Rajkumar Shakya, 1967-2021
Raj Kumar Shakya who died of Covid-related complications in June at age 54 was the world’s foremost repoussé sculptors, excelling in the craft of preserving traditonal methods of forging malleable metal sheets into devotional art objects
Having met, known, and worked with Raj Kumar for nearly three decades, his short life is a lesson on what it takes to be a successful artist. This was a tragic loss to Nepal, and to the world, where his work is on display from Bhutan to Japan, from Shanghai to Munich.
Raj Kumar was passionate about his art and craft, and set big goals. When it came to any assignment, no matter what the size or scale, Raj Kumar knew he could do it. He came across as supremely confident about his abilities, and there were few tasks that he could not fulfil.
But he was also realistic, and knew his own capacity. However, he was always eager to take it to the next level to test his own limits. The colossal statue of Guru Padmasambhava that Raj Kumar built in Bumthang of Bhutan will stand as a testament to his talent as an artist and, yes, even his engineering and logistical expertise.
Comparable in size and scope to the Statue of Liberty in New York, the Padmasambhava in Bhutan is also made from the repoussé method that Raj Kumar had perfected and scaled up during his short working life.
Carving out a niche, Sonia Awale
Raj Kumar succeeded because he had the passion, and he believed in himself. The time and effort it took to craft each of the masterpieces the artist has gifted to the world did not matter to him, because he loved what he did. He was dedicated to promoting and preserving the repoussé art form, and all the skills and techniques that went with it. The most important lesson of his life is that we must not be afraid to set big goals.
Raj Kumar’s art did not exist in a vacuum. He was rooted in the community, and articulated his craft through traditional art of the Kathmandu Valley. He learnt from countries like South Korea and Japan that in any major project, human resource is the most valuable -- and the biggest variable.
Therefore, he was always on the lookout for skilled people like himself, or young passionate artisans whom he knew he could train. He inducted them into his team and then painstakingly and generously shared his knowledges and skills with them.
For this, he knew trust was essential. It was this mutual trust that he was able to expand his work into the larger community, and the community reciprocated that trust and respect. Raj Kumar was always at the forefront, engaged in many community events, speaking there about the need to preserve tradition. He spoke clearly and persuasively, putting out his ideas as any good communicator.
Coming out of the woodwork, Kunda Dixit
Raj Kumar Shakya was also a mentor, and this is his most important legacy – ensuring that his knowledge and skills were passed on to the next generation. He was worried that there were too few families left in Kathmandu carrying on the repoussé tradition.
It is Raj Kumar’s efforts in the past 30 years that has revived the skills and talent not just to Patan, but to Nepal and beyond to the world.
A whole new generation of successful artists in Patan have benefitted from working with Raj Kumar, where they started from scratch, making mistakes and learning along the way, under the watchful eyes of the master.
As more and more work was generated, more young people returned to their traditional craftmanship. With economic growth in Asia and greater understanding of Buddhism and its significance, the demand for these skills will grow.
Raj Kumar understood and applied science, technology and geometry to his work. The ability to open minds to new and relevant information, new tools, and techniques and to constantly be learning are the key characteristics of a successful person.
Raj Kumar was one of the early users of computers in his work, employing CAD and mixing the latest technology to refine traditional craftsmanship. He insisted that his colleagues and protégé learn the science, be good with numbers – and he practiced what he taught.
He could generate 3-D computer models of whatever he was working on, and use these perspectives also to teach. He felt that art made without perfect mathematical proportions did not do well in the market. This ability and dedication to combine the best of modern applied science with traditional art is what made his creations so successful. And once his work was scaled to large sculptures, these architectural and engineering calculations mattered more than ever.
Most artists do not know much about business, and some are even proud of the fact. The history of art is replete with geniuses who died paupers, and whose works today fetch millions of dollars in auctions.
Not Raj Kumar. He was a good businessman, with a sense of the art market and knew how to promote his work. He had built a large network of suppliers, shippers and skilled workers who he could mobilise. He was good at raising money for large work, and sometimes invested his own earnings well – and this allowed his firm (On Metal) to expand. Many artists and smaller businesses benefitted from On Metal contracts.
After finishing his famous Bhutan statue in Bhutan, Raj Kumar was working on other large orders when he died: a large Buddha statue in Lumbini, restoration work at Mahabouddha, and he had taken up his dream project of putting up the largest and tallest mask of the Bhairab at the southern edge of the Kathmandu Valley in the Nepal Art Village (NAV).
If we really want to honour the legacy of Raj Kumar Shakya, his life and work this project must be completed. Fortunately, he leaves behind a new crop of traditional artists to carry on his work.
Read also: Crafting a heritage, Shriluna Shrestha