Retrospectives on modern Nepal

Pranab Man Singh | April 9, 2015

What is the point of history and memory if it cannot be recalled? Nepal’s modern art history lacks substantive documentation. Exhibitions designed to introduce a historical perspective on Nepali art are even rarer. There is a dearth of curators, and most are not interested in collecting a body of work and assembling it into a meaningful whole. Such tasks require money and time, both luxuries. At an institutional level, galleries have rarely chosen reflection over the immediate, while Nepal’s museums are yet to make any authoritative claim to their art history.

Within such a rigid landscape, the ongoing exhibition at the Nepal Art Council, Birendra Pratap Singh: A Retrospective (1971 – 2015), is timely. Birendra Pratap and his generation of artists are an important bridge between the pioneers of Western-induced modern art and today’s contemporary art scene. Among his contemporaries, Birendra Pratap is uniquely placed in terms of the choices he has made as an artist and his work embodies a modernism that is distinctly situated in Nepal.

There is still debate as to when modern art began in Nepal, but by the time Birendra Pratap came of age, it was well underway. This retrospective provides the Nepali art world with a unique opportunity to step away from the claims of who came first to ponder the more substantive and meaningful question of what modernism in Nepali art really is.

Anyone who goes to this retrospective will quickly dismiss any suggestion that Nepali art is a second-rate derivation of Western stylistics. The discerning viewer will do so while acknowledging the tremendous influence the West has had on the development of Nepali modern art. These influences are clearly visible in the surrealist and cubist influences present in Birendra Pratap’s early work. Historians might also view his work within the impetus of the Nepali state, first under the Ranas and then the Shahs, to transplant modern art into Nepal. Finally, it is equally worth noting the strong influence of an imperial educational system, under which Birendra Pratap was trained at the Banaras Hindu University. Each of these historical situations contributed to shaping the artist as a young man.

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By situating Birendra Pratap within this broader history we gain a better sense of the space he occupies within Nepal’s modern art movement. This gives us a framework to critically understand him and the practice of modern art in Nepal. An element of this intention is expressed in the ragged timeline that greets the visitor, juxtaposing the artist’s life with significant events within Nepal’s art world. The timeline ends in 2015, when the artist moved back to Kathmandu after having spent almost a decade in Dhulikhel. It does not mention the retrospective itself.

This exhibition was put together by the Siddhartha Art Gallery and its subsidiary, the Siddhartha Arts Foundation. As Exhibition Director, Sangeeta Thapa has done a remarkable job in collecting over 300 works by the artist, spanning over four decades. The exhibition Curator, Sujan Chitrakar, an artist and Director of the Kathmandu University Center for Art and Design, has deployed his considerable aesthetic judgment in presenting a lifetime of work. The exhibition’s principal drive seems to lie in illustrating the artist’s aesthetic and thematic explorations, revealing a measured and conscientious journey.  Chitrakar’s experience with the Art Council space, honed through his own exhibitions and those of multiple batches of Kathmandu University graduates, shines through. Given free rein over the top two floors of the massive structure in Babar Mahal, Chitrakar seamlessly guides the viewer’s engagement with the artworks, right from the moment you walk into the building till you climb up the final flight of stairs to an airy café in which the artist himself is usually to be found, smoking a cigarette and chatting with visitors.

Birendra Pratap Singh was born in King Mahendra’s Nepal, but grew up during the reign of King Birendra, whose name he adopted in the early seventies. Mahendra’s desire to modernize the country had allowed for some space for modern art in Nepal. In those early days, Birendra Pratap had access to an older generation of modern artists, who included the likes of Lain Singh Bangdel, Shashi Shah, Manuj Babu Mishra and Batsa Gopal Vaidya. These stalwarts of early modern art in Nepal were already well into their artistic careers. Birendra Pratap grew up under the influence of their colours and brushstrokes, a Nepali art world where the stylistics and culture of Western art traditions had already been adopted and, to some extent, coopted.

Birendra Pratap is thus one of the first artists to grow up within a completely Nepali modern art tradition. If we take modernism in art as a conceptual approach to understanding, it must hold true that irrespective of the stylistics and mediums of production, Western modernism and Nepali modernism share similar ideas – ideas that may be interpreted differently within differing historical contexts, but in abstraction, ones that retain uniformity across cultures. Birendra Pratap appears to consciously subscribe to this idea through his early and continued investment in André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto (1924) and its concept of psychic automatism – which is, after all, a state of mind that frees the artist from judgment and reason.

Given the artist’s surrealist intentions, it is all the more pertinent to approach his work through the words of the critic Clement Greenberg, who in a seminal essay entitled “Modernist Painting”, states:

The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. Kant used logic to establish the limits of logic, and while he withdrew much from its old jurisdiction, logic was left all the more secure in what there remained to it.

