Torana at Changu Narayan Temple. The oldest temple on the outskirts of Bhaktapur built in Licchavi Dynasty. by Rajeev Gurung
If you were to wander around the ancient picturesque squares of Patan, Bhaktapur, and Basantapur, you would see almost every local working there masterfully to keep their traditions of pottery, wood carving, and many other skills alive. If you were to enter one of their shops and ask for an ankhijhyal (a handmade Nepali artifact; intricately carved wooden lattice windows) the shop owner would show you another huge stack of his collection of exquisitely carved classical Nepali hand-mades. Around these streets on beautifully stained glass windows and many other streets of Nepal where tourism is at its full bloom, we can still see reminders of rich Nepali art- traditional hand-painted portraiture of Kumari, scenic mountain ranges, and golden bells suspended among colorful prayer flags, blooming in the vibrant depiction of what Nepal is.
Nepali communities have never failed to amuse us with their idiosyncratic cultural and moral roots, and Nepali art is something that is not only based on tradition, and cosmopolitan influences, but a shared national history. The way art evolved from traditional to contemporary seems to be deeply inculcated in the way the rulers of Nepal exercised their power over the people and the way societies were, in consequence, structured. Because of the close intertwinement of our art and culture with the country’s history and civilization, the evolution of Nepali art is steeped in socio-political contexts, which can be tracked down into a number of different stages.
Kirants, also considered the first ethnic people of Nepal, were an Indo–Mongoloid mountain tribe, who ruled Nepal almost 3500 years ago. During the rule of Kirants, Nepal made considerable progress in the field of trade and commerce, as well as arts and architecture. The foundation of the vast structure of the Nepalese culture was laid down under the Kirants. Therefore, this period can be regarded as the forerunner of the future development of Nepalese society in all aspects.
Although there hasn’t been precise documentation of artisans from the Kirati civilization there were stupas, pagodas, and temples all built on the model of Buddhist art during this period. Above all, it holds an important event in the history of Nepal when the Indian Emperor Ashoka came on a pilgrimage to Lumbini in Nepal. During the rule of Sthunko, the 14th king of the Kirati Dynasty around 250 B.C., king Ashoka engraved inscriptions on rocks and set up a stone pillar, which are often considered the earliest examples of inscriptions excavated in ancient Nepal. The pillars also serve as the first physical evidence of the Buddhist faith (“The pillars of Dhamma”). Many such inscription examples of granite and slate slabs etched in intricately hewed curves, sharp angles, and elaborate calligraphy have been found in ancient temples and archaeological sites and serve as the earliest forms of the Nepalese art.
The Kirants were ultimately overthrown by Licchavis, who ruled in the Kathmandu Valley for five hundred years. The art in Nepal reached its zenith in the Licchavi period: the dominant forms of Nepalese art, which were to later strengthen its base in arts, architecture, hand-made crafts, and artistry goods entitled the ruling period of this dynasty to be the “golden period of Nepal”. Nepalese art came into being in the Nepal Valley, the present-day Kathmandu Valley. Closely associated with art in Nepal is the Newar ethnic group, who comprise about half the population of the Kathmandu valley. The Licchavis instituted a caste system in the Valley in accordance with Indian precedent. Membership in these castes entitled a person to engage in a particular occupation and it is also assumed that the basis for the caste system was created according to the subsuming of the work of art; for example, the lamas made thangka paintings and the Shakyas were skilled in metalwork (two of many other castes of Nepal).
Because the Kathmandu Valley represented a transitional zone between the regions of Tibet/China and India, the local population came constantly under new cultural influences from both of these sources, which contributed to the fact that art and works of art here localized according to the characters of their own. During the Licchavi period, the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang gave an impressive description of the daily life of the Nepalese as well as their artistry in manipulating metal, stone, wood, and paint. Such still significant temple sites as the Shiva sanctuary Pashupatinath and the Vishnu temple of Changu Narayan, as well as the stupa of Swayambhunath and that in Boudhanath, and the temples of Kailashkut Bhavan and Mana Griha were already built at the time. Brisha Barma, another king in the Lichchhavi dynasty established Manju Bahal (a monastery now known as Manju Vihar) and Bande Gaon at Chabahil. It was in his reign that a man called Prachanda Deva came from Gaud and built a Swayambhu Chaitya. Lichchhavi kings were vastly learned in Sanskrit and they were great poets, too. Gupta script in Sanskrit is found in some of the inscriptions of the Lichchhavi period.
