A unique visual of Nepali politics is on display at Siddhartha Art Gallery in Kathmandu. This is an exhibition of paintings executed by the well-known mature artist Ragini Upadhyay Grela. She has used oil, drawings and intaglio in her works. One afternoon, I visited the gallery to see her paintings mainly executed round the theme of current Nepali politics. The occasion was Gaijatra, literally translated as cow festival, which is a famous Newar festival. This day triggers ambivalent impulses of fun and sadness. Fun is associated with sadness because Pratap Malla’s queen, inconsolable after the death of their son, had laughed at seeing the fun and frolic created on this occasion. According to historians, the origin of this festival can be traced from much earlier times. However, the dead become the motif of the festival on this day. A combination of street performativity and memory of the dead constitute the uniqueness of this culture.
But when I met this artist fluently interpreting her entire art to show the weakness of Nepali politics and politicians, I became very pensive. I have done art criticism since 1971; and as a theatre person, I have used the wisdom, semiotics and symbolism of this festival for my plays as well as for my book on the history of Nepali theatre. But what struck me here was the sheer politics—the burlesque and the anti-climactic moments of Nepali politics created in art form. I know Nepali politics is not the sublime; it is not the only subject of discussion among Nepali artists and writers. But to see this Nepali artist with an international reputation dwelling passionately on the current absurdities that she sees in Nepali politics is a subject of tremendous significance. It raises questions of the following nature.
Has the current political imbroglio so completely dominated Nepali artists’ imaginaire as in this exhibition? Has Nepali art always been so responsive to the political consequences of current Nepali history? Why did the artist become so sensitive to the present state of stalemate in negotiations among the parties? I have heard about the bravado of artists and some writers about the political changes and being sensitive to the events in the past years. Some have used the often-repeated stories of their involvement in creating history as artists. But what is never seen is the picture of Nepali history when it was embroiled in the 10-year war.
No artist has significantly made any paintings on the fate of those who have lost their lives, lost their properties and become victims of war and homeless. We tried to talk to war victims from different places in the country for theatre. Their stories were heart-rending, but performing the same was not possible because the people who would be linked to the events would not allow the show to go ahead in their areas.
To artists and writers, that somber history mostly remained invisible. Of course, some good works have been written. Semioticists found the impact, the devastation and the faces of the victims and their plight photogenic. Important and sleek volumes have been published; exhibitions have been held in different parts of the country. It is easy to do photographic works and media dissemination of the same. But to execute a similar number of paintings or sculpt works on the gory themes and disseminate the same is not possible for painters and artists.
Poets have been going to different places and reading their symbolic poems. Plays have been taken to villages and performed by good theatre artists. But for artists, it is not easy to take their works and exhibit them in different places. The question why comes up. The answer is that artists cannot execute paintings as easily in different situations as media people can manage it.
Artist Durga Baral made strong paintings about the war and cartoons of the cow metaphor; several young artists to have executed paintings about the war and its consequences. But of necessity, they had to choose galleries to exhibit them. Very few people go to see the paintings.
But Ragini’s intaglios and drawings have drawn so much attention recently in the capital. Her fluent interpretation of her figures did not make me feel happy. I quietly wanted to see her exquisite works on my own. She is a very talented artist. Her lines are amazing. She draws lines without using erasers or pencils. In her intaglio, her combination of colours is powerful and charming. Her print works are very fine; she can give an expressionistic mode to her print works. Many artists who use her medium have ended up in the twilight zone of decorative and expressive art. But Ragini has transcended that. She has exhibited her works in Europe, India and Nepal. She is one of the few Nepali artists who sell their works at good prices. In this exhibition, I found her drawings very interesting and powerful. Though it takes her less time to execute them, they impressed me, I must confess, more than her much-hyped intaglio cow figures and figurines in some cases.
Ragini’s cow images are amazingly beautiful despite the burden of the bizarre theme she attributes to them. Her cows are dismembered. Some of them are in the belly of the lion that has devoured her. They yield not milk but explosives; people are exploiting her. The cow is people, suavity and the country. Lions are cheats. People are dishonest. But it is a different experience to see these bizarre figures. They do not frighten the viewers. The cows, even in their precariously imposed symbolism by the artist, give the impression of folktales and fables.
But what I find difficult and also feel intrigued about is the combination of fables and fabulation. Ragini like a Christian artist valorising a Christian theme is projecting the Hindu holy-cowism in her works. That could be a limitation; but for Hindu viewers and others who know the culture, that is a natural symbolism. But the paintings and the rhetoric of the artist exaggerate the so-called evil of politics. Valorising the holiness of the cow and feudal Hindu values, abusing the democratic system of government and the present state of political awareness, and ignoring the multiple openings of consciousness is not a progressive concept in art.
A cow’s body parts are falling off. The artist and the media said that this was the dissolution of the country’s body under a federal structure. The news spread; and I was told that Chitra Bahadur K.C., an anti-federalist communist leader, was going to speak on it at the gallery. That would perhaps be K.C.’s first painting encounter in life. But he would speak about his usual politics, not about art.
Ragini is a very good artist; she is a good friend. I will tell her what I feel about her work. But I would like to warn the politicians of this country that their reputation is plummeting; and very soon it will go down in people’s psyche through art, songs, poems, stories and folklore. Better change your ways and write the constitution before you are given permanent places of tricksters in paintings and folktales. Remember, the people’s patience with your politics is running out.
Originally posted on: 2010-09-01 08:37