Nepal's history through art

Rediscovering the Victorian-era paintings of Kathmandu by early British and Nepali artists

HA Oldfield's 1850 painting of the British Residency in Kathmandu (now the Indian Embassy) showing the empty, barren landscape of Nagarjun in the mid-nineteenth century. Collection: BRITISH LIBRARY

Back in the day when my walls were empty, I used to buy old paintings and photos with whatever cash I had, rummaging around in Darbar Marg antique shops and Thamel bookstores. Particularly fruitful were the exhibitions at the then-newly created Vajra Hotel.

I picked up several pictures from some of the whacky international cast of characters with strange names like Firefly and Tango who congregated in the roof-top meditation pagoda with its aspirational view of Swayambhunath.

The Vajra’s Naga Theatre troupe is still going strong, led by the indefatigable Sabine Lehman and Ludmilla Hungerhuber, but long gone are the ‘scientists’ from the US Institute of Ecotechnics, paid for by a visionary Texan squillionaire who funded marine research vessels and a futurist biosphere experiment to save the planet.

Several of our Tiger Mountain staff, including a Sherpa and a Tharu, travelled to the US to be sealed into the massive biodiversity dome as part of their mysterious innovations, surviving to tell the tale. ‘Pursuing the harmony between ecology and technology since 1973’ - I never could fully grasp what they were all about. ‘If you are too stupid to understand, than you don’t deserve to know’ pronounced Lute Jerstad, America’s first Everest summiteer, giving up on me.

But they were an entertaining bunch, and in the early 1980s the Vajra art enthusiasts sold me wondrous works by M M Poon and Chandra Man Maskey for what seems today like an embarrassingly small amount of rupees. I also acquired a couple of contemporary portraits of Jung Bahadur, one with three of his many wives, but perhaps my most precious find was a watercolour of Bhadgoan Darbar showing Nepal’s first glass window pane, beneath which red-jacketed troops paraded on inspection.

It was allegedly painted around 1850 by pioneer Nepali artist, Rajman Singh Chitrakar, pupil of the series of artistically inclined Brits based in the British Residency in Lainchaur - Brian Houghton Hodgson, Henry Montgomery Lawrence and Henry Ambrose Oldfield.

Captivated by the historical insights that these early English-style pictures promised, my investigations took me to musty London archives and basement reading rooms where the collections are now stored. With the Royal Geographical Society, we selected four from amongst their collection of H A Oldfield treasures to be printed as postcards sold in Kathmandu in the early 1980s. My favourites were the ones of the Nepal army marching through the ‘Keerung Pass’, invading Tibet under cobalt blue skies and fanciful white peaks.

This era of Western realism paintings started with the polymath Brian Hodgson, an East India Company official who served in Kathmandu for over 20 years from the time of Bhimsen Thapa in 1820 until 1843. Hodgson used the extensive leisure time afforded by his job to make the first systematic study of Nepal’s fauna, flora, religions, culture and languages. In order to illustrate his findings, he trained the artist Rajman Singh Chitrakar, introducing him to the European principles of camera lucida, ‘light and shade and perspectives’.

For someone steeped in Nepal’s rich heritage and the traditions of poubha art, Rajman’s drawings indicate a major shift in style. Kanak Mani Dixit, curator of the influential 1999 Oldfield exhibition in Yala Maya Kendra at Patan Dhoka, credits Rajman as being Nepal’s first ever landscape and architectural painter, and his work was recognised by the world of art and science in Europe at a time when photography was in its infancy.

Rajman Singh was part of the extensive Chitrakar clan (meaning ‘painter’ in Nepali) whose successive generations since the Malla reign had recorded royal and Rana court activities, firstly in the form of paintings and drawings, and then in a vast collection of photographs, many engraved onto delicate glass plates.

This wide array of images includes diplomatic missions, cultural events, portraiture of the elite and everyday ordinary life, capturing an era of extravagant autocratic Rana rule whose state policy of ‘implacable xenophobia’ prevented foreign penetration and influence. As a direct descendent, Cristeena Chitrakar explains: “My ancestors’ images explore visual narratives and historical accounts. The photographs create memories and preserve the past.”

Kanak Dixit writes: ‘It was Hodgson who provided Rajman with the graphite pencil, probably also coaching him on the novel techniques required to realistically illustrate landscapes, architecture and objects of natural history… If it were not for Rajman, we would have had to rely only on the arriving Westerners who happened to paint, including the doctor in the British Residency, Henry Ambrose Oldfield, whose watercolours have been useful in reconstructing several lost structures.’

Referring to him as ‘my Bauddha citrakar’, British Resident Brian Hodgson drafted Rajman Singh and his kinsmen to illustrate the broad range of disciplines which absorbed him. On departure he bequeathed Rajman and his team to work on drawings for his successor Henry Lawrence, then to Dr H A Oldfield, the Residency surgeon who lived in Kathmandu from 1850 until 1863.

Like his predecessors in their isolated outpost beyond the empire and forbidden to venture outside the Valley rim, Dr Oldfield developed an interest in all things Nepali, spending his time on Buddhism, Nepali history, ethnography and the caste system. He and his wife Margaret were accomplished amateur artists in their own right, their valuable contribution consisting of hundreds of watercolours that shed light in meticulous detail on the architecture, landscape and people of the Kathmandu Valley at that time.

These pictures chronicle the comparatively dilapidated state of historic buildings, temples and stupas in the nineteenth century Valley, and the surrounding hills are startlingly naked and denuded in comparison to the thick cover on today’s reforested slopes.

Dr Mark Watson, Himalayan botanical historian, writes: ‘Henry Oldfield is well-known to students of Nepali history for his 1880 posthumously published, richly illustrated, two-volume classic: Sketches from Nipal. Oldfield got on well with Maharaja Jung Bahadur, so much so that in 1855 he was allowed to accompany the Nepali army to the northern Rasuwa Gadhi frontier when Nepal declared war on Tibet – a remarkable privilege for a foreigner. The British Library and Royal Geographical Society hold significant collections of their work, including pictures by Nepali master artist Rajman Singh Chitrakar who worked closely with them.’

The dazzling November weather accentuated the scarlet poinsettia and orange marigolds in the British Cemetery last month when I visited with a red poppy in my lapel, wandering amongst the headstones on immaculately manicured grass beneath an Oldfield-blue sky. One of their six children is buried here, and I found the small, square column with a white marble plaque marking the grave of Philip Henry Oldfield, toddler son aged only 17 months when he died in August 1861.

The site is protected within a low, rectangular, stone wall along with an identical monument for Alice Irwin, the new-born baby daughter of the British Commandant of the Escort who in 1859 had lasted only 13 days. It is said that the Maharaja Jung Bahadur Rana himself was so touched by the tragic loss of life so young that he requested the surrounding walls be built to provide shelter for the babies’ graves.

Lisa Choegyal