Off the Record 044: Art extravaganza
Issue 044 • 11 March 2022
It’s March 11, 2022, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal.
I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive into one singular issue that defined the past week.
Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from a slow spring week in Kathmandu. With the temperature rising, things seemed to have slowed down in Nepal, with not that much of note happening over the past week. A few newsworthy incidents here and there but nothing too major. With the Millenium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) Nepal Compact out of the way, the political parties can now focus on the only thing that really matters — elections.
The ruling coalition of the Nepali Congress, Maoists, CPN (Unified Socialist) and Janata Samajbadi Party has been preparing for the upcoming local polls but the coalition must carry the albatross of the MCC. Already, Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists is being roasted by his party members for backtracking on the Nepal Compact. Given the amount of misinformation against the MCC, it is certainly going to have an impact on the poll prospects of the ruling coalition, especially the Congress and the Maoists.
And speaking of elections, a furor has already erupted over something seemingly inconsequential — the color of the ballot papers. The opposition CPN-UML has taken issue with the planned green color of the ballot, as the election symbol of the Congress is a green tree. The UML has cried foul, accusing the Election Commission of attempting to influence voters. The Congress responded that the UML is just afraid that it will lose and is bringing up matters of little import. The Election Commission says that the green color was chosen to contrast with the blue ink of the election stamp.
This might sound like the UML is making a mountain out of a molehill but there might be some substance here. Nepal still uses election symbols, which are highly effective in marshaling support and providing ready iconography for the party. The Congress tree, the UML red sun, and the Maoist hammer and sickle are iconic and closely associated with each party. Likewise, the color green is associated with the Congress and red with the left party, primarily the Maoists. So UML chair KP Sharma Oli’s complaint is not wholly without basis.
Across the border, the saffron-hued Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has managed to sweep legislative assembly elections in a number of states, giving it control over 12 Indian states — Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Goa. The biggest upset in the Indian assembly elections came in Punjab where the Indian National Congress lost roundly to the Aam Aadmi Party. The AAP now controls two governments — Delhi and Punjab.
When it comes to Nepal, governments in two bordering states — Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — are generally considered most important, given the shared open border and roti-beti relations that Nepal’s Madhes has with these two states. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won comfortably, reelecting Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. This was the first time since 1985 that an incumbent government was reelected in India’s most populous state. The win was largely attributed to the BJP’s pro-poor policies and its catering to the Hindu majority. Bihar’s legislative assembly remains dominated by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The BJP’s recent state wins portends another term for the right-wing BJP in India’s 2024 general elections, as securing Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are seen to be critical to winning the presidency. What this means for Nepal remains to be seen but it is likely to be a continuation of the status quo.
Elections aside, Nepal is currently feeling the squeeze from the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine conflict as the price of fuel — and consequently the prices of most consumer goods — has skyrocketed. Petrol is already at Rs 150 per liter, an all-time high, which has led to a knock-on effect on most other prices. Food prices have increased exponentially and even core inflation, which measures inflation in goods other than food and energy supplies, is expected to rise by 20-30 percent, according to The Himalayan Times. The cushion afforded to the Nepali economy by the Nepali rupee’s peg to the Indian rupee has limited inflation somewhat but not enough.
There’s not much else to report on for this past week, so let’s put politics and inflation aside to talk, for once, about something that we don’t talk about nearly enough — art.
The deep dive: An art extravaganza
The one thing that gives me a warm fuzzy feeling whenever I think of contemporary Nepal is its art scene. Whether it is music, theater, fine art, writing, or the visual arts, Nepal is witnessing a cultural explosion. There are now more people making music, painting, doing graffiti, making music videos and vlogs, and writing books and poetry than ever before. And the best part is that a lot of them are young. So many of these artists are taking risks, exercising their creative muscle, and putting themselves out there.
But unfortunately, most of Nepal’s institutions — the government, NGOs, the media — aren’t really interested. Politics remains the mainstay of the media while the government and NGOs are more interested in ‘development’ work, whatever that means. Even the few organizations, both state and non-state, that work to promote culture, like the Culture Ministry, the Pragya Pratisthan, or even UNESCO, focus on traditional and folk art, not the contemporary scene. The growth and expansion of art in Nepal have been helmed primarily by a handful of entities, mostly located in Kathmandu but some also outside of the Valley.
