The book captures Nepal's opposing pulls towards tradition and modernity and the resulting creative tension in architecture, the visual and the performing arts.

Thimi, about 11 km from Kathmandu, has been a pottery centre from ancient times. Ten thousand potters work in this crowded village, some mixing and shaping clay manually as their ancestors have done for centuries, others using truck tyres filled with concrete operated by a foot pedal, and firing their pots in kilns made of brick instead of straw. Recently, glazed stoneware, a far more durable alternative, has been introduced by two brothers trained in American ceramic technology. Thimi is a microcosm of modern Nepal, where a yearning for the older way of life exists side by side with the urge to move into the 21st century.

Still in the making

This juxtaposition results in a creative tension that shapes the architecture, the visual and performing arts, and the religious traditions of a country that is still insecure about it's identity.

There is a striving after Nepaleseness evident in 20th century buildings such as the mandap, partially appearing on the book cover. The tiered roof and carved wooden panels topped by a finial do not replicate an older style but are vague imitations; and the glittering five-star Hyatt Regency is indigenised with Nepali roofs and pagoda-like structures at the entrance.

A beautiful example of this hybrid mode is the residence of Jayaram Acharya, just six years old, a perfect ‘adaptation of traditional elements to modern sensibilities'. Built on the lines of a Raj villa, its indigenous features include a tiled roof with decorative borders and struts, and multiple-arched carved windows newly fabricated or salvaged from dismantled houses.

The aquatic architecture has a unique charm reflecting the ambivalent attitude to water, life-giving but powerfully destructive. Well shafts are thought to plunge into the underworld, and small shrines and sacred images are built into parapets and sidewalls to exorcise the spirits emerging from the depths.

Spouts are often shaped like the makara, vehicle of the goddess Ganga, suggesting, by analogy, that the water pouring from them comes from the holy river itself; and Nagas are thought to regulate the water supply, so a pole surmounted by a snakehead generally stands in the centre of reservoirs to ensure that they never dry up. An ornate example intricately worked in gilded copper adorns the book jacket.

More than half the book is devoted to the visual and performing arts. Of the older traditions, scroll painting alone has seen a promising resurgence, particularly with the inflow of tourists from 1959 onwards. The themes remain religious, but there is constant stylistic and technical innovation.

Mukti Singh Thapa's originality lies in his novel approach to time-honoured subjects. In an outstanding scroll, a traditional Yogini is seen in an unusual posture, with her back to the viewer, her torso twisted, her face in profile. To the right is a large gold lingam, while from the bottom left a swarm of serpents moves diagonally to the top where a Buddha and his consort are geometrically configured in union. The imagery is emblematic of the cycle of creativity and sexuality centred in the feminine.

The painting on the book jacket, a mix of photographic realism and imaginative exuberance, shows a Buddhist practitioner still in his teens, known for his uninterrupted feats of meditation. His portrait and the trunk of the tree under which he sits are true to life, while the richly detailed canopy spreads into fanciful foliage populated by birds and monkeys in the lyrical Pahari style.

Secular art and European aesthetic modes were introduced into Nepal during the rule of the Anglophile Ranas in the 19th century. Portraits of royalty in full regalia, scenes of the hunt, landscape painting and the like came into vogue, as did the experiences of ordinary people.

Opening out

Contemporary artists experiment freely with abstractionism, cubism, minimalism and avant-garde themes of gender, sexuality and politics in innovative techniques such as installation art and mixed media. Though their outlook is global, Nepal remains their source of inspiration. B.G. Vaidya works in the minimalist mode, with Ganesha as his signature motif. In a painting of 1989 the god appears in bold, flat colours and sharp, spare lines set into the red circles of the mandala.

Tantra is a means to enlightenment through meditation, and the mystic mind-states it induces are externalised through symbols and diagrams in a form of abstractionism that precedes its European counterpart by millennia. In Nepalese neo-tantric art, Hindu and Buddhist symbols have been refigured in contemporary, transnational ways with stunning effect. There is such a profusion of aesthetic delights in this chapter that one is left wondering what deserves special mention. Should it be the bronze sculpture in which the process of meditation is captured in ovoid and lingam-like shapes; or the exquisite ‘Peace Mandala' in which the central figure of the Buddha circled in an opalescent glow emanates light in bursts of luminous white and pale green; or the contrasting ‘ Tantric Dance' full of swirling movement, with the elongated limbs of two pairs of attenuated nude figures stretching outwards beyond the frame of the painting ‘to merge with everything'?

Eventually it has to be Binod Pradhan's ‘Inner Faces', so richly suggestive that one returns to it compulsively. Huge, hauntingly beautiful, inward-looking visages in glowing colours overlap, merge and separate as if in constant flux, creating a trance-like mood that derives from the painter's spiritual experience while in deep meditation.

The performing arts too, full of life and colour, are moving into the 21st century. Street theatre has always been an essential part of religious festivals, with the actors costumed as gods and demons dancing and singing with the hoi polloi. Now it covers contemporary themes as well such as poverty and corruption, and has become a metaphor of social change.

Similarly tantric dance, once performed exclusively by priests in the sacred precincts, has moved into the public domain and its best-known practitioner, Prajwal, has established a Newar temple and school in Portland, Oregon. In 2-hour sessions the students learn meditation and dancing, visualizing the divine attributes of a particular god before translating them into bodily movement.

Even that most regressive of Nepali traditions, the worship of the Virgin Goddess, is changing. The Kumari is no longer incarcerated in her palace in solitary splendour. Her parents are permitted to move in with her, and she may attend school or be tutored at home to help her to adjust to the quotidian world on attaining puberty.

If one thinks of Nepal as a backward country synonymous with poverty and political uncertainty, this splendid book dispels these misconceptions. Though it is a social document, its enchanting visual appeal will make it a must-buy for art lovers.

Nepal: Nostalgia and Modernity, edited by Deepak Shimkhada, Marg Foundation, Rs. 2800.


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