The Kathmandu Valley Newar Contemporary Art Movement

Gathering of Newar painters in honor of Prem Man Chitrakar, seated in the center. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

“No other people on earth, Watson, have produced such intricate beauty in such a small space as the Kathmandu Valley. An incisive observer has described it as a kind of coral reef, painstakingly constructed over centuries by unrecorded craftsmen.As a human achievement, it ranks among the creations of Persia and Italy.

“Good God, Holmes, and to think that no one even knows of his existence!” (Riccardi 2003)

This exchange between fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his companion Dr. Watson poignantly describes the predicament of these unregistered craftsmen, who are only now truly recognized. These people are the Newars, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, who created this unique historical heritage with its Hindu-Buddhist hybrid culture. Yet it was from this small Himalayan kingdom that much of what is now recognized as “early Tibetan art” originated, since the Newars were the direct heirs of the artistic and architectural traditions of the later Pala-Sena dynasties. of eastern India, which were destroyed at the end of the 12th century by the iconoclastic armies of Islam.

Vajrapani oil painting by Samundra Man Singh Shrestha. Image reproduced with the kind permission of
the artist

Between the 8th and 12th centuries, the transmission of Indian Tantric Buddhism spread into western Tibet through Kashmir and into central Tibet through the Kathmandu Valley. And from the three royal cities of the valley, Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, respectively, came the best Newar painters, statue carvers and woodcarvers, whose lasting influence on Tibetan art was enormous. This early Indo-Newar style of painting is known as Beri (Tib. bal-ris), which endured as the dominant form of Tibetan art until the end of the 16th century. The most famous Newar artist of the Beri period was Arniko or Anige (1245-1306), who in 1273 was appointed “supervisor of all craftsmen” by Kublai Khan, the great Mongol emperor of the Yuan dynasty of China.

Left to right, Raj Prakash with Samundra Man and the author. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

The Newar equivalent of Tibetan thank you is known as a paubha, and the artists who painted or carved these images belonged mainly to the Chitrakar or Buddhist Vajracharya and Shakya castes. However, as Tibet later developed its own schools of painting, and with ever-increasing influence from Hinduism, the Newar paubha pictorial traditions have remained somewhat static over the past few centuries. This was also due to the fact that both Nepal and Tibet chose to remain isolated from the outside world, with Nepal only opening its doors to foreigners after the Chinese invaded Tibet and after the “conquest of the ‘Everest’ by a British-led expedition in 1953.

First photograph of Anandamuni Padmapani Lokeshvara on the half shell, painted c. 1940. Image courtesy of the author
First photograph of Anandamuni Mahakala on the half-shell, painted c. 1940. Image courtesy of the author

The late 1960s saw the first influx of Western spiritual seekers, who braved the earthly “hippie trail” that ended in the then tranquil Shangri-La of the Kathmandu Valley. From that time, a tourist market of statues, thank you, and woodcuts of Buddhist and Hindu deities began to emerge, most being poor imitations of authentic originals produced locally under sweatshop conditions. The copyists who still reproduce these images are mainly Buddhists of the Tamang ethnic group, several thousand of whom are now employed to produce thank you for the tourist market and practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Mahakala oil painting by Samundra Man Singh Shrestha. Image courtesy of the artist

On the other hand, the community of Newar paubha painters is still relatively small, numbering around a hundred. Yet the innate skills of many of these artists are phenomenal, and only now are they getting the recognition they deserve. As a practitioner thank you painter, I was deeply inspired by the legendary artist Newar Siddhimuni Shakya (1932–2001), whom I first met in 1973. Siddhimuni’s father, Anandamuni Shakya (1903–44), was a true genius of the Newar modern art revival, introducing three-dimensional paintings of Hindu and Buddhist deities with a meticulous chiaroscuro effect that resembles early black and white photographs. A few of these deity compositions are derived from the work of Sandro Botticelli, such as the sepia portrait of Anandamuni by Padmapani Lokeshvara on the half shell.

Another famous paubha The painter working at this time was the late Manik Man Chitrakar, whose son, Prem Man, later taught many young artists. Among them, Samundra Man Shrestha and Raj Prakash Tuladhar, whose works are now highly sought after by collectors, especially in China, where they now even adorn cellphone cases.

Mobile phone covers, with Green Tara by Raj Prakash Tuladhar, center, most
popular design in China. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

The contemporary revival of paubha the painting is essentially characterized by realistic three-dimensional representations of Buddhist and Hindu deities, who are also worshiped within the complex pantheon of the Newar tradition. Peaceful gods and goddesses sit or stand in graceful dancing postures amid heavenly landscapes, their exquisite faces beaming with blissful tranquillity, their intricate jewelry shining with reflected light. In contrast, wrathful deities emerge from blazing maelstroms of fire and smoke, their dynamic forms endowed with formidable energy, their hair tousled and charnel-house ornaments swirling wildly, their faces distorted and their bloodshot eyes wet with liquid.

Udaya Charan Shrestha completing a paubha of Sarasvati. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

Compared to the relatively flat two-dimensional stylized forms commonly depicted in Classical Tibetan thank you painting, the finest examples of modern Newar art are often three-dimensional and hyper-real. In the past, this has led some diehard traditionalists to dismiss them as “eye candy.” Yet to the uninitiated, they invariably come across as exquisite works of art, as authentic as any masterpiece from any great cultural renaissance. And while traditional Tibetan art is primarily doctrinal and meditative in content, contemporary Newar painting is essentially devotional and inspirational. Her imagery speaks to the heart of ‘the stranger’, awakening that spark of spiritual yearning within. The Newars have their own unique pantheon of deities with their rituals, masked dances and textual sources, and the iconographic research undertaken by a great Newar artist like Udaya Charan Shrestha – whose original compositions have been widely copied – would certainly have impressed Sherlock Holmes. . .

Detail of tantric goddess Rudrani by Udaya Charan Shrestha. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author
Detail of the face of Goddess Annapurna by Udaya Charan Shrestha. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

I never tire of appreciating these modern masterpieces of Newar art and am honored to know most of the artists as true friends. Twenty years ago, they lived largely in anonymity, their work rarely appearing in Kathmandu advertisements. thank you stores. It took them years to be recognized, and now some of them have become megastars. In 2016, a solo exhibition of Samundra Man Singh Shrestha’s work at the Nepal Art Council Gallery attracted several thousand visitors and extensive media coverage. Yet when I was in this same building for the annual meeting paubha exhibition in 2000, no one else was there and no work was sold. Fortunately, circumstances have since changed, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so, for the works of these modern “renaissance artists” from Nepal are truly inspiring and saturated with spiritual meaning. They speak to the heart of what remains holy, pure and beautiful in our ever-changing times, and as such certainly deserve our attention.

The author with Udaya Charan Shrestha. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author


Riccardi, Ted. 2003. The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. New York: Random house.

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