In with the old, in with the new

Bhaktapur’s traditional woodcarver experiments with traditional forms to create a modern aesthetic

Woodcraft embellish Kathmandu Valley’s traditional architecture, adorning columns, eaves, windows and door frames with meticulously carved figures of gods and goddesses. Historically, these anonymous works of devotional art were carved by generations of the Shilpakar clan, whose surname was derived from their ancestral profession.

Indra Prasad Shilpakar is from a long line of the woodcarvers from Bhaktapur who has decided to give new life to the craft by using traditional motifs, but adding artistic license with new elements. He has separated these pieces from architecture and created them as freestanding structures of art, modifying some background designs and poses of the gods.

"Woodcarving on temples are strictly defined by rules that follow the storyline of the scriptures,” Shilpakar explained during a walk around his ongoing solo exhibition at the Taragaon Museum this week. “But outside of the architectural frame, I try to experiment.”

Shilpakar has a degree in fine art from Tribhuvan University and he says the background in  contemporary art helps him try out new aesthetics so that traditional woodcarvings can also be viewed separately as individual pieces of art.

In his day job these day, Shilpakar works in the restoration of Patan’s Bhai Dega temple which was destroyed in the 1934 earthquake. There he tries to replicate missing pieces of the temple based on old photographs and damaged pieces. After work, he is back at his basement workshop in Bhaktapur where with his father Indra Kaji Shilpakar he works on traditional carvings.

Indra Kaji is not too enthusiastic about his son trying out new styles and selling them in galleries. He says: “Work in exhibitions ultimately end up in private collections, and only a few people will see them. On the other hand, when your carving adorns a temple everyone sees them, and it spans generations.”

Artist Indra Prasad Shilpakar (right) with his father Indra Kaji Shilpakar

Nonetheless, the younger Shilpakar says it is difficult to make a living making traditional wood carvings for temples, whereas experimenting with modern forms of traditional art and exhibiting them in galleries can earn the artist extra money.

Shilpakar's Taragaon exhibition that ended on Tuesday depicted the best of woodcarving found in temples: windows with intricate patterns of flowers, deities like the Buddha, Ganesh, and Matrika, animals like crocodiles and Garuda, a pair of singing Gandharva and dancing Kinnara.

Even more modern renditions of traditional wood carvings are strewn around Shilpakar’s workshop in Bhaktapur. Senior Shilpakar and his son share a passion for traditional woodcraft, and have designed their home keeping true to their Newa heritage. Carved wooden pillars line the ground floor, a traditional wooden staircase leads to the second floor which has intricately-carved wooden windows.

Photos: Monica Deupala

The attic kitchen has a high, triangular roof supported by wooden balustrades, and the balcony outside is lined with woodwork. The walls have a museum feel with displays of mallets, chisels, gouges and skews in various sizes that were used by their ancestors. "We wanted our house itself to reflect and preserve traditions," says the younger Shilpakar.

Indra Prasad Shilpakar feels his family’s ancestral work is still seen as a lowly occupation, and he wants to be recognised as a creative artist as well. He says: "It is sad that we don’t know the names of the masters who created the exquisite carvings on our temples. They were never known as artists. But here in this gallery I am known as an artist in my own right.”

Wood Carving: The Art of the Newars of Nepal 

Solo exhibition of wood art by Indra Prasad Shilpakar

Taragaon Museum, 1-9 July

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