Print Edition - 2019-05-22  |  Culture & Arts

Winds of change

  • Mann Gurung’s paintings explore the juxtaposition between a rapidly modernising world and the culture and traditions of the past
- Rose Singh, Kathmandu

May 22, 2019-

Mann Gurung’s paintings pose a question—how do traditions, culture and identity persist in the face of an onslaught of western ideals? For Gurung, the answer seems to be: not very well.

In his second exhibition, Lost in Transition, Gurung investigates the consequences of ‘modernisation’ that he sees coming at the cost of our history and culture through monochromatic, sepia-toned paintings. These artworks might appear simple on the surface but are layered with a meaningful interrogation of Gurung’s central obsession.

For this series, Gurung has drawn on experience from his hometown of Khorla in Gorkha and how a globalisation wave has affected its inhabitants. The paintings juxtapose the indigenous communities’ struggle to retain their culture and tradition against an increasingly overwhelming imposition of ‘western culture’.

“With more people becoming modern, indigenous communities’ cultures, like those from Khorla village, are slowly getting lost. I couldn’t capture their way of life 20 years ago but I can right now,” Gurung said in an interview with the Post. “Earlier we saw women wearing hand-sewn cholos but now they are slowly opting for replacing their traditional clothing and accessories with more modern outfits. The food  villagers ate were all self-produced except salt but these varieties are slowly getting lost.”

‘Lost in Transition’ has a total of 21 oil on canvas paintings showcasing a range of subjects, from people to kitchen utensils. Gurung’s first exhibition, ‘Power, Politics and War’ in 2017 was based on the effects of war on people, and again, he is concerned about the changing social world.

“They are struggling to retain their culture and tradition due to their mistrust of shifting realities,” said Gurung. “They’re just lost.”

In his paintings, women wear fariya choli and men wear a patuki and dhaka topi, but also wear crocs instead of padukas, use loudspeakers instead of madals, and polythene bags instead of sewn bags. Other objects that show the obvious intersection between the old and new and the death of culture are a dish antenna that sits atop a discarded wooden beehive and a damaged dhyangro and ghalek, integral parts of a Gurung woman’s attire.

Gurung’s paintings primarily display women going through different changes, be it  a change in their clothing habits, sacred artifacts or domestic lives, where wooden utensils are seen replaced with plastic ones.

“When I visited Khorla, the men I saw were either old or too young. The middle-aged men were out in cities in search of work. The men present had accustomed themselves to western culture but the women had very little variation due to being limited by their culture and morals,” said Gurung.  

Gurung’s style is reminiscent of Paul Gauguin’s seminal Tahiti-based work ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’.

“These are the questions I want the nation to consider asking and I hope my work at least starts a conversation about it,” said Gurung. “Had our ancestors migrated to distant lands and ‘exchanged’ their culture with the people there simultaneously, it wouldn’t be such a problem. But what is happening is that Nepali people are, consciously or unconsciously, only taking in western culture while never really spreading their own.”

Today, the absence of young people in villages across the nation is a striking reality. Gurung paints portraits of the elderly left behind, king out a livelihood and grappling with socio-cultural, political and economic changes that have accelerated in recent times. These elders are the last cultural retainers of Nepal’s indigenous history, said Gurung.

Gurung thus decided to immortalise them in his canvases using shades of burnt amber, creating the feel of a 19th century painting for his viewers, and in turn paying tribute to the men and women whose loneliness and forbearance is exquisitely etched in every wrinkle and furrow of their faces.

“With their demise, we’ll erase hundreds of years of our identity, tradition and culture,” said Gurung.

Contrasted against their portraits, Gurung paints objects that link his subjects to their culture—the dhyangro, or drum, used by shamans, the swords used by a fighting community whose legendary courage on the battlefield has been documented in the records of martial history.

“Globalisation does to our culture, our religion and our identity what global warming does to our environment—it melts them, causing them to slowly become a part of our past,” said Gurung. “We’re in such haste to catch up with the ongoing changes that we’re forgetting what to do with our past. We need to educate ourselves about this before we reach the point of no return.”

The title of the exhibition, Lost In Transition, exhibits itself with two meanings—one where the past is getting lost amid the future; and another where the word lost implies the confusion prevailing in the indigenous community—whether to adapt to societal changes or remain the way they are.

Lost In Transition is currently on display at the Siddartha Art Gallery, from 11am to 5 pm, until June 9.

Published: 22-05-2019 09:26

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