The Licchavi rulers tolerated various religious practices of the Valley population, even though by origin they tended especially towards Hinduism and Buddhism. Hence, the art style received the imprint of the teachings of such religious orientations and their orthodox rules— as well as a large number of sectarian groups and their cults within the spectrum of these more universally applicable religions, as, for example, Shaktism, Tantrism, and Shivaism, with the Shivalinga cult of the latter specific to Nepal. These various religious influences in connection with ideas and mythical legends of folk beliefs always produced a wealth of motifs for painters, sculptors, architects, gold-, silver- and coppersmiths, wood-carvers, and stonemasons. Especially, 1015 B.S. (959 AD) was very significant in the history of painting and picture since the manuscripts painting Pragya Paramita were found as if they were the oldest painting of Nepal.
Similarly, forms like sculptures and wood carvings that boomed during this period (5-8 CE) although not always in ornamental form, also served a decorative purpose in ancient Nepal. Visible on windows, doors, temples, and roof-struts, numerous of these artifacts, all carved by hand, can still be found excellently excavated and preserved till the present day. They serve the purpose of tourist attraction as cherished portrayals of the wonders of Nepali craftsmanship.
After Lichhavis were the Mallas who ruled the Kathmandu valley in 1257 B.S. (1201 AD). During their 550 year rule, the Mallas built numerous temples and splendid palaces with picturesque squares. It was also during their rule that society and the cities became well organized; religious festivals were introduced and literature, music, and art were encouraged.
But under the ruler, Jayasthiti Malla from 1438 B.S. to 1451 B.S. (1382-1395 AD) the Valley population was further divided into a caste system that oriented towards the orthodox Hinduism of India. The country’s entire structure was given a foundation wherein certain rules restricting a section of the society to wear specific artistry costumes and ornaments were promulgated. This rigid ordering assigned a low caste status to the artisan professions. Neither at this time nor in the years that followed, under the successors of Jayasthiti Malla, do written documents make special mention of any particular artist or school of artists- whereas in Tibet and China, under the ruler Kublai Khan, for instance, Nepalese artists enjoyed particularly high esteem. Under the Mallas they were regarded as social forces in the services of nobles and priests, carrying out the latter’s wishes and informing the religious canon with a sense of artistry in accordance with fixed rituals and rules. In 1538 BS (1482 AD) a later successor to Jayasthiti Malla assigned the cities of Bhaktapur, Patan, and Kathmandu to his sons as independent domains of leadership. Trade, agriculture, religion, and culture flourished in the Kathmandu Valley, fostering tremendous growth in the production of sacred art, some of which include the stone-carved Kal Bhairav Statue, exquisitely famous temples such as the Krishna Mandir, Taleju Bhavani, and many other Shikara-style Shiva temple in Bhaktapur. Under his patronage, music and literature flourished and beautiful books were written in Sanskrit and Newari. The Ramayana and the play of Bhairabananda were played during his reign.
Miniature painting, moreover, experienced an upsurge; the wall paintings of the period reveal a diversified scheme of ornamentation. Urged on by the mutual rivalry of the city kings, the artistic creativity of the late Malla period experienced a great flowering. In tandem with one another, the three main cities were built up and adorned. Stonemasons, wood-carvers, and thangka painters of the time from the Newar ethnic group created works of art of particular note.
Most of the Malla kings were also highly educated. They were skilled poets and authors. Nepal Bhasa (the Newar language), being the state language of the time, flourished along with Sanskrit. Books on drama, poetry, and other forms of literature were written both in Sanskrit and Nepal Bhasa. Plays were generally religious in character and most of them were ascribed to the authorship of the kings.
However, present-day critics call the late Malla period one of debauched living at the expense of the Nepali folk. Such a life of luxury led to unhinging of the state economies as the Mallas used Large tax levies and state monies for huge projects requiring artisans and artists with much fashioning out of pure gold, silver, and precious stones to display their courteous majesty. State-sponsored art became the symbol of status and power. Under Jayaprakash Malla of Kathmandu, the political situation towards the outside got so bad that the king was even forced to sell jewels and temple treasures, including those of Pashupatinath, in order to be able to recruit troops for his military.
