Attaining divinity through art
As visitors walk down the steps to the Museum of Nepali Art (MoNA), little by little, as though a curtain were being slowly raised, a frame opens to reveal a richly detailed painting of the Buddha and Bodhisatva Vajrapani.
The Buddha dressed in golden robes sits with his left hand outstretched. Star-like dots emanate from his palm and reach for the kneeling figure of the blue-skinned Bodhisatva, around whom fiery shapes dance as he receives the sermon. Seen from the right angle, the deities on the wall of the sacred room look like they too are huddling together to receive the teaching.
Completed in 2020, this 178cm x 132cm painting Nāmasaṅgīti Teaching of Buddha, is representative of artist Samundra Man Singh Shrestha’s neo-traditional body of work currently on exhibition at MoNA.
Shrestha’s clever, confident brushstrokes add unique aesthetic expression to established iconography of familiar figures from the Hindu-Buddhist tradition without erasing their history and significance.
For instance, the painting of Saptalochani, or White Tārā, shows the deity surrounded by green wisps that cover her body. Traditionally, the full figure of the goddess is drawn (compare left, above), but Shrestha’s rendition gives new meaning to the calming waves of quietude inspired by the goddess. Here, the ancient teachings and depictions are communicated to a newer generation, while retaining their levels of intimacy and intensity.
“I did not consciously decide that I would only paint deities,” Shrestha explains, smiling widely as his eyes dart to Manjushree on a lotus. “I have always been a believer and it subconsciously took an artistic direction. When I am finished with the painting, I feel like the god has taken form before me.”
Indeed, it is as though the gods populate a sacred space. Each deity is depicted in the tribhanga pose, with hands and palms illustrating various mudra. This is literally a pose with three bends, expressing rhythmic fluidity.
“Deities are sources of energy,” the artist explains, “and this energy flows in a rhythm. There is no stiffness in the gods.”
The angles of the limbs of the gods give the paintings volume and depth – and the tribhanga guides our eyes and accentuates their divine vigour.
The current exhibition is Shrestha’s second solo show, and each painting is paired with its starting study. This encourages the viewer to imagine the steps the painting took from start to finish.
Shrestha’s earliest artworks are also on display, adding another layer to the exhibition’s focus on journey. These are watercolours of Swyambhunath, and his simple coloured depiction of Laxmi – both dated 1991.
There are also his studies of human anatomy, minimalistic portrait sketches and an evocative painting of his own childhood home near Kathamandu Darbar Square where he grew up watching jatra, celebrations and expressions of deep-rooted faith and reverence that has influenced his work.
Similarly, the drawing of an Indian superhero Dhruva, the ‘Super-Commando’, provides a perfect antithesis to his later depictions of Bhairab, Kaumari, Vajrapani and Mahakala. Imitation has given way to Shrestha’s self-assured style which captures the dynamism of his subjects, revealing an inspired composition of colours and symbolism.
Ārya Tārā, Oil on Canvas, and its early-stage study (right). Photo: MoNA
The best example of symbolism in his works is perhaps the Trikula Nath (Eathquake series) painted in 2018. The triptych depicts the figures of Sadaksari Lokeshvara, Manjushree and Vajrapani painted across a cracked wall of a monastery. The dangers of destruction loom over beliefs of eternity and compassion, reflecting the contemporary state of cultural heritage in Nepal.
The fresco forces the viewer to imagine a wall materialise around it, and then wooden beams, golden roofs and incense punctuated by the sounds of bells. A square quickly takes form and is populated by playing children, shuffling feet and the spread of drying grain.
The memory of the 2015 earthquakes is fresh among the chipped paint and gaping cracks that cut across the deities, and the series calls our attention to the urgent need for the conservation and protection of our monuments and heritage.
Two early works by Samundra Man Singh Shrestha. Photo: MoNA
“Art takes time,” Shrestha says. “Many current young artists want immediate results from their work, they want perfection from the first piece they make. But it isn’t like that. If I had felt disheartened by my early work, I would not be here today.”
Shrestha hopes that when viewers and aspiring artists look at his childhood drawings, the studies of his paintings, they may find some inspiration to not give up on their passion for art.
“The secret lies in focus,” the artist adds. “Consistent focus leads to perfection.”
By Samundra Man Singh Shrestha
Museum of Nepali Art, KGH Courtyard, Thamel
10am-7pm (Limited visitors in the gallery)
Till 19 February 2022.