N A R Ì by Mukti Singh Thapa

A skilful but blunt depiction of Nepali society on canvas

Artist Mukti Singh Thapa at his studio this week. Photo: MUSEUM OF NEPALI ART

“Your paintings are as unique as my chips,” Bill Gates said to Mukti Singh Thapa during a lunch conversation back in 1992 in the canteen of his Microsoft office in Redmond, Washington. Gates had acquired seven of this Nepali artist’s paintings at an exhibition.

Besides Microsoft, Thapa’s paintings also adorn walls at Boeing headquarters in Seattle and other corporate offices around the world. Thapa’s other masterpieces are prominently displayed at the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York, Oglethorpe University Museum in Atlanta, Vienna’s Welt Museum and as a permanent collection at our very own Museum of Nepali Art (MoNA) in Kathmandu.

Despite his international acclaim and being one of the most sought-after artists for paubha and contemporary art, Thapa is a modest man who yearns to share his skill and knowledge with a younger generation of aspiring artists and art enthusiasts. Nepali art in the 21st century will be incomplete without his mention, yet only a handful of people here know about him, or have seen his work. This is unfortunate.

Thapa is also the youngest artist ever to receive National Award from NAFA (Nepal Academy of Fine Arts) at the age of 20.

The time has come to take pride in our art and recognise ourselves as a nation of great artists and artisans. Nepali art has thrived for over 2,500 years, but we are yet to truly acknowledge and appreciate our past and present masters.

Read also: Lain Singh Bangdel's 'Sigh', Rajan Sakya

The streets of Kathmandu Valley are consecrated with temples and monuments, which are also exemplary, exquisite works of devotional art. We worship these sculptures, scroll paintings and murals, but do not acknowledge the anonymous artists who create them. The paubha and thangka artforms represent illustrated spiritual and religious teachings, and their makers deserve more recognition.

Contemporary art, on the other hand, gives expression to creativity, crying out with suppressed emotions, opinions, aggressions and love. Thapa is one of Nepal’s most disciplined adherents of traditional art forms, and his works in the genre are some of the most prolific.

However, he is also a contemporary artist who stays within the bounds of traditional iconography to unleash human emotions, desires and deliberations, providing a searing commentary on modern human existence.

This Mukti Singh Thapa masterpiece at MoNA is titled “NARÌ” (Female) and is an exposé of present-day Nepali society. Provocative and perceptive, it consists of 47 figures of deities and humans in distinctive forms that express various aspects of female characteristics.

The 54cm x 104cm canvas brims with activity, there are so many things happening here. But one is instinctively drawn by the central singular female figure. Red-bodied, eyes wide-opened, five pairs of hands holding attributes ranging from a book to a gun, and everything in between.

Miss World Beauty Pageant sash in particular stands out. No matter how resilient, determined and dedicated a woman may be, is society always judging her only by her physical attributes? Despite the inner strength and vigour of womanhood, a patriarchal world still judges and appraises women through their exterior appearance and youthfulness.

Thapa is known for his aggressive and free-flowing use of nudity in both his traditional and contemporary artwork, even though he is skilfully subtle in this one. His representation of raw phantasmagoria stands out among today’s artists.

The five-headed central character brushed with explosive colours denotes the vivid and varied expressions of a woman. We see her physically subduing underfoot a man, who is strangely content. Could this be an interpretation that patriarchy is just a pretentious mirage of male consciousness, and ultimately men are the suppressed gender? A pictorial dichotomy between male physical domination and female emotional domination.

As we delve deeper into the artwork, the background can be divvied into upper and lower levels. The top part seems to consist of all the female deities, in their original form, shape and colour with traits of traditional iconography.

However, the lower half is disillusioned, chaotic and frenzied. The images of people worshipping lifeless and colourless statues, blindly attributing faith and beliefs onto objects seem to indicate a society blinded by hypocrisy. The artist has captured both Hinduism and Buddhism in this work to also depict the inter-religious and interdependent culture of Nepal.

“NARÌ” can have various subjective connotations for different people from different walks of life. To decipher a specific interpretation is impossible, which is what masterpieces do to you. Every time you look at her you discover yourself, and a different you.

Rajan Sakya is the founder of the Museum of Nepali Art at Kathmandu Guest House, Thamel and contributes this monthly column For Arts Sake in Nepali Times. 

Rajan Sakya