The house of Chitrakars

Madan Chitrakar. Photo: SUMAN NEPALI

Their profession is their surname. Three generations of Chitrakars have devoted their lives to studying, practicing, and refining Nepali art.

At 78, Madan Chitrakar is still in his studio, brush in hand in front of canvases. Born into a family of artists, his swas tied to art even before his birth in 1945.

Madan was born a month after the death of his artist grandfather Shiva Das Chitrakar who painted images of gods and goddesses on paper, cloth, the walls and doors of temples, as well as on the wheels and legs of chariots during festivals.

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Shiva Das’ son Tej Bahadur grew up watching his father sketch and paint. And Tej Bahadur’s son Madan says, “We are not artists just because we are Chitrakars. This profession needs dedication.”

Tej Bahadur painted not only religious imagery but murals of animals, people, and nature at Singha Darbar, impressing Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana, who sent him to the Government College of Fine Art in Calcutta.

While in India, Tej Bahadur sent oil and watercolour portraits back home, including those of Chandra Shumsher and King Tribhuvan. Before him, Nepal's aristocracy used to commission British artists to paint their portraits.

Tej Bahadur is the first Nepali graduate of modern art and is credited with introducing Western academic fundamentals into Nepali art at a time when it was limited to traditional art forms. Upon his return, Tej Bahadur became an art teacher at Darbar High School and died in 1971, aged 73.

Madan Chitrakar got a degree from Bombay’s J J School of Art in 1963 and returned to Nepal to make cartoon-style illustrations in textbooks. He retired in 1998 after 20 years at the Tourism Ministry.

He designed the logo for Visit Nepal 1999, and says: “What can be created quickly on InDesign now used to take many hours of measuring-by-hand and painstaking drawing back then.”

Madan continues to make a living off of his art at 78. He has painted mountains and nature, villages that have become cities, and the history of Nepali society.

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Madan Chitrakar's painting of a Tamang couple he encountered during one of his travels. Photo: SUMAN NEPALI

Some of his art is political. In 2002, he painted four empty blood-soaked boxes lying in the middle of a seemingly endless road, which he titled The Settlement. The 36x30 inch acrylic on canvas depicted the conflict years.

“At that time, the only news was of death, even as entire communities fled their homes to escape the violence,” recalls Madan. “There was a lot of fear and loneliness, which was what I conveyed through the painting.

These days, Madan paints mythical lions, using the animal as a medium to showcase emotions of ferocity, peace, anger, mischief. There is a belief in the Newa community that drawing lions cures the body of ailments.

“There is still a lot of work to be done in modern art in Nepal, which is what I remind myself and other artists,” he says. “We need to move beyond just painting different versions of Lord Buddha meditating.”

Madan Chitrakar’s skill and passion for art has deep inter-generational roots. He says: “Like my father, I will continue to paint until my hands stop working and my imagination no longer runs wild.”