The sattal at Purohitghat by the Bagmati river is located on a long stretch of stepped embankment that did not start to be architecturally articulated before the 1790s. The sattal at Purohitghat was one of the smaller endowments, but probably the most fascinating one. The baluster columns and the cusped arches of the arcade follow early 19th- century prototypes, but the first floor windows went beyond the scope of carved window frames. The notion of a lintel as a bearing element can only be recognized on the central rectangular opening. The semicircular arches are for the first time not incorporated by a bearing frame but are bearing members themselves. The frames of the side openings add to the stunning design, contributing to a move that culminates in the flower motifs that crown the central opening. In a playful manner, curled appendages frame the entire window, flush with the wall.
– Architecture of the Newars, Volume III, Niels Gutschow
In May 2014, Seb Toussaint and Spag from the Outside Krew visited the Bhaisighat slum on the banks of the Bagmati at Teku and asked residents to choose words that they would want to be painted on walls in their neighbourhood of ragged brick, banged-up wooden planks and corrugated tin. ‘I choose the colours, I choose the design…I choose everything but you choose the word,’ Toussaint is seen telling kids in a video for Share the Word, the crowd-funded project he has been taking to urban settlements around the world. Many locals allowed Toussaint to spruce up the walls of their ramshackle settlements with such uplifting words as ‘Welcome’ and ‘Dhanyabad’, and some even joined in the fun.
At some point, it was decided to make an exception to the ‘unwritten rule’ the Outside Krew had regarding not painting temples and churches. They wrapped up their project by spending close to a week spray-painting the façade of the sattal of the 19th-century Shiva temple in Purohitghat, which overhangs Bhaisighat and is visible from the new bridge that crosses over to Lalitpur. This is the same structure praised so wholeheartedly by art historians for the extraordinary design of its windows. The sattal dating from 1883 is, Saphalya Amatya maintains, ‘famous for its unique window’, and Niels Guthschow describes its design to ‘demonstrate not only the never-ending willingness but desire on the part of Newar craftsmen to develop new forms and décor’. By any standards, the Purohitghat sattal would qualify as heritage worthy of preservation. Yet Seb Toussaint and his band of urban warriors saw fit to distract from this remarkable window frame by framing it in technicolor cartoons. Why?
According to Toussaint, the sadhu who looks after the temple asked him to include the façade in his project. According to the Nepal Children’s Art Museum (which facilitated Toussaint and Spag’s stay here but claims to have had no knowledge of their intention to paint the sattal until afterwards), the locals welcomed the change as it cheered them up as they went about their prayers. The sadhu, meanwhile, freely admits that he asked for the home improvements not just because it looked nice, in his opinion, but because after years of asking the authorities to restore the sagging, dilapidated façade, he wanted to grab their attention.
It may have taken a while, but he has everyone’s attention now. When photos of Toussaint’s handiwork appeared on nepalnews.com on Sunday, 24 August, Nepali social media imploded with indignation. Sujan Chitrakar, Programme Coordinator at KU Art+Design, spoke on behalf of many when he praised Toussaint on Facebook for his work in the community but lambasted him for cultural insensitivity and a lack of foresight in painting the sattal:
The Shiva Temple, though not on the World Heritage Site List, has something to contribute to the remarkable cultural heritage and legacy of Nepal. Any kind of intruding and defacing it would be overlooking history of the place and hurting sentiments of my people.
you have given wrong message to people and you will defame the entire artist community. There are many emerging Nepali artists who see hope in the streets and street art. Your “one wrong” move can severely sabotage their dreams.
Other commentators defended Toussaint’s aesthetic and his collaborative work with the otherwise neglected Bhaisighat community, and privileged their right to determine the development of their surroundings and the temple they used. They also wondered why it had taken so long for anyone to notice the supposedly sacrilegious act – surely that suggested a broader national apathy towards heritage? The subtext of the outrage, they implied, was an elitist hostility towards the idea that slum-dwellers should be able to claim national heritage as their own and, in so doing, dispose of it as they saw fit.
For his part, Toussaint expressed surprise at the delayed reaction of commentators such as myself, so unlike the instantaneous delight of the local community, the only people who seemed to be aware of the temple. He maintained that he was glad that a debate was taking place, bizarrely comparing his act to the vandalizing of reproductions of ancient statues at the Louvre Metro station in 1992 (http://sebtoussaint.com/2014/06/29/hindu-temple).
Yet the fact that people became belatedly aware of the defacement does not justify it. The existence of innumerable other heritage sites that we have been unable to preserve does not give anyone the right to indulge in such acts of artistic squatting either. And surely a single community (however unified in their support) cannot have exclusive say over the treatment of a public monument, a distinct part of our heritage and one that predates Bhaisighat by at least a century?
At an animated discussion at the City Museum Kathmandu that evening, both Sujan Chitrakar and Sangeeta Thapa warned that if individual artists did not exercise due care, they could well face a backlash – not from fellow artists, but from extremist elements and the state. The state itself was represented at the discussion by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City, keen to publicize a planned heritage path along the river. They had been caught unawares by Toussaint’s project, but were positive about the future of the area’s heritage.
Many of the artists present, including Dishebh Shrestha and Aditya Aryal, agreed they would never consider painting over a temple as they ‘knew their limits’; it was crucial for visiting artists to consult with local artists to get a handle on what was appropriate. Karl Knapp and Taka Otsu pointed out the difficulties in containing such art forms as graffiti – in the absence of a specifically Nepali tradition of street art, future incidents could well arise with younger artists seeking to define their own limits. What if they did not possess the requisite ‘common sense’? The consensus, ultimately, was that a negative act should be transmuted into something positive: it was decided that research was needed to find a way to restore the façade of the Purohitghat sattal, in concert with experts and the authorities. This collective act – to take place on a date to be announced – will be documented to raise awareness about the nature of cultural heritage, our attitudes towards it, and the role of public art.
When the story broke on social media Monday morning, several people responded to my frenetic posts with a shocked ‘Yikes!’ If indeed the sight of Toussaint’s work offended so many, one can only hope that it was an eye-opener in the best possible way. The message is clear: if we wait for others to ‘take care’ of what we claim as our own, we should not be surprised if they do just that.
Thanks to Tom Bell for digging up the history of the Shiva temple at Purohitghat