Thamel’s new Art Street
Under a canopy of prayer flags and electrical wires, a quiet backstreet of Thamel is reinventing itself to be the new epicentre for Nepali art.
Away from the bustling main roads of this tourist quarter of Kathmandu, along a narrow winding alley is Kathmandu Art House, a four-storeyed block with large lower-case letters on the facade: ‘art st’.
Art Street is not an immediately obvious facelift, the building has been around for years. Nevertheless, it aims to provide Nepali artists with a platform to work and showcase their creativity in a one-stop shop.
It is perhaps fitting that Art Street is adjacent to Kathmandu Guest House which became a catalyst in the 1970s for the evolution of Thamel as a backpacker destination, replacing Jhonchhe which was known in the Hippie era as ‘Freak Street’.
Thamel got branded as a place for budget travellers, and with the renovated Kathmandu Guest House and Art St is reinventing itself to be more upmarket.
“This side of Thamel lacked identity, which is why I came up with this idea,” explains Rajan Sakya of Kathmandu Guest House who also established the nearby Museum of Nepali Art (MoNA) and turned the courtyard of Kathmandu Guest House into a permanent exhibition space for sculptures.
Showing a visitor around, Sakya says, “We have plenty of malls in Kathmandu but we lack an avenue for intellectual entertainment. Art is as much a part of our identity as mountaineering and trekking, which is why I wanted to create an environment rich with artistic expression.”
Each room at the Kathmandu Art House is rented out at up to Rs25,000, a dozen prominent Nepali artists like Erina Tamrakar, Sujan Dangol, SC Suman, Roshan Dangol, Raj Prakash Man Tuladhar have set up shop here. The names of the artists are emblazoned on the street-side facade next to the ‘art st’ sign.
The artists all have their very own private atelier where visitors can browse through their works, talk to them about their craft, and even purchase their favourite pieces.
Artists in Nepal often complain that not many people buy Nepali art, let alone go to exhibitions and view paintings on show. “This is not indicative of a low volume of output, as it is of a smaller market,” he says. “To say Nepali art is not appreciated enough is directly related to how few galleries there are in Nepal at present and platforms.”
Raj Prakash Man Tuladhar, a traditionally trained painter of paubha, completes only 2-3 paintings each year, given the meticulous detail that goes into creating them, and yet he does not have space at home to display them.
“Thanks to the art house, I have a studio that is also my exhibition space,” Tuladhar says, gesturing to walls lined with vibrant paubha depicting fierce and benevolent deities. “Earlier, I could only tell people about progress in paintings, now they get to see me at work, and my entire collection in one place. This allows me to develop a closer connection with art lovers.”
This is a feeling shared by Roshan Dangol, another artist-in-residence at Kathmandu Art House. “I was first introduced to this place by fellow artist Samundra Man Singh Shrestha, and it was a good move,” he says.
Two windows in his studio frame trees and buildings outside in a canvas of their own, letting in ample sunlight and birdsong. An easel stands in the middle of the room with a work-in-progress spread.
“There is a creative environment here,” Dangol says, “I find the greenery outside and engagement with other artists encouraging and inspiring.”
Dangol,30, was recently commissioned by mountaineer Reinhold Messner during his recent visit to create two artworks for the Messner Mountain Museum in Italy. Dangol credits the exposure to Kathmandu Art House: “I probably would not have found the same level of national and international recognition otherwise.”
Earlier, Dangol’s charcoal drawings would often lie rolled-up or stacked in his home studio, gathering dust. Here, many have found room on the walls, all framed as in an exhibition.
“When people come to look at my art,” he adds, “I no longer have to try and explain them with words. Here, I can show my different styles and experiments, and my paintings are right in front of them to view in one space.”
Thamel was chosen for this new initiative primarily because of the large footfall of tourists, both domestic and international, that it receives annually, making it a prime location for people to be acquainted with the artists and their works.
“We cannot wait for the government to come along and declare this spot as an art zone,” says Rajan Shakya. “We have to take the initiative ourselves and help reach Nepali art new heights and gain widespread recognition.”
Nepali art finds new home, Shristi Karki