Lain Singh Bangdel’s 'Sigh'

Why is there is a look of quiet contentment in Bangdel’s visage in the artist’s self-portrait?

With this contribution, I am beginning a monthly column in Nepali Times and Himal Khabar in which I will select one piece of contemporary Nepali art from the collection of MoNA (Museum of Nepali Art), and try to explain the technique and medium used, the message being communicated, as well as the significance it holds in the country’s cultural history.

There are rare moments in the lives of great artists, when they create something for themselves and no one else. In those works of art they give us a glimpse of their soul, a secret sentiment not to be shared. An exposé of inner romanticism.

Self-portraits can be made during important milestones in an artist’s life, an illustration of an obstacle overcome, a portrayal of a life-altering occurrence, an interpretation of a discrete romantic escapade, a visual representation of a magical encounter.

Lain Singh Bangdel’s self-portrait from 1989 represents such a work. It is a ‘sigh’ that evokes a sense of fulfilled bliss in the artist’s life.

Bangdel deserves this attention, recognition of his struggle and successful life, which resonated with inspiration and motivation long after his death in 2002.

Bangdel was the founder of modern and contemporary Nepali art. His authoritative and exemplary books explored the realisation and preservation of Nepali culture, introducing it to the international art arena. His contemporary and abstract works are now revered across the world, and depict nature and creation in one way or another.

But this particular self-portrait stands apart. In it, Bangdel paints himself with contended closed eyes, an inconspicuous smile, a rough and incomplete brush stroke where his ear should be, a face expressing satiated relief about something, an assertive yet deferential posture, an unpretentious shoulder with a shawl of honour draped around it. The painting is finished with confident last strokes.

And a frame, an ordinary frame that he painted for himself as a laurel as if to encase his accomplished self. The self-portrait speaks of something beyond that which the eyes can see. It may be Bangdel’s reflection of himself at his best.

Self-portraits by famous international artists capture a moment of rapture, a reminder of an emotion, of a particular sensation, never to be forgotten or revealed, but an aide-mémoire to the self.

A self-portrait is a maze of discoveries. The viewer has to unravel the artists’ secrets layer by layer, see, feel and understand. It is a message from the past, by a person who has departed, containing clues for future generations about the lived life of an artist.

Everyone’s life is filled with expectations, successes, failures, joys and sorrows. When we learn and understand from each other, we develop empathy. In a life tethered to obligations and responsibilities, it seems impossible to break away from every day struggles.

However, there are a few who have had transcendent experiences, and it is through such stories that we can better ourselves, and understand ourselves better.

Bangdel painted his self-portrait 31 years ago at a time when he felt freedom, responsibilities had been released from his shoulders with his retirement. He was finally liberated from relentless guidance, the bureaucracy, and he felt overwhelming gratitude to the monarch who had invited him to Nepal.

Bangdel always lived life on his own terms, whether struggling as an artist in Paris, or as a brave pioneer of a new genre of art in a conservative Nepal of the 1960s.

His biography Against the Current by Don Messerschmidt and his daughter, Dina, cites a conversation between Bangdel and King Mahendra: ‘Bangdel, upon being asked to settle in Nepal and lead the Royal Nepal Academy, replies with utmost modesty, “Nepal is an agricultural country, an artist like me does not have much to do”.’

Bangdel headed the Royal Nepal Academy from 1972 to 1989, creating and curating many artworks and writing many historically significant books. He made this self-portrait the year he retired, and reveals his sigh of relief from all the burden and responsibilities. his particular self-portrait Bangdel is on display at MoNA.

Looking at Bangdel’s paintings, one sees a distinct boundary before and after 1989, and we can assume that the artist could finally live life for himself, and for his art.

Rajan Sakya is the founder and director of MoNA (Museum of Nepali Art) and also the CEO of KGH Group. This column, For Art's Sake, will appear in Nepali Times every month.

Lain Singh Bangdel 1919-2002

Lain Singh Bangdel was born in 1919 near Darjeeling, and grew up drawing images of gods and goddesses all over the walls of his home. He was impressed from an early age with the paintings he saw in the house of his tree planter father’s British employer.

It was inevitable that Bangdel should join Calcutta Arts College in 1939. It was there that he met Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, and the two became lifelong friends.

In 1952, Bangdel enrolled at the French National Art School in Paris where he was influenced by the works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. He was so attached to Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s Muna Madan that he used the epic as a theme for many of his impressionistic works.

Bangdel died in October 2002 in Lalitpur at age 83. Lain Singh Bandgel was not just a painter, he was also an established writer, art historian and a passionate art teacher. His daughter Dina Bangdel carried forward his legacy until her own untimely death in 2017.

Rajan Sakya