River paintings in Nepal

River paintings in Nepal

Rivers of the Nepal Mandala that includes Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur and some other ancient towns are very well known for their cultural significance and their impact on the lives of the people on their banks. The architectonic structures come to the fore when we talk about a river and art. Such structures were made on the banks of the rivers. They were designed, taking into consideration the seasonal volumes of the water in the river. The fine temples and shades constructed along the banks of the rivers are well-known for their beautiful structures and the sculptural figures and figurine sheltered by them. One commonality that binds them is the application of colours and vermilions on these figures. Some of these sculptural sites look as though somebody has carefully painted them.
But actual references to the paintings of rivers are few and far between. We get one such reference to paintings related to river in the description of “a Capuchin Father named Cassien who had stayed in Kathmandu on his way to Tibet in the 1740s.” He has described how plays were staged near the rivers. He also mentions how artists spread “a cloth on which a river is painted” (Malla, 130). Other references to paintings and river are pretty recent. I can cite examples from my personal experience and involvement. In the following section I am going to describe some performative events involving artists and theatre performers.

Bagmati River Stage Area, Egret 2022

In the late nineties the academic Arun Gupta came up with the idea of performing a play on a suitable spot on the bank of river Bagmati. We found a culturally rich but unvisited spot in the river. I wrote the text for that play. It is a collage of my dramatic poems and other texts from different classical sources. On September 10, 1999 Arun Gupta invited musicians and artists to play roles in that oeuvre. One of the invitees was the eminent painter Kiran Manandhar who participated with his brush and palette of colours. People would not figure out how he would paint on the river. The Capuchin Father’s description shows a piece of cloth or canvas to paint for such river performance. But Kiran did not carry any such canvas. Instead, to everybody’s surprise, he chose a quieter pool in the river where he applied colours on the surface as on a canvas. The result was a beautiful and consummate work of art. We all marvelled at the painting that triggered energy for the performance of the play titled River Stage. While some of the participants may have captured the scene in photographs and video, the power of such paintings is that the images remain in the memories of the viewers forever.
Another big programme was organised by painters and friends of the river Bagmati. The title of the programme was “Bagmati on Canvas-2008”. Some well-known painters participated in the painting-on-the-spot programme, although some were also executed indoors. A catalogue of the paintings and words was published by Friends of the Bagmati, for which I have written an introduction. This turned out to be a rare and indeed the very first such initiative, and the small catalogue produced became a record of moments celebrating the covenant or a consonance between a painter and a river. I would like to allude to a part of my introduction and interviews made with the senior and young artists who were participating in that activity. The moment was very inspiring and creative. Before putting the gist of conversations with the artists however, I would like to quote a paragraph from the catalogue to make the context clear to our readers:
Duality of hope and catastrophe is the theme of these paintings. Bijaya Thapa’s painting dramatises this duality in the dance of the positive and negative modes of existence. A dance of the elf with the bestial darker figure, both female, shows the helpless dance with the reality represented by the hopelessly polluted river. But Sharada Chitrakar’s utopic vision of a clean river with people standing on the banks against the glowing sky and looking at the small boats in the water recreates the pristine myth and a bright future for the river and for us all. Trees stand on the bank in the painting of Krishna Manandhar, but enmeshed in a hopeless pall of smog, they look like two lonely onlookers. Shanta Rai’s tree is at least able to cast reflections into the water. It intensifies the mood of ambivalence about the river through an intense colour combination. The painting stands between hope and love of the riverscape, and the viewer is a human being who lives with the history and reality of the river. (Subedi, Dreams).
The painters who were participating had very revealing points to make about the consonance. The senior artist Shashi Bikram Shah speaks in a tone of sadness about the worsening condition of the river. He says everything is related to water or pani, which is nectar, and the subject that we are alluding to is not exclusively the problem of Bagmati river; it is the problem of all rivers. He sees the role of painting in depicting an apocalyptic vision in the painting of the river. Another senior painter Sharada Chitrakar says her role as a painter about the river is to present the spirit that “Bagmati is the life-line and soul of Kathmandu where Nepal’s rich heritage has flourished.” One of the twenty-two artists, Pramila Bajracharya, puts the theme of consonance in poetic lines such as the following:

Bagmati River Stage Area Pond Heron 2022

I would like to play and touch the water
I portray on my canvas, what I felt once
My colours and brushes
Flow with the water of Bagmati.
This desire to portray the river materialised in touching and playing with the water, but the means for doing so are the accoutrements of the painter. Another young painter Bidhata KC noted poetically that, though the river is dirty and smelly when I paint it, I ‘depict its beauty’. The relationship between painting and river is this very ambivalence. The senior painter Kiran Manandhar, while speaking in front of a fluid, dynamic and brilliantly composed river painting, reveals the same ambivalence. He says, “My paintings depict my respect and love for the river.” All the senior and younger painters of “Bagmati on Canvas-2008 address the perennial flow of what is called river in their paintings. I would like to repeat my conviction, which I have articulated earlier elsewhere, that, as a flow and a line drawn by nature, a river is also a written memory. It is a fluid document of history. Artists talking about the Bagmati are precisely doing that. And they all have produced river paintings with such belief in perpetual energy of flow.

Abhi Subedi is a Nepali poet, playwright, linguist, columnist, translator, critic and professor of English.

Malla, Kamal P. (1982, 2022). Classical Newar Literature: A Sketch. Kathmandu: Educational Publishing House.

Subedi, Abhi. (2008). Dreams on a River. Bagmati on Canvas—2008. Kathmandu: Friends of the Bagmati and Kasthamandap Art Studio.

Top Image Caption : Bagmati River Stage – Now surrounded by a sprawling city 2022

Rivers of the Nepal Mandala that includes Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur and some other ancient towns are very well known for their cultural significance and their impact on the lives of the people on their banks. The architectonic structures come to the fore when we talk about a river and art. Such structures were made on…

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