This situation was changed by Prithvi Narayan Shah, who conquered the Valley in 1824 B.S. (1768 AD) and unified the country into present-day Nepal. The Shah rulers, though not imposing upon the old, traditional artisan profession, did not particularly support it either, as their attention was directed more to the formation of a new nation and the unification of the western and eastern areas of present-day Nepal. Nepalese art, however, had already gained momentum in the development of a society that was very steeped in artistic and cultural forms of expression. Sanskrit and Newari literature had also been advancing at a great pace.
Further development of the artisan profession and the plastic arts (three-dimensional art such as sculpture, which is characterized by modeling), with reference to the later Rana period, marked an important time in Nepal’s art history. Due to repeated outbreaks of armed conflict over trading resources, however, border problems led to war between Nepalese and the British. And even after a peace treaty was signed in 1816, the British gained increasing influence as a result of various trading advantages, and cultural life was greatly hampered during this politically unsettled period. The British’s influence became one of the decisive factors in the development of art in the period that followed. The traditional artisan professions were under threat at the time, as only a few people to commission works could be found. Nevertheless, because of their close contacts with the British, the Ranas along with the Nepalese aristocracy, in their leanings towards the British identified themselves more with Western cultural and consumer products— as a means of displaying their power.
Nepal’s political liberalism from 1902 BS to 2006 BS (1846-1950 AD) during the Rana autocracy resulted in the development of European-derived art, with grand-scale oil portraiture and courteous life of the Ranas. They had taken on the Western cultural tastes of the latter, as expressed in their adopting a neoclassical, Victorian-influenced architecture. They also had a proclivity for European furniture, fashion, and pompous military parades. In painting, one felt one’s way into the naturalism of English artists, and infiltration of Nepalese religious art by purely Western aesthetic motifs. This first cultural interaction with Europe was limited to the Nepalese aristocracy, artistic needs were reduced to the Ranas’ need for wall decorations in their palaces such as family portraits, hunting scenes, nude paintings, landscapes, and still lifes. Part of the demand was covered by imports from abroad; court painters employed especially for this purpose were confronted with the newest advances.
On the whole, however, artists had to attempt as best they could to copy from Western paradigms and to incorporate new techniques and different color conceptions from European pictures, to the extent that their differing traditions allowed. A new sense of the concept of art was set in Nepal- namely away from a mythic religiously motivated one towards works of art that served the ends of personal uplift and thus, possessed a purely aesthetic character. The artists used new techniques: alongside gouaches, oil painting and watercolors found preferred use. Canvas and hardwoods were imported from Europe for processing. Stylistically, the idolizing, flat character with oriental influences, which leaned towards Indo-Nepalese painting was now replaced by motifs conceived in a depth of perspective and naturalistic effects.
During the Rana regime, secular themes, realism, and oil color replaced religious themes, symbolism, and traditionally made colors. During Jung Bahadur Rana’s visit to England, the Newari artist Bhaju Man was taken along so that he could follow the western style of painting in Nepali arts and culture; this was a first-time event that dictated a turning point in the value placed on Nepalese artists.
After The Fall of Rana Regime
A key factor to consider in the evolution and history of Nepali art was the collapse of the Rana Dynasty, which marked the moment when the political landscape of Nepal changed. The collapse of the Rana regime shifted power back to the monarchy of King Tribhuvan Shah with the proclamation of a new constitution. From this point onwards, his taste dictated the style of art in Nepal. He admired the aesthetic quality of modern trends coming out of Europe and imported these trends by allowing Western Neoclassicism to influence the art scene in Nepal—including Nepali architecture. With the 1960s being the turning point of modernism in Nepal, modernist trends started embodying ideas of artistic experimentation and innovation – being popularized from Europe and other parts of the world due to the cross-flow of people within and across the border.
With modernism being introduced to Nepal in this decade, so did the creative landscape of Nepal also changed dramatically. Nepalese modern art in Nepal started as a response to the new lives and ideas innovated by ever-expanding technological developments of the industrial age. These changes caused contemporary society to change rapidly, forging a new way of life, starkly different from life in the recent past. In response to this change, artists represented the novelty of modern life in suitably innovative ways. Aesthetically speaking, modern art was characterized by the artist’s intent to portray a subject not merely as it exists in the physical world, but according to how it is seen through their unique perspective – and it typically confounded the orthodox expectations of traditional art genres.