For photography, there’s photo.circle, which runs Photo Kathmandu, an international photography exhibition, among a host of other events, workshops, and fellowships. Shilpee Theater, Mandala Theater, Katha Ghera, Kausi Theater, etc are training artists and staging plays. In Birgunj, Sanskriti is providing space, mentorship and resources for young people interested in the arts. Gograha, a filmmaking workshop founded by filmmakers Deepak Rauniyar and Asha Magrati along with social scientist Bhaskar Gautam, provides mentorship to aspiring filmmakers. For fine arts, Kathmandu University’s School of Arts has played a massive role in nurturing talent with many of their graduates going on to do stellar work in Nepal and abroad. Music, especially rap and hip-hop, is flourishing across the country under self-organized collectives of youth, inspired by the pioneering Raw Barz.
This, of course, isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. There are many, many more organizations out there doing stellar work on smaller scales.
All of this has led to a sort of renaissance in the Nepali art scene. There are possibly many reasons for this explosion — an expansion of the middle-class, affording more people the financial resources to pursue art; expanding and more affordable internet access; a growing young population that is increasingly savvier and connected to international developments. Whatever the reason, it is a great time for Nepali art.
And that is what leads me to the Kathmandu Triennale, a once-every-three-years festival of art that is currently showing across the Kathmandu Valley. This is the second edition of the Triennale, with the first held in 2017, organized by the Siddhartha Arts Foundation. The Foundation is led by Sangeeta Thapa, a long-standing pillar of Kathmandu’s art scene. Thapa runs the Siddhartha Art Gallery and is among the foremost curators of Nepali art. The exhibition is led by chairperson/founder Thapa, director Sharareh Bajracharya, artistic director Cosmin Costinas, and co-curators Sheelasha Rajbhandari and Hit Man Gurung.
It must also be mentioned that this year’s festival is co-organized by the Ministry of Culture. At the opening of the festival, Minister Prem Bahadur Ale, who’s cut quite a figure for himself since becoming minister, arrived early, waited for the event to begin, gave a nice, short speech, and asked if he could leave. Say what you will about Ale, it was really quite refreshing to see a minister actually value other peoples’ time.
This year’s Triennale is hosting artworks by over 100 artists from 40 nations, all loosely centered around themes of time, displacement and indigeneity. The organizing principle (of sorts) is 2077 — 2020 in the Gregorian calendar — the Nepali year that the Triennale was supposed to be held but was postponed due to the pandemic. According to the curators, 2077 represents that “the time of the Triennale has also become arbitrary and nonlinear; it exists at once in the past and the future of 2077, and the present of 2022.” In effect, the exhibition seeks to look back while simultaneously looking forward.
So if you, dear reader, are in Kathmandu, I would implore you to visit the exhibitions, which are on display at the Taragaon Museum in Boudha, Nepal Art Council in Babarmahal, Siddhartha Art Gallery in Babarmahal, and Patan Museum and Bahadur Shah Baithak in Patan Durbar Square. The art on display is sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes bedazzling, and sometimes befuddling. But that is what art is supposed to do — provoke a reaction, elicit an emotion. The only thing it shouldn’t do is leave you blase.
If you’re confused about what to look out for, here are a few artworks that really stood out to me:
Ningwasum by Subhash Thebe Limbu
On display at Nepal Art Council, Babarmahal
Subin Limbu and Shanta Nepali in Ningwasum. (Still photography by Manish Tamang)
We’ve written about Ningwasum before and it’s no secret we’re admirers of the film and its concept. The film is an artistic sci-fi short, developed around what Thebe Limbu calls ‘indigenous futurism’, drawing heavily from Afrofuturism. It stars Subin Limbu, a former Miss Nepal who’s been more than happy to shun the limelight and do her own thing in the years since winning the ‘crown’, and Shanta Nepali, a young director/cinematographer who came to prominence directing ‘Jaat ko prashna’, a show about caste. Thebe Limbu himself is a UK-based artist.
