Unnamed masters of Nepal’s art identified

Remember them: Kesaraja Chitrakar, Jivaram, and Adyaraj and Udayaram Pun, the pioneers of 15th century Malla renaissance

“No other people on earth, Watson, has produced such intricate beauty in as small a space as the Valley of Kathmandu. One trenchant observer has described it best as a kind of coral reef, built up laboriously over the centuries by unrecorded artisans. As a human achievement, it ranks with the creations of Persia and Italy.”

This imaginary dialogue between Holmes and Watson, penned by Ted Riccardi, in his novel The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, captures the true essence of Kathmandu. These lines have since been repeated in several articles to describe the city over the years.

Many artists worked anonymously behind the scenes for Kathmandu to flourish as a hub for devotional art in the Licchavi and Malla periods. Their sculptures, temples, jewellery, paubhas, paintings all perished without a trace of their names. They themselves lived and died without realising the worth of their talent and contribution.

A creation of rapturous devotion and dedication never withers with time or age. It is pure and invaluable. Many traditional Nepali artists even today feel that personal aggrandisement ruins the art of its integrity. Such values are ingrained from ancient times when artists simply worked for the higher purpose of their craft and not personal identity. 

Ego and personal affirmation were qualities limited solely to the ruling class. The rest, however skilled, dared not have any sense of individuality. Their responsibility was solely to obey superiors, priestsor donors. The writing of the artist’s name in paintings was, therefore, uncommon.

The only ancient Nepali artist who has been posthumously known is Arniko, primarily because he went to China and earned international renown during the Kublai Khan reign. We did not know the others. 

Till now. Fortunately, by some stroke of luck, a few names were written. 

Read also: History on Canvas, Shaguni Singh Sakya

Kesaraja Chitrakar - Manjuvajra and Vajradhatishvari, 1409 (The Jucker Collection)

Kesharaja Chitrakar
Kesaraja Chitrakar - Manjuvajra and Vajradhatishvari, 1409 The first known artist after Arniko (12th century) who brought developments in paubha painting with richer color tones and more exquisitely sketched deities. Reference: HUGO E. KREIJGER

The inscription of artist Kesaraja Chitrakar in this painting is a surprise. Was the donor generous enough to include the artist’s name or was he so happy with the artwork that he felt compelled to credit Chitrakar? Was it the priest’s random decision or could the artist have humbly asked for his name to what he felt was a masterpiece? Was he thinking about his legacy? We will never know, but are grateful we know his name. The priest’s name is also written, Acharya Kulabha and the donors who commissioned the paubha are Hrasarama Chitrakar and his wife Raya.

The shrine of Manjuvajra (an esoteric form of Manjushree) and his consort Vajradhatishvari dominate the composition. Both are important deities that are considered to have played a role in the formation of Kathmandu Valley. They are bedecked in jewels and their crowns are painted with intricate details. Each detail in their garments is executed elaborately.

The backdrop with turquoise scrolling vines, the upper canopy peaks and the base exemplifies extraordinary talent. The paubha showcases the level of artistic accomplishment in the early 15th century, and many continue to draw inspiration from Kesaraja’s pioneering efforts till today.

One can also see some evolutionary developments that Kesaraja introduced from this painting when compared to the paubhas of the late 14th century. Every element in this artwork is detailed even the background scrolls, giving the paubha a much richer tone.Perhaps this is why the artist’s name was written in the painting. Post Arniko in the 12th century, Kesaraja is arguably the most well-known artist.

Read also: Five Decades of Lok Chitrakar, Shaguni Singh Sakya

Adyayaraja Pun and Udrayama Pun - Gagansim and his two wives, circa 1470 (private collection)

Adyayaraja Pun and Udrayama Pun
Adyayaraja Pun and Udrayama Pun - Gagansim and his two wives, circa 1470. The first known artists to paint focusing on people rather than deities. Reference: GAUTAM V VAJRACHARYA

This painting of Gagansim Bharo, a military governor of Dolakha and his two wives Ashayani Laxmi and Jivatana at 191.8 x 161.9 cm is monumental in many ways. It is the largest Nepali painting discovered so far. The inscription is in Sanskrit and Newari by a priest whose name surprisingly did not make it to the artwork even though it is claimed the concept for the painting was his idea.

