With the untimely demise of Dr Dina Bangdel on July 25, 2017 the world lost an outstanding art historian specialising in traditional Himalayan and modern and contemporary South Asian art. For her home country Nepal, it meant an irreparable loss, for there is no one who can replace her breadth of knowledge and depth of commitment to the cause of Nepali art in all its many forms and styles.
At the time of her death, Dr Bangdel was facilitating the restoration, exhibition and restitution of a selection of heritage art and architectural pieces that had been transported out of Nepal over the past century and now lie scattered across the world’s museums and private collections. She was doing so with the help of the Guimet Museum, Paris (also known as the Musée National des arts asiatiques – Guimet, which has the largest collection of Asiatic art outside of Asia), and the French Government. This in itself speaks for the immense debt that we owe her, and her late father, the Modernist Lain Singh Bangdel, whose Inventory of Stone Sculptures of the Kathmandu Valley (1995) she wrote the introduction to. Dr Bangdel was also in the process of organising an exhibition in Paris that would bring together her father’s artworks against the background of his Parisian days in the 1950s.
No artist of repute in Nepal, either immersed in the practice of the traditional Newari ‘paubha’, repoussé art, or cutting edge contemporary, remained untouched by her nurturing or support in one way or another. In association with the Nepal Art Council, Dr Bangdel led Nepal’s first significant forays into the South Asian art fair scene. The position she held at the time of her death, Director of Program in Art History at the Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus in Doha, Qatar, allowed her the leeway to travel the world and bring the benefits of this exposure to not only VCU Qatar and VCU Richmond, but also her home country.
Dr Bangdel trained with some of the best in art history, receiving her B.A. in the History of Art at Bryn Mawr College in 1989 and her Master’s in South Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991. She went on to teach in the art history departments of Ohio Wesleyan University, Western Michigan University, Ohio State University and finally Virginia Commonwealth University. Her PhD dissertation, which she conducted under the supervision of the renowned Himalayan and Buddhist studies experts John C. Huntington and Susan L. Huntington at Ohio State University in 1999, was seminal. Titled ‘Manifesting the Mandala: A Study of the Core Iconographic Program of Newar Buddhist Monasteries in Nepal’, it has been hailed as a rare unveiling of Newar Buddhism for a lay understanding. Importantly, Dr Bangdel articulated arguments to rehabilitate Newar Buddhism’s lost glory as a unique tradition. She drew attention to the extraordinary flowering of culture around the practice, over centuries and to this day, that gives Newari art its unparalleled status in South Asia. She produced numerous books, articles, presentations over the course of her all-too-brief career; curated pathbreaking shows, including the acclaimed ‘Circle of Bliss’; co-edited the very relevant and voluminous Pilgrimage and Faith: Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, and gave talks that helped reshape the world’s perception of Nepal’s traditional, modern and contemporary art practices. With equal ease, she swung between the two diverse worlds of traditional Himalayan and razor-sharp contemporaneity, even to the level of simultaneously guiding PhD students across Buddhist traditions and Asian contemporary legends.
Capturing Dina Bangdel in a nutshell is an impossibility. Kathmandu must now look back and be grateful to time for it was here that she worked on her last exhibition, between multiple surgeries. As part of a collaborative project for the Kathmandu Triennale in March 2017, she brought together an extraordinary body of work from Nepali and Qatar-based artists on the theme of migration, labour and identity.
Dr Bangdel is survived by her husband and two sons.