Print Edition - 2017-12-16  |  On Saturday

Home isn’t where the art is

  • Stumbling upon Nepali art antiques in London
- Sanyukta Shrestha
If all the specimens of Nepali antiquity scattered around the world could be brought together, it would perhaps match the number remaining in Nepal

Dec 16, 2017-In the winter of 2006, my first visit to Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London was for a rare exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s original sketches. But having failed to get a ticket, I decided to check out other wings of the building. Wandering around the museum, I discovered that their permanent collection of Newar metalworks was astounding, and it remains one of the best examples I have seen outside of Nepal. Somewhere, I had a feeling that London had many other Nepali art antiques that was yet to be revealed, should I continue to look for them.

It was not until cultural expert Satya Mohan Joshi insisted on visiting the British Museum during his visit in 2011 that I booked a whole day to spend there with him. During the course of the day, he showed me how to evaluate the same artefact from various different perspectives and why. We even found the Ranjana script of the Newars of Kathmandu printed around the brim of an ancient Chinese bowl. He hypothesised that it could have very well been taken to China by Araniko, the legendary Newar artist in Kublai Khan’s court.

Among others, we stopped at a miniature version of a royal crown much like the ones worn by the Shah kings. This, the British museum has labelled as potentially the ‘Crown of the Kumari’. As we studied this unique artefact, Joshi confidently argued that the crown most likely belonged to a prince as the Kumari does not wear a male headgear. What is given as a description is not always correct, however big the authority—this was something that I learned that day from Joshi’s ever inquisitive character.

That day, I also realised that if all the specimens of Nepali antiquity scattered around the world could be brought together, it would perhaps match the number remaining in Nepal. The fact that almost every major Asian art archive in the world has a dedicated portfolio for a country as small as Nepal speaks volumes of its importance in world art history.

There are two distinguished art schools, at least in western archives, that compose the overall definition of Nepali art—Mithila Art of the southern plains and Newar Art from Kathmandu Valley. While Mithila Art exhibits a tribal format, deeply-rooted in its folk culture, the art of the Newars demonstrate a classical edge within the breadth of devotional narratives spanning from Animism to Hinduism and Buddhism, and everything that came in between. Owing to the historical trade ties with Lhasa, Newar Art flourished as far away from the confines of the Valley as Tibet and beyond. This gave birth to what today is cumulatively termed as Himalayan Art.

In the international stage, traditional Nepali art is widely represented by the art of Kathmandu Valley from as early as 1st century, as can be seen in the Cambridge University’s collection of the world’s oldest illustrated Sanskrit manuscripts. Notably, the University recently celebrated this very Nepali masterpiece as a part of the ‘UK-India Year of Culture 2017’, while the Nepali embassy in London couldn’t broaden its vision for the ‘200 years of Nepal-Britain Friendship’ beyond the praise of Gurkha soldiers. In many ways, it seems to me, Nepali Art is best understood by everyone except Nepalis themselves.

One of the earliest admirer and documentarian of Newar art and culture was the British resident during the Rana Regime, Brian Houghton Hodgson. Along with animal remains, the thousands of paintings he bought during his stay and dispatched to Europe and Calcutta was an eye-opener for the West in the mid-19th century. Today, it, by and large, is the single most authoritative reference for Kathmandu Valley’s socio-cultural history.

As a film maker on historic Kathmandu, one of my primary objectives of examining historical paintings has been to learn about the socio-cultural lifestyle from the past. This has taken me back to Hodgson’s collection time and again, and more recently to the Royal Asiatic Society’s collection of sketches by the artist Raj Man Singh Chitrakar from around 1844. This archive is particularly intriguing for the quality of information it presents on historical landscapes, original architecture and the undocumented social strata.

The earliest known Nepali realist painter, Raj Man Singh Chitrakar, is virtually unknown in his own birthplace. What adds to this irony is that he has already proved his mettle in the European art arena, thereby setting a high standard for Nepali artists as early as the 1820s.What can be gathered from the records of Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland and the Asiatic Society of Calcutta is that even a few critical discussions on Raj Man’s artwork had taken place among the experts of that time.

While the V&A and British Museum house two of the biggest and rarest collections of Nepali Art on public display in Britain, much lesser known Indian art galleries and smaller antique dealers frequently store random interesting Nepali artefacts. These establishments range from those in posh London streets to inner dark alleys, and specialise in items that include manuscripts, paintings, metalworks and woodworks.

One of the biggest successes among them has been Sam Fogg in Clifford Street, Mayfair, who is considered as one of the leaders in London’s manuscript sales. An upstart family business that grew from a simple stall in Portobello, in West London, today they showcase some varieties of Nepali illustrated manuscripts which are rare even in Nepal. While most London galleries are focussed on Indian Art, Sam Fogg’s 2007 Nepal-centric exhibition of Hindu and Buddhist illustrated manuscripts from as early as the 11th century was a sold-out success.

Fogg’s rare collections encouraged my search for Nepali Art in London which I continue to pursue till date. Yet another interesting dealer who I came across in 2014 was Joost Van Den Bergh in Jermyn Street. What formed a part of their proud collection was a pair of study work for various Tantric and Hindu deities. Painted in gauache on broad pieces of cloth, they were clearly not older than the 19th century but effectively illustrated the transforming religious beliefs in the then Kathmandu Valley.

In the same year, I also remember visiting Jonathan Tucker & Antonia Tozer Asian Art in St. James Street. A wooden sculpture of Uma-Maheshwor from their collection, most probably from the 19th century, was the most difficult piece to examine because of its worn out condition.The London collector had, however, invested a good amount of time and expertise to keep it in the state it was received in.

There are several things I practice when I see any historical object of art. For instance, I always look for any accompanying inscription which can help me date it. In the absence of an inscription, it is the style of rendition which can be the basis. Moreover, if we can compare the piece with any other dated ones from other existing archives around the world, it serves as a strong evidence helping date the artefact. Their age can be from few hundreds of years to centuries. This nature of randomness in encountering artworks is something that makes it all the more interesting.

When I hold them in my hands, I know that I share the same origin, and also that I might never see them again, once some bidder has made them theirs. The connection is strong yet momentary, and it’s always better to learn from one item and move to the other. The next one is always as exciting and undiscovered. 

As I continue to meander through museums and antique shops in the UK, I know that there is a lot more on offer than what has been uncovered. How these priceless artefacts ended up halfway across the world is a whole another story, but the more I run into them, the more I realise that at least adequately documenting them is the least that we can do, before these remnants of our storied past disappear altogether.  


- The author is a researcher of Nepali art history and a software developer based out of London, UK

Published: 16-12-2017 08:21

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