Coming out of the woodwork
Heinrich Meyer came to Nepal in 1975 to work on the German government-supported Bhaktapur Development Project to restore the old town and its glorious architectural heritage.
As a cultural conservationist, his job was to rescue some of the magnificent but crumbling buildings of the historical kingdom, as well as the devotional art that decorated them: mainly carved wooden struts, windows, doors and eaves.
Between 1975 and 1979, Meyer worked to set up a cooperative to revive woodcarving and to make the profession sustainable again. He worked with the Shilpakar clan, the traditional woodcarving family of Bhaktapur, in which the craft has been passed down through generations. By the time he left, the Shilpakars had revived the skills they had nearly lost.
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After the 2015 earthquake, which devastated Bhaktapur, in his hometown in Germany, Meyer took out boxes of slides from his time in Nepal and found photographs taken 40 years ago of the woodcarvings of Bhaktapur.
‘The photos were unique because many of them cannot be photographed in the same setting again, and that prompted me to start this book project,’ Meyer writes in his preface to Kasthakala: The Art of Nepalese Woodcarving. ‘Many of the valuable historical carvings in Nepal had been lost over time through neglect, decay, earthquakes and theft.’
Indeed, the book is an image-rich documentation of what has been lost, and what is still left of this priceless facet of Nepali heritage. The numerous close-ups of the carvings provide detailed information of the grain, the texture and components of the pieces for posterity.
Meyer gives full credit to the Shilpakars for setting up the Kasthakala Sajha Sansthan and upholding the tradition. He writes: ‘Today Indrakaji Shilpakar is one of the best carvers in Nepal.’
Crafting a heritage,Shriluna Shrestha
Wood carving was a component of the Kathmandu Valley civilisation from at least as long ago as the Licchavi Period (3rd-9th century CE) till the Malla Period (12th-18th century CE). Thereafter it suffered a decline during the Rana and Shah Periods, and it was not until the revival of Bhaktapur and its artisans in the 1970s that woodcarving came out of the woodwork, as it were.
Unlike stone sculptures in Kathmandu Valley, which go back at least 2,000 years, the fact that wood is perishable material means it is less durable. Still, the oldest wood carvings found in Kathmandu are from the 6th-7th century CE, surviving mainly because they were carved in hardwood sal timber.
Meyer traces the evolution in the carving style in the bilampu wood struts, as Patan and Bhaktapur moved from Buddhism to Hinduism, including how the designs of the sculptures of the salabhanjika lost their fluidity and elegance, becoming increasingly rigid and flat renditions of Hindu avatars as extra limbs and heads were added to the deities. The golden years of wood carving were during the Malla period (1482-1768), when the most elaborate winged lions in the roof struts, along with the lattice windows and doorways of Bhaktapur, were carved.
No book on the wood carvings of Kathmandu would be complete without a discussion of the eroticism depicted there. This one explains how the carvings of figures copulating in twos or in groups became bolder after the 15th century as Tantricism took hold. There are scenes of acrobatic intercourse, oral sex and even bestiality. As Meyer’s compatriot Wolfgang Korn explains in his book, Erotic Carvings Of The Kathmandu Valley Found On Struts of Newar Temples (Ratna Pustak, 2019), the explicit carvings were supposed to be too shocking even for evil spirits, and so helped ward off their wrathful manifestations like lightning and earthquakes. However, could it be that they were just an early method of sex education?
Kasthakala is magnificently produced, with page after page of exquisitely detailed photography. The most amazing section displays intricately carved windows (the Nepali word jhyal comes from the Newa jhya), in Kathmandu Valley, which seems to have witnessed an explosion of lattice windows, each more elaborately carved than the next.
The photos were taken in the 1970s and the captions, which are simple enough for the lay reader, remind us that many of the carvings no longer exist in the original space. The book is in English and German, but with a little extra effort it could have easily been published in Nepali as a trilingual offering.
Overall, this is a hopeful book that shows how traditional woodcarving now has a sustainable future thanks to the 800 or so artisans of Bhaktapur who are training others in Patan and Panauti through the cooperative set up in the 1970s. They can make a living because many of the carvings are meant for post-earthquake reconstruction, or have an export market among collectors abroad and the Nepali diaspora.
The Art of Nepalese WoodcarvingHeinrich Meyer
Vajra Books, 2019
In English and German
Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).