” he adds.
So it’s no surprise to see skilled artisans turning away.
But according to Kirti Man Shakya, who also comes from a family of metal craftsmen and is the design studio faculty at KU Centre for Art and Design, this problem isn’t the only one that is plaguing the metal crafts scene.
“I think the business is quite disorganised. Much can be done if the people involved get together and set up a system that helps in management. It is discipline that is required,” says Kirti, who believes that a lot can be done through traditional processes if more creative people get involved.
According to Kirti, the artisans do not just have to rely on traditional monuments anymore. As these monuments are not an indispensible need, especially today, Kirti believes that craftsmen can shift to making other products that are required for daily use.
“The metal processing techniques can be used to make utilitarian products. There are so many things we use, like doorknobs, which are imported. But such products, with some idea, can be created in our own country using our own techniques,” he says.
He stresses on how providing craftsmen with management and design workshops could create new ideas and also help them learn to be more ethical. According to him, more importantly, it’s the designers and design students who need to get into the act.
“If people who are sound in designing can contribute, it could open up new avenues for the industry,” he says.
This could be an important point, as whatever is being produced in the traditional way is done by following a certain passed-on process—all devised hundreds of years ago. But if designers can come up with products that offer solutions to modern problems, by making use of metal craft processes, perhaps Nepal can reclaim the glory in the field it is losing.
As for Tejesh, he has recently begun working on a proposal of a metal crafts school where people can learn the traits of the art in more detail.
“It is an ancient heritage, and we must do all we can to save it,” says Tejesh. Metal craft, even in Europe, is an endangered form.
“It is quite difficult, and money is a major problem, but we should not give up,” he says.
Published: 24-01-2015 09:02