Two influential artists, Chandra Man Singh Maskey and Tej Bahadur Chitrakar in the mid-20th century art scene ushered the definitive beginnings of modernism. Their modernist tendencies were most evident in their introduction of a new subject genre: the urban life of the Nepali community as a self-conscious articulation of their lived experiences of schooling in urban cities like Kolkatta, India, because Nepal lacked any formal art school until 1934 when the first art school of Nepal, Lalitkala Campus of Fine Arts, was established. The works of these artists are today seen as the turning point in the development of art in Nepal: thanks to the regime’s support of individual talent, these artists no longer had to keep up with the subordinate social status of the artists in the Malla and Rana courtyards. Along with them, Rajman Chitrakar, who painted for Brian Hudson the first British resident at Kathmandu, and Dirghaman Chitrakar, who pioneered realistic techniques of portrait painting and landscape in the early 1920s, were considered to be the pioneers of arts and painting to establish modernism in arts.
Whereas art-making was only limited to artists at the palace courts in order to cater to the tastes of such rulers, after the establishment of democracy, however, ordinary people were also able to join the arts and painting, which caused the Nepali painting to be more modern and relevant. Likewise, with the development of democratic exercise, the painters started being organized under the umbrella of different organizations. As a result, the Nepal Art Society was born in 2009 B.S. (1953 AD) and Nepal Art Council in 2015 B.S. (1959 AD) Likewise in 2022 B.S. (1966 AD), Nepal Lalitkala Association was established, and since then, artists started engaging in proactive documentation and archiving of Nepali art histories and practices with timely seminar discussions on various art issues.
Despite of many aesthetic similarities in Nepali and western-derived art, a significant ideological difference between the two was seen. Because European modern art was a response of anti-development and anti-modernization, while Nepali modern art was a pursuit of one, these two movements are conceptually opposed. This new interpretation of modernism, coupled with the influence of Nepal’s long-lived traditional art, and the presence of ethnic spirituality and religious iconography were the main elements that differentiate Nepali Modernism. Many started to understand that the traditional handicrafts and traditional forms of the visual art form are just means of gaining a foreign monetary value. Nepali art shifted from realism to abstractionism, public to personal, and objective to subjective. Nepali artists began to explore their inner self rather than representing external objects and events, advancing further along the paths of post-modern art movements.
Post-Modern and Contemporary Era
Just as techniques of western modernism entered Nepal in the 1950s and 1960s, forms of western postmodernism—shaped both by expeditious technological advancement, economic power, and further globalization and by the logic of identity politics following this decade— began to gain popularity here towards the late 1980s and 1990s. Like modernist art forms, western postmodernism too became localized, shaping the aesthetic forms of contemporary Nepali culture. Just as earlier artists such as Urmila Garg, Gehendra Man Amatya, Lain Singh Bangdel, Uttam Nepali, Krishna Manandhar, Sashi Shah and Vatsa Gopal Vaidhya had used western modernist forms to embody certain tangible forms and structures like landscape, portraiture, etc. In 1960s and 1970s, younger artists such as Ashmina Ranjit, Subina Shrestha, Gopal Kalapremi Shrestha, Sujan Chitrakar, Asha Dongol, Bidhata Shrestha, Jupitar Pradhan, and Saurganga used western postmodern forms to interrogate and interpret local political and cultural concerns of Nepal from 1990 onwards.
New media art forms such as installation art, graffiti, performance art, digital art, and pop art came into growing popularity in the post-modern era. While modernist art, despite all the experimentation that went with it, was limited to the painterly space of a canvas and the exhibition space of a gallery, installation and performance art took art beyond both the canvas and the gallery. Installation artists used objects in nature and culture to create their art and performance art seemingly dissolved the borders between theater and art. In this sense, both of these art forms brought new, radical ideas to the field of Nepali art just as they had radicalized the western art world in the 1960s.
