Mapping the earthquake with art

Curious onlookers gather around Prabin Shrestha as he paints the post-earthquake reconstruction of the imposing neo-classical façade of the Gaddi Baithak complex.

The canvas picks up the small details of the ongoing restoration: the green net, the scaffolding, danger signs warning people of falling debris. Onlookers at the Hanuman Dhoka Museum Square are impressed with the near-photographic realism.

“Wow, thyakkai (‘so exact!’),” is the common refrain. Some ask if they can take pictures, and others want the artist to explain why he paints the ruins and not the beauty of the monument before it was damaged in the earthquake.

Shrestha is busy with his brush-strokes, but answers patiently: “Painting this palace as beautiful will not make it beautiful, the unfinished construction shows much work still needs to be done.”

Prabin Shrestha

Shrestha is a member of the young artists’ group Paasapi (‘a group of friends’ in Newari) which has been busy painting what the 2015 earthquake did to Nepalis. The four art students had been mural painters, but after the disaster, they turned to record the aftermath through art.

The four first started by painting the damaged Durbar High School, Lalitkala Campus, and other monuments around Kathmandu, and even sold a painting. But that soon changed.

Paasapi member Pradip Pal Saud explains: “We realised that we were actually documenting history, and that had more than aesthetic value. So, we decided not to sell what we painted.” Instead, they went around earthquake-ravaged neighbourhoods conducting art workshops for children, and painted damaged homes, people trying to rebuild their lives.

Their paintings did not just depict the desolation, but also heart-warming stories of people helping each other and their inner strength in overcoming the crisis. Sometimes, the artists were mistaken for relief workers, and survivors came with their citizenship cards to ask for help. Others would say: “My house is much more damaged, you have to come and paint it too.”

Up in the mountains they would come across shepherds living in wooden huts who were completely unaffected, and even blissfully unaware of the earthquake.  Survivors amidst the ruins of their homes, who were themselves short of food, would offer to share meals.

“A woman in Sindhupalchok offered us a jumbo bottle of Coke after we said we had to finish the painting and had no time for food,” recalls another Paasapi member Akash Budha Magar.

For the artists, the work is not just about portraying structures but also capturing human emotions. “We found that people engage more with painters than with journalists,” says Shrestha. “A photographer takes a snapshot and is off, but we are at one place for days. People want to strike up conversations, and we communicate their feelings through our paintings.”

Even the name of the project, Naksha (‘map’), was given by onlookers, who used it most often to refer to their paintings, and not using the prevalent Nepali words for ‘image’ (chitra) or ‘picture’ (tasbir). The earthquake survivors own the painting as much as the artists themselves.

Now, after more than 200 paintings of the earthquake damage, the group is moving on to capture the reconstruction. Explains Shrestha: “The paintings also reflect the slow reconstruction process, and one of our objectives is to use art for political satire.”

Paasapi has already held five public exhibitions in Gorkha and Kathmandu, and has turned exclusively to acrylic on canvas after they found watercolours on paper were damaged by exposure to sunlight.

For now, the group depends on independent art commissions to fund its work, and ultimately want the paintings to be exhibited together.

Also read:

Old art meets new, Sikuma Rai

Walls as art, not barriers, Shaleen Shah