The film is thought-provoking and quite ambitious, even though it doesn’t quite live up to its ambition as a film per se; it’s more a video installation. It’s a little difficult to watch in the space it’s in at the Nepal Art Council so I hope it will be made available online. The plot is barebones, basically the narrated musings of a time traveler longing for the fictional Yakthung (the Limbu endonym) nation. The film borrows heavily from Limbu culture and attempts to fashion a world where indigenous identities are not circumscribed but celebrated.
Ningwasum is an experiment and it is effective as an art form in getting viewers to contemplate a possible future. Imagining ‘what might have been’ opens up the possibility for ‘what is’ to change and mutate. Like all good sci-fi, the film uses the future to interrogate the past and present. Ningwasum might not herald a new wave of sci-fi filmmaking but it bears witnessing for the possibilities it presents.
Railway Station of Janakpur & NJJR by Uma Shankar Shah
On display at Bahadur Shah Baithak, Patan
NJJR (Image courtesy of the artist)
What strikes you first about Shah’s etchings on display at the Bahadur Shah Baithak is the craft. They’re absolutely beautiful to look at, with all their Mughal-inspired profile portraiture and the vibrant yet muted color palette. Shah, who is from Janakpur, has peppered the etchings with references to the deep-seated linguistic, cultural, and familial linkages that the Madhes shares with India. The train, bicycles, pots, film posters, gods and deities, the pattern of the women’s sarees, the hues of their skin, are all markers of a decidedly Madhesi way of life. The Nepal Janakpur Jayanagar Railway (NJJR) train especially is symbolic of Nepal’s connection to India, as it is the only railway in Nepal.
Shah’s etchings also allude to the historical discrimination and prejudice that Madhesis have long faced from the hill-dominated Nepali elite in Kathmandu. The loyalty of Madhesis to Nepal is constantly under question, as is manifest in the unequal citizenship provisions in Nepali law that specifically target Madhesis as their marriages are often cross-border.
The etchings really are beautiful to look at, though, which can obscure the messaging. The burnt ochre of the train contrasted with the eye-catching red of the sarees, it makes for quite a spectacle.
Nepali power by Tashi Lama and Koken Argun
On display at Bahadur Shah Baithak, Patan
Three large canvases hang at the Patan Museum, brilliant in their color scheme and almost overwhelming in their size. They too are a spectacle and given their subject matter, perhaps that is the right approach. The canvases take inspiration from Nepal’s relations with its neighbors, particularly China, and the possibility of Nepal harnessing its hydropower potential to keep South Asia electrified. One canvas interprets the planned Kathmandu-Kerung railway link as a maze of railway tracks while another translates Himalayan water into a network of interconnected electric towers that go all the way down to Sri Lanka. The middle canvas simply states ‘Nepali power’ over a vertical map of Nepal. This one in particular shows how the simple act of turning a map that you generally see horizontal on its head can affect a change in perspective.
The canvases are clearly inspired by Thangka paintings and borrow their iconography and aesthetic style, even if the artists do abandon themes of spirituality for the hard power of geopolitics. It’s an arresting move, no doubt, made more so by the exquisite craft of the pieces on display.
Te Whetu Rehua (Antares) by Nikau Hindin
On display at Bahadur Shah Baithak, Patan
Kōkōwai (red ochre) and ngārahu (soot pigment) on aute (paper mulberry) (Image courtesy of the artist)
Nikau Hindin, a Maori artist from New Zealand, paints on aute — barkcloth made out of the paper mulberry plant. The medium is a unique one and it allows Hindin to tap into her indigenous history to recall forgotten fonts of knowledge. Hindin is reportedly reviving the lost art of barkcloth making while also providing a glimpse into alternative systems of navigating the world. The geometry of her art recalls the star charts that the Maori once used to navigate the seas and the island, a body of knowledge that’s largely been lost to colonialism. The textures, the colors, and the sacred geometry all make for a unique artistic impression.