Following this new wave of art movement and realizations of greater isms in relation to artificial intelligence, social media, and digitalization, art encompassed all sorts of western movements like Dadaism, surrealism, expressionism, and cubism during the postmodern era. Because the present art scene neither associates itself to a specific cultural code nor has it been given a specific name, contemporary art in Nepal can be understood as further advancement of the postmodern tendencies, happening at a much faster pace than ever before. Art today has started to lean more towards forming some political or social statement, dealing with issues relating to equality, sexism, and racism; or otherwise, by remaining a means of individual expression, and a working method of catharsis and appreciation of beauty and aesthetics for emotional good.
And as we delve deeper into the genesis of how Nepali art and societies have culturally and socially evolved with modern civilization burgeoning more and ever, we see that Nepali societies have maintained the cross-dimensionality of their arts and culture in the present as much as they had in the past. While still holding true this quaint, religious aesthetic, representative of the country’s rich cultural heritage, art in Nepal today, however, also veers towards socio-political issues, with new aestheticism to follow. Art today, fulfills its aesthetic as well as utilitarian purpose in a sense that we continue to acknowledge and inculcate the undying traditional art values and creations seen through examples of rich architectural buildings as well as exquisitely curated classical paintings at museums. Similarly, while it is indispensable to acknowledge the fact that the role of art in Nepali society has been prominent since the 50s and 60s, art intervention, in the present day, has certainly taken a more revolutionized and declarative path and has become provocative political and conceptual art.
Within this arena, galleries, museums, and other art institutions play an important role to curate the works of emerging artists and fortify local forms of arts to inspire art lovers and practitioners to come up with something creative, innovative, and imaginative. They have goals of endorsing and promoting contemporary Nepali art and culture through diverse forms of practices and research programs. They embrace the subtle differences and nuances in the art scene of not only the past and present Nepal, but as a whole, in regards to how these different time eras blend together into one harmonized art world. Gallery spaces bring about a new wave of consciousness, an attempt to connect contemporary art practices and ideals with the roots from where its entire foundation may have originated.
With the stature of the art world anywhere around the world dependent so much on its surrounding, the post-COVID scene has also led to massive digitalization of art in Nepal with its most renowned museums, galleries, and libraries upgrading themselves through the virtual reality interface. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have channeled the relevant synthesis between learners and the practitioners of the art, managing to organize exhibitions, stores, as well as live broadcasts for viewers online.
The credo of Nepali art itself is starting to be defined by modern ideologies through the lens of technologically advanced society, Nepali art today, mainly seeks a dynamic and interdisciplinary means of artistic expression, while embracing and without forgoing the beliefs and norms that have been framed along the centuries. Nepali artists are aware of their own tradition and the novel trends in world art. They have learned the past and absorbed the contemporary, now they are attempting to unlearn the rules and formulate what they had learned, and hearing their own inner voice, creating their own codes and putting their own signature in a subconscious manner.
Therefore, looking at the facades of ancient and modern Nepal, Nepal is on par when it comes to keeping up with international trends of experimentation and integration of new media in art. We have done a commendable job in rising above our age-old boundaries and spreading our talents all across the international art world, whether it be painting, filmmaking, or literature. However, there is a bigger need for the Nepali art market to create space for
Constructive dialogue and feed to the prolific end. We need art enthusiasts, critics, well-informed media, and knowledgeable personnel in the government to initiate and promote dialogues and conversations about it. We need art writers and erudite scholars to set the right narratives that affect the view of the public. We need art to be institutionalized so that art production, art intervention, and its use in society could be cherished as something more than just a hobby. This is also crucial so that contemporary Nepali art is promoted on a global scale and to a wider international market. After all, for how long will we keep introducing our country as the land of Buddha and Mount Everest? We have to start thinking about a new portal to redefine that identity, and arts could be the perfect medium for that.
- Susanne van der Heide; TRADITIONAL ART IN UPHEAVAL: THE DEVELOPMENT OF MODERN CONTEMPORARY ART IN NEPAL
- Jyoti Prakash B.K.; JOURNAL OF ADVANCED ACADEMIC RESEARCH (JAAR) Nepali Painting: Traditional Motifs in Modern Art
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs; The history of Nepal
- Rehana Banu; Licchavi Art in Nepal (Sculptural study)
- Nepal Academy of Fine Arts; History of Nepali Art