Report from Nepal
KURCHI DASGUPTA maps the cultural turf following the massive earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25, 2015 killing more than 9,000 and injuring about 23,000.
The world knows of the earthquakes that hit Nepal on April 25. And the ones that followed. By now we have lived through more than 350 aftershocks, each of which would be an earthquake in itself but we know better. And suffer silently.
One would think it would be irrelevant to write about art in a situation such as this. Surprisingly, it is the exact opposite instead. For art is in a way playing a central role in this surreal situation – the artists have come forward individually and in groups and are playing a vital role in the rebuilding of Nepal, both materially and psychosocially.
Art has suffered the most – more than 700 monuments were damaged in the quakes, out of which 7 are considered world heritage sites. The Dharara, or Bhimsen Tower, had long stood as a symbol of the nation's sovereignty. Built in 1832, it came down with the April 25 quake burying alive 180 unfortunate souls. A large number of sites known for their architectural and artistic elegance are gone, taking with them the people's sense of identity.
The National Academy of Fine Art (NAFA) had come tumbling down even as the first tremors hit Kathmandu in April. The entire building has been declared unsafe. The annual exhibition, which inaugurated exactly two weeks before, has been taken down. All 700 works from the exhibition as well as 160 pieces from NAFA's priceless national archive were evacuated by artists and troops from the Nepali, Indian and American armies, all of whom risked their lives doing so. Right now Chancellor Ragini Upadhyay Grela is running her administrative team from a temporary structure at one corner of the NAFA grounds. A traumatised Grela (her own gallery, Artist Proof, was decimated by the quakes) refuses to disclose the current location of the priceless masterpieces – including rare examples of traditional religious painting as well as gems of the West-inspired trajectory of modernity in Nepali art. Security is an issue for this veritable treasure trove. Since NAFA used to function as a central nerve in Nepal's mainstream art world, its derailment even if temporary is going to be a major setback for the many traditional and contemporary artists whose careers and futures are entwined with the institution.
Lalitkala Campus, the pioneering centre for art education was started the year of the last great earthquake (1934) and it has nearly been brought down with the April quake. Its BFA programme has produced the bulk of the country's contemporary art practitioners and continues to do so. Housed in an ancient building dating from Chandra Shamsher Rana's time, it has been damaged so badly that future relocation is the only option says Bipin Ghimire, the campus-chief. The fate of 65 students hoping to graduate this year hangs on the balance of course. Its MFA programme at Kirtipur will resume only after preliminary repairs are carried out and exams are currently postponed indefinitely, shared renowned printmaker Seema Sharma Shah as head of the programme. Kathmandu University (KU) has not fared better – the newly built structure is torn by cracks and fissures. They are keen on picking up the pieces soon in a different space, but right now finding a safe and large building is difficult. KU has however responded to the situation positively – Sujan Chitrakar, the Director of Painting and Design has led his students on a rebuilding mission at the decimated Bungamati village at the edge of Kathmandu valley. The team has been searching for and rescuing villagers from the rubble as well as building shelters and toilets for the homeless. Chitrakar has also decided to award credits to students participating in the rescue and rebuilding process. Srijana College of Fine Arts, the country's first privately run art college, has been damaged badly. It is a dismal situation overall, with the art institutions down and out and the students in a state of limbo. Nearly every art institution as well as individual artists and art students are currently involved in either building shelters for the homeless and reaching relief material to the affected or mobilizing art camps to counsel the traumatized. Milan Rai, for one, is doing an amazing job installing toilets in the affected districts and helping with introducing sustainable means of living to homeless villagers, as are Hitman Gurung and Sheelasha Rajbhandari in Thulobyasi, a devastated part of ancient Bhaktapur.