Artists Adyayaraja Pun from Yambu and Udrayaram Pun from Kisilagla are Kathmandu locals and their work is one of the few depicting personalised portraits and not a deity. The painting shows Gangansim and his wives in their chamber with luxurious bedroom items and traditional Newari toilette requisites. It is both traditional and contemporary in style. 

It has a deep red colour background as in most paubhas throughout history. The upper portion is flanked by five Hindu deities – Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh, Brahma, Vishnu and Kartikeya, giving it a religious touch. The lotus pedestal and stylised rocks at the bottom are another traditional elements.

This piece is also unconventional in that it portrays a bedroom scene with amorous gestures, and is rather audacious for the period. The first wife offers a pan to her husband which is a gesture of passion as prescribed in the Kamasutra. This is also one of the first paintings where the donor and the family is the main focus.

The two artists did something novel in placing the donors up front showing their glorious Newari lifestyle with a detailed focus on the facial features, attire and traditional bedroom paraphernalia. 

In many ways, the artists seem to have introduced a new genre of lifestyle art of the 15th century showing Jain, Indo-Persian, and Rajput influence. Surprisingly, their names are also in another painting titled Vanaratna’s Nirvana which shows the Buddhist monk Vanaratna and his female partner in tantric rituals; an indication that the artists must have been of high prominence to have their names written in all their work.

Read also: Tsherin Sherpa returns home to Takpa, Aayusha Pokharel

Jivaram – Rakta Ganesh (location unknown)

Jivaram – Maharakta Ganesh, circa mid 1400s. The next known artist after Arniko who went to China to teach Newar paubha art. Reference: JIVARAM MANUSCRIPTS, SURESH NEOTIA COLLECTION

Jivaram was a 15th century Newar artist who went to Tibet and taught Newari paubha art while learning artistic styles himself. Parts of his sketchbook that is now in the Suresh Neotia Collection in Calcutta has 39 remaining pages from an unknown number of the manuscript with records of iconography and artistic style that he learned in Tibet. He captured a variety of Chinese, Tibetan, and Kashmiri techniques.

Jivaram infused Yuan and Ming dynasty styles in Newar art and also mastered new expressive facial portrayals. Most facial expressions before his time were flat with hardly any emotions, they were one-dimensional or a Rajput-style side profile. It can be assumed that he introduced vibrant expressions and two-dimensional facial sketching to Nepali art.

Another accomplishment is the mastery of Kashmiri motifs which Jivaram levelled up from the previous artists.  The vibrancy and intricacy of the vine scrolls are an extraordinary representation. The differences are clear to anyone comparing his work to Kesharaja’s background scrolls.   

Jivaram's masterpiece that remains today is the Maha Rakta Ganpati which inspired present-day artist Lok Chitrakar to do his version. The piece is an amalgamation of the various styles that Jivaram learned and which many artists henceforth have adopted.

16 Arhats (Buddha's first disciples) and Dharmatala (attendant of the 16 arhats) and also Fa Xiang ( 4th century Chinese traveler to Nepal). The earliest two-dimensional facial sketches from a Nepali artist, Jivaram.

After Arniko, Jivaram is the only known artist who can be credited with transmitting Newar and Buddhist art forms to Tibet and China. His notebook is dated 1435. This is even before the renaissance period started in Europe and before the birth of Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564).

These three ancient works of our art history lie in private collections or museums abroad.   Paintings of Western Renaissance artists are displayed in all the famous museums all over, but we only get to read about ours in books, if at all.

Nepal’s art schools should be teaching about Jivaram, Kesaraja Chitrakar, Adyayaraja Pun and Udrayama Pun when in fact we should be studying them. But in a country where the education system has overlooked much of our history, the names of a few pioneer artists hardly seems to matter.

Hopefully, now these and other past masters will be given stronger prominence to reinforce Nepal’s historical and cultural identity. Artists also had a role in nationbuilding, not just kings and generals. 

Read also: Nepali art finds a new home, Shristi Karki

Shaguni Singh Sakya is the Director of the Museum of Nepali Arts (MoNA) at Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel.

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