Sketching the chariot of the rain god
For 19 days in May, artist Sushila Singh followed the Rato Machhindranath chariot, its construction from the ground up.
She sat, watching the locals gather material to build the rath and sketched the progress in real time, the chariot taking form in sharp, meticulously sketched black lines.
By the time Bunga Dyo Jatra was over, Singh had made 19 drawings, 16 of which will be on display at the upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Nepali Art (MoNA) starting 17 July.
Singh came to Pulchok from Baneswor every morning at around 5 before her two children were up.
“It was helpful that they didn’t have school then,” she quips. She would work for two to three hours before the sun got too warm, sometimes returning in the evenings to plan where she could sit and work the next day.
The series is reminiscent of the chronophotography, the 19th-century photography technique that captured multiple phases of motion, and prompt one to imagine the drawings placed side-by-side and then moved at lightning-speed.
The chariot of Bunga Dyo grows before the viewer’s eyes: first the wheels, then the wooden columns. Slowly the storeys add and the skeleton rises. Then comes the outer layer of green Juniper and vines, which look like lines reached out to the heavens.
Sketched entirely in pen and ink, the drawings strip the rath off any ostentatiousness, presenting it in its essential form. In the shifting hues of a consistent palette, the audience notices how the shape, size and depth of the lines change according to the light, and where Singh must have sat when she made them.
The light is not exactly visible on the canvas, but Singh leaves clues. In one of the drawings, for example, a rope extends, curls and breaks.
She explains, “I drew it as it appeared to me when the light hit it from behind.”
In some ways, the gradual growth in the drawings is also reflective of Singh’s own artistic journey, inviting the viewer to think about the dedicated creative process.
Like many artists, she too began drawing at a young age, making hills and mountains in school, and filling in the colours.
“I remember I used to make postcards during Guru Purnima and other festivals myself and gift them to my teachers and friends,” she says, but this did not necessarily mean that she knew she wanted to be an artist later in life: in fact, all she was certain about was that she did not want to do a 9-5 job.
In 2004, after completing her bachelor’s in accounting, Singh joined Lalit Kala Campus for fine arts without telling anyone.
“Even then I did not know what I wanted to do,” she recalls, a wide smile across her face, “but I enjoyed art school very much, and slowly, almost subconsciously, I became an artist.”
Many art students begin with portraiture, and Singh’s portraits were well-received in her family. Her parents, she recalls, did not force dreams and ambitions upon her. “They were pleased and encouraging,” she says.
Then in 2011, she had a successful first solo exhibition at the Nepal Art Council, some pieces from the show will be displayed at MoNA as well.
These works are striking for their linework, and also the fact that Singh made the canvases herself, unfolding the paper on a stretcher and then applying three layers of white texture.
But Singh’s œuvre is multimedia. She had in 2019 an exhibition showcasing her work on paper and with ceramics, ‘Udaan, Beyond Bounds’.
Highlights of the exhibition were the iconic dream-like temple pagodas in black and orange strokes, with oblique finials, as though one were looking up at an exceedingly tall monument –– and earned her a National Award.
She repeated the feat in 2021 with her brick installation at Gallery MCube, a section of which will be reproduced at MoNa.
She did learn to work with pencil in the beginning, but Singh now prefers to draw directly with pen and ink without outlining. But Singh enjoys this intense artistic experience: “I find that it helps me be more confident, and thoughtful.”
Perhaps this is only fitting for an artist whose works reflect long periods of careful thinking and thorough patience, often accompanied by philosophical enquiries. “I am also the kind of person who thinks about where these thoughts come from,” Singh says laughing.
She recalls that during her work on the chariot of Bunga Dyo, she found parallels between the structure, the construction, and the different private and public persona of people.
“As in the case of the rath, we only ever see the outside, what’s apparent, and very few of us pause to think about what’s hidden,” she says. “After all, the rath cannot stand unless it is one with the people and the people with each other.”
The many layers of meanings and musings are characteristic of Singh’s artwork, which become even more pertinent when one realises that no women participate in the construction of the rath, except as spectators or on a specific day when only women pull the chariot from Lagankhel to Thati.
In these 16 exquisite drawings, Sushil’s Singh has built her own chariot.
The exhibition will take place alongside that of Raj Prakash Man Tuladhar at the Museum of Nepali Art, Thamel 17-30 July 2022.
Read more: Makers of Machhindranath, Cynthia Choo