The swirling blue waves evoke Japanese paintings, the billowing white clouds on an azure sky look like Tibetan thankas, the mandalas and the tantric positions of deities are motifs straight out of Himalayan Buddhism.
But the images are all from Nepal\'s poubha school of devotional art, and this underrated and overlooked art form all originated here, in Kathmandu Valley at least 1,200 years ago.
Although there are no records of the original poubha because of the fragility of the medium (vegetable and mineral dyes on canvas) there are many art historians who believe that the poubha art form was the precursor to the Tibetan thanka.
As with many other architectural and artistic skills that travelled from Kathmandu Valley north to Tibet, China and even Japan in the middle of the last millennium, poubha was taken to Tibet by their Newari masters.
In the past 50 years, the thanka gained immense popularity worldwide, particularly because of its linkage to Himalayan Buddhism. But the poubha has largely remained within the private confines of the Valley\'s bahals and temples. Even Kathmandu\'s art dealers and young Nepalis seem unaware of the devotional richness and artistic genius of this indigenous art form, although a few recent exhibitions have started featuring poubhas.
Poubha artists work in private, their studios have a tranquil ambience. The act of painting itself is a form of meditation, linking the human painter with the spiritual and divine. The artists are taught to be humble, meditative and detached from the materialistic world, and they carry immense patience and devotion. The sacred Buddhist texts say: "The painter must be a good man, not given to anger and laziness, holy, learned, who is a master of his senses, pious, benevolent, free from avarice."
Before starting to paint, the canvas has to be blessed and the outlines approved by a Vajrayana priest. If it meets canonical injunctions, the master inscribes three syllables: Om, Ah, Hum (for body, speech and mind) at the back of the canvas. The canvas itself is a cotton sheet stretched across a wooden frame and covered with a layer of buffalo glue and white clay.
The artist uses sable-hair brush of a variety of thicknesses. The water-based colours of poubhas come from Himalayan stones like tourmaline and copper sulphate crystals, indigo from south India to give five basic colours: red, blue, yellow, black and white. A rich red dominates Newari paintings and this sets off the bright blues, greens and gold. There is a strict code for the colours representing various deities.
The subject of the painting itself follows guidelines for philosophical themes and iconometric principles. There isn\'t much left for the artist\'s imagination, the rules are governed by records of meditative visions of early sages passed down from generation to generation. The eyes of the deities are always painted at the end, and this is the holiest moment in the entire two months or so it takes to complete the poubha.
Painters can bring in their own individuality only in the decorative patterns. And once painted, the canvas is always kept rolled up and not shown to strangers since they are considered a mirror that reflects the painter\'s soul. In recent years there has been some revival of interest in the poubha, mainly because of the popularity (and a certain commercialisation of thankas). There are only a few masters of poubha art in Kathmandu Valley. Among them are Lok Chitrakar (see box below), Siddhimuni Shakya and Prem Man Chitrakar. Pokhara-based Mukti Singh Thapa, originally from the Newari hilltown of Bandipur, also paints poubha.
Thirty-eight-year-old Lok Chitrakar is a self-taught poubha practitioner who has been painting since he was 12. Today, with assistants Komal, Santosh, Sanjaya, Bijaya, Amogh, Kishor, Rajendra Lok Chitrakar runs his Simrik Atelier in Patan. Chitrakar\'s repertoire runs from ritual geometric tantric designs like the Shri Yantra to the Vajrayana pantheon, including Saraswati, Ganesh, Tara, Manjushree and Avalokiteswar. Chitrakar has been working for the past five years on two huge poubha murals for a temple in Japan.
Lok Chitrakar follows the iconic traditions of his forebears, but does experiment with his trademark Chinese rocks, Tibetan clouds and Japanese mountain landscapes as well as silky transparency in shawls or a deliberate lack of symmetry in some forms. "I have tried to remain true to the ritualistic requirements as far as deities are concerned, but on occasion I have added supportive elements in a manner that artists centuries ago also did," says Chitrakar.
Poubha art is now also developing a select following, and Chitrakar himself has held exhibitions in Kathmandu, Finland and Japan.