The beauty of art lies in its ability to impact us. To make us think, feel, see, touch, smell, taste and experience things from a new perspective. Art can also be unexpected; a trip to an art exhibition can be an amazing, disappointing, resonant, nostalgic, confusing, or sometimes a learning experience.
Religious art can be especially enigmatic to people unfamiliar with religious motives and history. Paubha, a traditional genre of painting originating from the Newa people of the valley, is a form of religious art that can bewilder many. While the main deity highlighted in paubha paintings may be familiar, the significance and significance of the deity’s specific pose, patterns used in the painting, color palette, and imagery may remain enigmatic.
An attempt to shed light and demystify paubha art as well as Buddhist statues can be seen in the Bodhisattva Gallery’s current exhibition, “Karunamaya’s Karuna”. Karunamaya is also known as Bodhisattva: Avalokiteshvara, Lokeshvara or Machhindranath. It refers to a compassionate being who delays his own enlightenment in order to help others achieve nirvana.
The exhibition presents 31 paintings, eleven statues (excluding five miniature works) and two multimedia works. It also offers a guided audio tour detailing the history, significance, and significance of each artwork. Organized by elder brother Prajwol Man Shakya and designed by younger brother Siddhartha Man Shakya, this art exhibition is the third to take place at the Bodhisattva Gallery, which opened in 2019. Of the 108 forms of Karunamaya, the exhibition only highlights 26 different forms.
The exhibit includes 14 paubha artists as well as some junior artists, while there are 15 renowned statue artists and one miniature artist.
The two Shakya brothers are the fourth generation involved in the artistic business sector. While both their great-grandfather and great-grandmother were craftsmen using crystal, the family eventually moved on to creating a market for Newa art. Most of the artworks are from the personal collection of the Shakya family, while a few works (Exhibits Nos. 6 and 35) were specially commissioned by the Bodhisattva Gallery team to further accentuate the appeal of the art exhibition.
The whole atmosphere of the art exhibition in the Bodhisattva Gallery is spiritual – the exhibition takes place in a giant windowless room, which eliminates all distractions and creates a dark atmosphere. Artwork descriptions are also minimal, devoid of the creator’s name or artist’s statement and consisting of just the names of deities and brief details. There are floor markings that guide visitors to the pre-designed path in tandem with the audio tour. The audio itself, narrated by Surina Shakya, weaves through the stories, origin, meaning and creator of the artworks while a tranquil Buddhist hymn plays in the background.
The first phase of the guided tour focuses on the statues of various Karunamayas. Most of the statues are bronze with a few additional gemstones adorning it while a few like the Standing Padmapani statue (Exhibit #10) are carved from wood. The statues of various sizes were made by master craftsmen such as Rajan Shakya, Nabin Bajracharya, Bijay Shakya, Bhim Shakya among others, while Purna Man Shakya, the late father of Prajwol and Siddhartha Man Shakya, and the team of the Bodhisattva Gallery provided advice to the artists.
Exhibit #6 is an insightful section of the tour that focuses on the lost wax process of making statues from Buddhist and Hindu pantheons. This traditional technique of making statues passed down from generation to generation in the Shakya and Bajracharya clans was an “act of religious devotion”, further emphasizing the idea that making religious art was a form of religious worship. The exhibition is divided into six different parts – from A to F – which illustrate the making of a statue of Kacheri (a form of bodhisattva) from a block of beeswax into a finished wax statue with veneer gold and additional details. Only a few key steps in the making of a wax statue are shown and described, but the exhibit offers insight into the collective effort and skill required to create a statue.
Physical artwork is combined with multimedia art to give a creative touch, which makes the religious story more compelling. In exhibition n°7, a large statue of Buddha Shakyamuni is placed in the form of a projection which plays out a scene from hell where humans are suffering. In the right corner of the projection, a depiction of Avalokiteshvara is shown giving respite to tortured souls.
The design of the art exhibition is also thought-provoking – the statues and paintings are not placed randomly, but with special attention to create a sense of spiritual journey. Visitors start from a point near the middle of the room and then begin to walk around the room visiting one statue after another. The statues, placed in the middle of the room, form the first phase of the exhibition, while the paintings, arranged around the walls of the room, form the second phase.
The whole trip feels like a solitary pilgrimage – a tour of a stupa or a temple – where you feel like you are contemplating the intricacies of works of art, learning their meaning and history, paying homage and to direct you to another.
The painting portion of the audio tour begins with a paubha by Ujay Bajracharya and sets the stage for the next set of twelve paubha of different Lokeshvaras and their associated months starting in Magh and ending in Poush. The audio narration sheds light on many mythical stories related to the Lokeshvaras and also provides information about the physical statues and places of worship of the Lokeshvaras around the valley.
The most alluring exhibit is undoubtedly No. 35 which focuses on the origin and meaning of Bunga dya. Consisting of three paintings and a multimedia video, all created specifically for this exhibition, the exhibition combines the two audiovisual aspects to create a compelling story of Bunga dya, also known as Red Avalokiteshvara, or Rato Machhindranath. Bunga dya is considered the deity who provides rain and harvest and is the central figure worshiped in the Rato Machhindranath Jatra.
The first painting made by Raj Prakash Tuladhar and the concept designed by Prajwol Man Shakya, in this exhibition delve into the origin of Bunga dya; how King Narendra Dev of Bhaktapur helped end the drought that plagued the valley in the 7th century CE. The audio tour delves into the local stories and explains several symbolisms of Machhindranath jatra while the painting itself consists of the face of the statue of Rato Machhindranath as the central element accompanied by Karunamaya on the right, Gorakhnath on the left and several intertwined serpents at across the edges. The theme of rain and water has been integrated beautifully as the whole painting appears to be shrouded in a perpetual rainy day.
The following two paintings differ from the rest of the paubha style of art that pervades the exhibit. The black and white paintings of the chariot of Rato Machhindranath were done by Sushila Singh and they visualize yet another vital part of the story of Bunga dya and Rato Machhindranath jatra.
Finally, the exhibition also contains a chariya nritya, interpreted by Raju Shakya, projected on a wall. Through the combination of different styles of paintings and religious dance video, the exhibition artfully connects the story of Bunga dya and Rato Machhindranath jatra in the valley.
The idea of incorporating an audio-guided tour with an exhibition of paubha and statues was certainly needed. While people can easily appreciate the beauty of paubha paintings, the meaning of the deities depicted and the patterns used in the paintings are often eluded by people unfamiliar with Buddhist philosophies.
Although the audio tour, which lasts almost 42 minutes, may seem long, especially in the last five minutes, it is nevertheless a new idea in the field of Nepali art exhibition and one that works well . The art exhibit presents a new perspective towards art appreciation – that you don’t always have to resonate with art, but can also learn from it.
‘Karunamaya’s Karuna’ will be on display until April 16 at the Bodhisattva Gallery, Pulchowk Road, Lalitpur. Advance reservations required before visiting the exhibition. (Bringing your own headphones or earphones is highly recommended.)