Post-traumatic stress disorder already haunts many and most are succumbing to it as each day passes, bringing with it a daily quota of tremors. Three artists have lost their lives in the city, while at least fifteen more have been injured. Rabita Kisi, a young artist with whom I have worked in the past, has lost her home, mother and son. Sushma Shakya, nominated for the Sovereign Prize last year, broke her left arm trying to save her father. Such stories are pouring in every day – hundreds who have been practicing art in Kathmandu city itself have lost homes they have inhabited for generations and continue to lose loved ones through exposure to rain and plain shock. No headcount has yet been taken of those affected in the far-flung districts and as for those practicing the traditional arts, they remain below the radar as of now.
The museums have been badly hit too. Mandakini Shrestha of the National Museum at Chhauni explained that though most of its collection of millennia old artifacts has been stored safely, a section of the Museum remains unapproachable and therefore the pieces housed there are in danger of being destroyed. The Patan Museum, which is itself a UNESCO World Heritage site, has gotten off lightly but shows occasional cracks. Continuing tremors are jeopardising buildings declared strong and safe only days ago. Taragaon Museum was badly damaged. The Hanuman Dhoka Palace Museum, home to an unparalleled collection on the recently toppled royal Shah dynasty, bore the brunt of the first quakes and most of it is too severely damaged to be restored or rescued at the moment.
Sangeeta Thapa, who heads the Siddhartha Art Gallery and the Kathmandu International Festival (KIAF) as well as the Kathmandu Contemporary Art Centre, feels we have to start from scratch in a way. Her own gallery was shut down temporarily and though it has reopened, the prospect of holding another KIAF soon is distant. Other art spaces have not fared better. Bikalpa Art Centre, an alternative space for art and international residencies, has cracked beams and pillars and is in desperate need for repairs. Artudio, run by the young Kailash Shrestha is a unique space for photography and workshops for underprivileged children. Not only is it badly damaged but the artist has lost both his ancestral homes as well. The Park Gallery is up and running but has suffered structural damage. Lasanaa, acclaimed performance artist Ashmina Ranjit's cultural hub, was being relocated and remodelled when the earthquake hit. Physically intact, Lasanaa now runs the risk of going under unless it receives financial aid. The Nepal Art Council has suffered least from the quake so far and hopes to continue with its exhibition programme but artists and organizations are cancelling shows by the hour. The small gallery Newa Chen, thankfully, has escaped unharmed but with little clue to its future course given the state of the art scene.
City Museum, the popular new space for showcasing cutting-edge art (it has held nearly 60 events within the short span of a year) has been adversely hit on more than one front. At the beginning of April the space showcased Urban Myths 3, a group show that interrogated our perception of 21st century urban reality from a Nepali vantage point. The show included a mixed media work depicting the Living Goddess Kumari of Kathmandu with a printed ad for condoms collaged onto her divine forehead. Kumari, a pre-pubescent girl selected by the community as the living incarnation of the goddess Durga or Taleju, is revered by both Newars and Hindus as the protective deity of the city. The contrast between the divine purity of her figure and the mundane yet vital information on the condom pack was meant to galvanize viewers towards reflection on the objectification of women in everyday Nepali society, explained Sudeep Bhalla the artist. Soon afterwards, the curator and founder-director of City Museum, Kashish Das Shrestha was threatened by leaders of the community and an FIR was lodged against him for promoting communal and religious disharmony and violence. The same people are now openly stating that the earthquakes were a result of the Kumari's wrath at the desecration of her image by Bhalla and Shrestha. The work is at the point of being seized by the police and Shrestha is evading arrest. A death threat is allegedly in circulation too, meant to offer them both as a sort of appeasing sacrifice to the goddess and make the aftershocks go away!