There are many critics of Greenberg’s take on modern art, but the specificity with which he defines self-criticism and its tools should not be dismissed. We can ask two questions of Birendra Pratap as a figure within the modern art movement in Nepal – does he explore and question the limits of his medium and material? And, does he do so with an awareness of what he is doing? Birendra Pratap Singh: A Retrospective allows us to make an educated guess.

The early modernist painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) dedicated over four decades of his life to exploring colours, light and shade. Birendra Pratap has been working over a similar period of time on his own distinctive interests. The Exhibition Director notes that the artist has executed over 75,000 illustrations for newspapers and magazines. To put this into perspective: 5 illustrations a day, every day, for 40 years, to get even close. These numbers (it is implied) do not include his artworks. The volume of production is astounding.

Siddhartha Art Gallery Team

Image: Siddhartha Art Gallery Team

Cezanne produced over 900 oil paintings and around 400 watercolours, most of which were still life, landscape and portrait paintings. He was constantly using his medium to explore its boundaries. Birendra Pratap evidently adopted a similar approach with the use of lines. In this exhibition, works from different periods are juxtaposed to reveal his experimental development and the gravity with which he utilized the most basic of artistic skills.

The Curator has flawlessly drawn together disparate content spanning four decades of artistic production. Chitrakar’s emphasis on the aesthetic over the chronological has the advantage of allowing viewers to observe the stylistic changes and continuity within Birendra Pratap’s work without the need to chronicle it overtly. A body of his later works, part of Pratima Pande’s collection, feature surrealist urbanscapes at the heart of the old cities of the Kathmandu Valley and suggest a crystallization of automation, style and form.

Even though the aesthetic arrangement has its advantages, the lack of a clear chronological progression (should one be tempted to explore it) suggests two things that speak volumes about the current problems within Nepali art. First, rigorous documentation of the artist and his artworks was not given priority as preparatory steps towards the organization of the exhibition. This is unfortunate, given the scale of this production, the collaborative impetus that propelled it, and the unlikelihood of it ever being replicated. Second, apart from the aesthetic, the Exhibition Director and Curator were unable to define a clear narrative vantage point from which to approach Birendra Pratap’s work. This might have emerged had they invested in documentation, though this was by no means a prerequisite step.

Siddhartha Art Gallery Team

Image: Siddhartha Art Gallery Team

Nonetheless, the retrospective highlights the need for the Nepali art community to seriously invest in recalling its history. Exhibitions like these are absolutely necessary if Nepali art is to build a critical framework through which it can understand, interpret and reflect on itself. Recalling Greenberg, self-criticism is sorely lacking within Nepali art. Such criticism must be built into an understanding and knowledge of the past. But without the foundations of the past, reflection will flounder in the present, forever stuck in responding rather than evaluating. The body of work compiled for this exhibition gives us all an opportunity to view an expression of moments that combine to mean much more than the individual artworks and, to some extent, the artist himself.

Birendra Pratap’s earlier works are distinctive in the uncertainty of when his pen might stop. His sketches on Banaras, Mustang and the Everest region all work up towards his later urbanscapes. In these early works, one gets the distinct feel of an artist who is trying to understand his time and place. He is exploring the fundamentals of his medium and range of his style. Lines and shades remain consistent topics of interest, while the thematic content never strays from the personal and psychological to the immediacy of the world around him.

It is evident that Birendra Pratap is enamoured by the exotic in Nepal and this has him travel around Nepal with the artist Ratan Rai. Their travels have the romantic twang of self-discovery behind them. Yet, as the timeline at the beginning of the exhibition suggests, within his personal life, the artist was no revolutionary. He obediently followed the norms of Nepali society. He did what was expected of all Nepali men. It perhaps helped that the artistic state of psychic automatism that he strived for and to some extent achieved, required a complete collapse of (or disengagement from) the everyday.

Birendra Pratap’s investment in lines and surrealistic landscapes suggests that as he gets older, he is moving closer to Nepal’s own historical (non-Western) tradition of arts. This gradual coming into himself is evident in the personal Electrocardiogram series. His works gradually move closer to home, to him. By moving into spaces he knows intimately, the exotic gives way to the mystical and truly surreal. This reality, after all that travel, is revealed to be the strangest. The myths that we hold the closest are perhaps the oddest.

Overall, the exhibition succeeds in the modest task of revealing the elements of choice and continuity that Birendra Pratap has exercised upon his work over time. They form layers over each other, revealing new skills and realizations. The distillation of his earlier years is evident in the animated urbanscapes he has produced over the past decade. These surreal depictions of the inner heart of the Kathmandu Valley’s old towns breathe in them the life of the mythic. It makes you think – this is how Marquez would have drawn out the Valley. Those familiar yet fluid landscapes have clarity in expression. They are thought-in-motion, combining the essential element of psychic automatism with a distinctive presence of mind and space. In so doing, Birendra Pratap has moved with the Surrealists into a new realm.

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Birendra Pratap Singh: A Retrospective is on going at the Nepal Art Council till April 26, 2015. The exhibition is open daily from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm.

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