Hindin’s work is affective precisely because it is a defiant indigenous resistance against the forced forgetting of traditions and cultures by colonial hegemony. Her art is in dialogue with many other contemporary artistic practices that seek the same thing — to resist forgetting and continue to remember. In Nepal too, indigenous artists are making that same attempt, a necessary one given how much is at stake of being lost forever.
Images by Chet Kumari Chitrakar
On display at Keshav Narayan Chowk, Patan Museum
Anyone who’s lived in Nepal has seen one of these. They adorn the doorways of most Hindu households, pasted on during occasions such as Nag Panchami or Laxmi Puja. Their colors are striking and the artwork is very stylized. These images are a form of devotional artwork and sadly, these days, they’re largely mass produced.
But Chet Kumari Chitrakar, a 68-year-old artist from Bhaktapur, has been handmaking these prints for over four decades. She uses a woodblock to print the images and then meticulously hand paints them. I enjoy looking at these images because they’re comforting in a way, but also because they raise important questions about what is considered art. These woodblocks serve a devotional, albeit utilitarian, purpose but are they not the product of inspiration and skill? Chitrakar, who’s been doing this for most of her adult life, is an artist like any other and perhaps even more so, since her art decorates more homes than that of many who exhibit in galleries.
And that’s enough art for this week. To those in Kathmandu, please go see the exhibitions and if so inspired, please write about them and share them on social media. They’re all showing until March 31 so you have enough time and not enough excuses.
In a terribly depressing world, let’s not squander the one small salvation that is art.
On The Record this past week:
Mukesh Pokhrel on the success of Nepal’s community forestry
Tom Robertson on improving your writing by fixing your verbs
Marissa Taylor evaluates the success of Kathmandu city’s mandatory Nepal Bhasa classes
Robin Sharma on the impeachment process of the Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana
Happenings this week:
Sunday - The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology amended the National Broadcasting Regulations to require all OTT (over-the-top) broadcasting platforms to register with the Nepal government. OTT refers to broadcasting that goes directly to the consumer via the internet, like Netflix or Hulu or YouTube, all of which have been classified as ‘online television’. Content creators on YouTube will also be required to obtain registration from the government for a fee of Rs 500,000.
Monday - Five members of a single family died in Lalitpur from carbon monoxide poisoning after burning coal inside a poorly ventilated room for warmth. According to Kantipur, 10 people have died in the Capital in the last two months alone due to similar instances of suffocation due to burning coal, firewood or gas heaters indoor without proper ventilation.
Tuesday - The World Bank’s Women, Business and Law report placed Nepal at the top among countries in South Asia when it came to closing the gender gap when it comes to doing business. Nepal scored 80.6 out of 100, followed by India with 74.4 and the Maldives with 73.8. Take the index with a grain of salt though, like pretty much everything else from the World Bank.
Wednesday - Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit Nepal at the end of March, reported Kantipur daily. Wang’s planned visit comes on the heels of Nepal passing the MCC’s Nepal Compact, which will certainly figure in discussions while he is here in Kathmandu. Wang will reportedly be accompanied by Song Tao, head of the international department of the Chines Communist Party and a frequent interlocutor in Nepal.
Thursday - Nepal lifted all testing requirements for fully vaccinated tourists arriving in Nepal. Previously, all tourists had to present a negative RT-PCR report conducted within the past 72 hours. Now, only unvaccinated visitors and those with just one dose will need to show negative test results. Fully vaccinated individuals can just display their vaccine certification.
Friday - The Department of Revenue Investigation filed a case at the Patan High Court against Bottlers Nepal for dodging capital gains taxes to the tune of Rs 7.43 billion while selling over half of its shares to the Ireland-based European Refreshments. Bottlers Nepal is the authorized producer and distributor of Coca Cola in Nepal.
Article of the week:
‘Looking back at Nepal’s feminist movement — and looking forward’ — Prasansha Rimal goes back to the history of women’s rights in Nepal and looks ahead at how the feminist movement can be made more diverse and inclusive.
That’s all for this week. Off the Record will be back in your inboxes next Friday. I shall see you then, in your emails, for the next edition of Off the Record.
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