But even as thousands spend their nights in makeshift tents if lucky, or under cheap tarpaulins if not while an early monsoon methodically lashes out every evening or night, some of the old boundaries and limits are collapsing. As was evident from the performance piece 7.8 Series by artists in residence at Gallery MCube, Anil Subba and Ritesh Maharjan. Manish Lal Shretstha had brought together works of senior Nepali artists including artworks by Shashi Bikram Shah, Shashikala Tiwari and Birendra Pratap Singh in a fundraiser in his Gallery MCube at Patan, only a few hundred metres away from the site of collapse of centuries-old heritage architecture, sculptures and countless Nepali homes. Artists and viewers gathered here expectantly, trying to revive a lost time when things were 'normal'. Talk centred not on what each has suffered but on how one was contributing towards assuaging the nation's loss. Soon we were guided into a small, dark room where Subba hung precariously from a hook on the gallery wall. A digital reverse timer came alive on a laptop at 7.8 and extracts from FM News, Zeitgeist and a metallic screech began pouring from the speakers. Subba flailed about helplessly on the wall under a spotlight and groaned and squeaked into a microphone for the full 7.8 minutes stretch as spectators cowered in the claustrophobic, dark room overwhelmed with fear of a stampede or a collapsed ceiling. We counted every second. All this was played out above and around the naked, supine body of Maharjan, who lay in complete stillness as an embodiment of Nature. His nakedness, shorn of all protective veneer, was an unprecedented occurrence in Kathmandu's performance art scenario. It synced well with the aural onslaught of high pitched noise and the inherent threat of a claustrophobic space and successfully brought us face to face with the trauma our senses had undergone over the past few weeks. Many of us are still living in a state of denial over the physical and psychological scars we are carrying with us. 7.8 Series forced us to re-encounter and recognize those within us. A jarring but very relevant piece of art no doubt.
Artists have in fact, as a community, become the psychotherapists of the nation. They are running much-needed art therapy and counselling sessions for children, not only in Kathmandu but in the affected and distant villages. But even as they reach out to the larger community to lend a helping hand, there was hardly any organized support available for their own kind. The absence stared at us from the ruins of fallen homesteads, hospital beds and the cremation ground. Small funds and initiatives were started through crowd-funding drives (including one by me: Support Nepal's Earthquake Affected Artists and Performers on Indiegogo) and artists themselves raised whatever little money they could to support the distressed members of their own community. Recently, NAFA has stepped in with a fund to support the adversely affected but being under a government-run body, its distribution is bound to involve a lot of red tape. Independent fundraising events are being held across the world to bring in funds for Nepal's rebuilding. Online galleries have pitched in with fundraising drives, of which eartsnepal.com is a good example. Meanwhile, Gaynor O'Flynn is mobilizing an international move called Artists for Nepal, which opened in Venice only days before the biennale launched itself. Artists and curators from all corners of the globe, including Nepal, are coming together to create events in our support.
We must remember that Nepal's economy is in a shambles. We are afraid to even take stock of the kind of economic backlash we will suffer in the coming years. Even before the quake struck, as I have said elsewhere, 'in the context of Nepal we need to remember that the art ecology or economy is quite nascent. Even though the traditional arts enjoy remarkable global and local popularity (as artifact mostly) among institutions and collectors, the so-called contemporary artists are nowhere near enjoying that success. We have no contemporary art museum here and less than a handful of galleries and commercial exhibition spaces showcase what is contemporary. Predictably, these institutions prefer to deal in art that is in direct alignment with the tastes of the local collectors (in the absence of any significant number of international ones).' The postponement of Kathmandu International Art Festival, the country's one big window to international exposure in contemporary art, is just the beginning of bad news for us. We are now at a crucial juncture of either taking a leap forward onto the international stage or sinking down into oblivion for decades at a stretch. As much as aid is essential to lift up the flagging economy and help in concrete rebuilding projects, support from the international community is also essential for the survival of the art community here. Galleries and artists need a functioning collector base, which was meager before and almost non-existent now. Artists depend on sales and jobs at art institutions and schools to survive. With sales going out the window and art programmes running the risk of closing down or being harshly downsized, contemporary artists now run the risk of annihilation. To counteract this, support must come not in the form of aid but an active, informed interest in the possibilities of what Nepal's artists have on offer and a space for them to play it out outside the country. Otherwise, the trajectory of art practices here will inevitably sink back into the conventional and we will have lost out on decades of experimentation and development.
KURCHI DASGUPTA is an artist and writer based in Kathmandu. She is a regular contributor to Depart besides other international journals.