The wheel of time and thought

Krishna Bhakta Dangol, "What makes us fight", Acrylic on terracotta. All Photos: MONIKA DEUPALA.

There is a widely circulated image of King Gyanendra taken at his post-royal massacre coronation in 2001. The golden throne is visibly aged, chipping at the base. Gyanendra is sombre as he looks ahead under the crown, his hands clasped, his left leg resting upon the red velvet hassock.

Perhaps it is to do with the camera or the weather,  but the image looks cooler, taken during a pre-monsoon rain.

A rendition of the same image looms large in the gallery at Yala Maya Kendra in Patan, where an exhibition of traditional and contemporary art titled Kholo 25 is underway. 

But this one is a starkly different image. To begin with, it is not a photograph. Artist Kailash K Shrestha’s enormous acrylic on canvas shows a king sitting on the coronation throne, but sans face, sans hands.

The famous crown of the Shah kings of Nepal hangs in the air, heavy, unsure. Who will grab it next?

The painting is also aptly titled Occurrence before Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal – words that once were so full of promise, now reduced to being the punchline of a disillusioned joke, a mere vanishing act.

The painting invites a more abstract reading. A viewer’s eyes shift from one point to another as there is no face and no immediately recognisable human trait.

Faces and names have been pared off to reveal an institution of glittering crowns and thrones – a statement on the nature of power and the meaning of monarchy itself.

Curated by Ujen Norbu Gurung, Kholo 25 brings 22 artists working in Nepal to address the shifting tides, perception and faith in Nepali society and politics.

The exhibition is named after the Mani-kholo, prayer wheels in Buddhist shrines, to symbolise cycles of time, thought, experience and growth, and to expand the dictionary of creativity and expression.

A collateral event with the ongoing Kathmandu Triennale 2077, the exhibition showcases 14 young and rising Nepali artists alongside eight established and senior ones, also highlighting the significance of helping launch younger artists in the current climate of Nepali art. 

Kishor Jyoti’s Clash of the class is a semi-mythical painting that looks like a panel from the Mahabharat, if not for the leopard-headed naked torso attached to another robotic body.

It is a fitting companion to Kailash Shrestha’s work, showing the battle between the elite and the working-class, as the middle-class tries to referee, or even join in. 

An andromorphic jackal (wolf?) snarls from a golden chariot, brandishing a whip over its head. There is a dog in the middle, also barking at the leopard. It is a ferocious work, loud and violent. One can almost hear the growling tension and the thundering sky behind. 

Moreover, on the opposite wall is the true horror: a real clash of arms and ideologies, suffered by the Nepali people whose loss and grief continues to be unaccounted for.

Photographs from the 2007 book A People War curated by Kunda Dixit taken during the Maoist insurgency show people hugging the bodies of their dead husbands, children hurt, a woman washing blood off the front of her shop, several men carrying moving the dead remains.

“Most discourse on the war is only in terms of the numbers,” says curator Gurung, who compares the different political establishments in Nepal to shifting cages (a subject of Kishor Jyoti’s another painting in the exhibition).

“But the meaning behind those numbers is being forgotten, erased. What was the price the people were really made to pay?”

All this reminds us of the violent reality of the world outside — Ukraine, Yemen, Syria and the never-ending brutality in world history.

The politics of being is central here here. From the meditations of memory – Teesha Shrestha’s mixed-media works depicting the deities and Newa heritage (in gold) being swallowed by the dark clouds of ash and thoughtless urbanisation – to masked shapes, faces, ideals and cages, the art is linked by the questions of body, of freedom, history, and individual and collective responsibilities. 

Above on the first floor, however, the atmosphere is the exact opposite. Following the traditional paubha paintings above of deities on various kholo around the room call for introspection and compassion. 

The two floors are not so separate as may seem at first glance. Both the harsher reality downstairs and the calmer, philosophic upstairs encourage the viewer to ask: what is धर्म (Dharma)? 

“Despair is so commonplace now,” says Gurung, “that we don’t even think about it anymore. There is a disconnection with our Dharma, and we are not even compassionate to our own family members.”

As one stands before Saru Prajapati’s Padmapani Lokeshvara or Rabi Shrestha’s Avalokitesvara, under the warm, lulling lighting, there indeed arrives a deep sense of love and awe.

Reality is often overwhelming and disturbing, and we look for a recourse to help us heal and deal with it. Religion, gods, philosophy is one way: perhaps, art is another.

Gurung recalls an artist friend of his jokingly asking him once: “When shall we pick rocks and take to the streets?”

He believes that we are all contributing one way or another, whether subtly from our homes or on the road tackling expired tear-gas shells.

“As artists,” he says, “our craft, their voice and expression are just as loud and forceful as sticks and stones.”

Kholo 25

32 Cycles of Life

Dhokaima Café, Yala Maya Kendra, Patan

Contemporary section: Till 15 March 2022

Traditional section: Till 29 March 2022

Closed on Mondays

Ashish Dhakal