By Razen Manandhar
Rarely does God give both a brush and a pen to one person. But here, he also gave zeal and mission to one man. He is none other than Lain Singh Bangdel who passed away last week on the very auspicious day of Vijaya Dashami.
He was born in Darjeeling, India in 1924 in a lower-middle class family. After spending his school days at Government High School of Darjeeling, a District Board Scholarship took him to Government College of Arts and Crafts and from where he was graduated in 1945. But instead of returning home, he stayed in Kolkota and tried his luck there. He worked for several advertising agencies, was even sacked for being "incompetent". More than art teachers, he was trained by struggles and failures that also encouraged him to set a goal of his own.
His firm ambition to become an artist inspired him to set off on a one-month-long voyage to London without a single companion and then he moved to France, his ultimate destination in 1952. Since he had no funding, a mountain of difficulties stood on his way. He lived in the outskirts, in chilly rooms and he had to walk around the city to sell his early paintings in the streets. For almost two decades, he lived truly as a struggling "artist" in Paris and London, where he learned much more than the techniques of making strokes on empty canvasses.
The dice was cast in 1961, when artist Bangdel had an opportunity to be introduced to His Late Majesty King Mahendra. The Panchayat system was quite new, and King Mahendra was in search of personalities, who could show Modern Nepal to the world from different angles. The four-year old Royal Nepal Academy needed an artist to showcase Nepal’s art. Though Nepal had been a treasure of art and architecture for millennia, and contemporary art had entered Nepal much earlier than Bangdel was born, he was granted membership of the Academy for being an artist by the King. Luck had it that his working place became Nepal, the country his ancestors had left generations ago.
In the Panchayat period, being a king-nominated member of the Academy was advantageous. His well-maintained relation with the royal family as well as his expertise made him Vice Chancellor in 1974 and again the first non-royal chancellor in 1979, and worked as the head of the Academy till 1989. He was fortunate to remain in the state-backed organisation of the scholars during almost whole of the Panchayat period. He capitalised his power and expertise to enhance his career. This period was also the most productive days of his life - a series of painting exhibitions and book publications, followed by dozens of awards. Most of his books were published from the Academy, whereas some were came out from abroad.
Jadadish Samsher Rana and Genendra Bahadur Amatya had come up with abstract works here when Bangdel exhibited his semi-abstract paintings at Saraswati Sadan, but his were more polished and had a European outlook. Making a position in Nepal’s art arena, where most of the artists were submissive, shy and unexposed to the western world, was not difficult for him. And he became a spokesperson of the art activities of Nepal for at least three decades.
Bringing Nepal Association of Fine Arts under the Academy’s umbrella (it is still a controversial issue amongst some artists) and establishment of Nepal Art Council were Bangdel’s another contributions. The Council was opened as a gallery to exhibit the replicas of Western art, but it was later turned into a kind of art institution, with a building of its own and regular government funding.
Bangdel’s ability to understand the need of the time distinguished him from other artists. So the follower of monarchy did not mind making portraits of BP Koirala and Ganeshman Singh after the 1990’s Popular Movement. Beside his God gifted talent, he had power, blessing from the royals and talent of expression to retain the position he had in the city of art. Nevertheless, the "deified" artist was reluctant to teach art in public. Instead of teaching, he formed a group of half a dozen confident young artists who followed his ism of painting. A group of artists, better known as New Artists’ Circle, are following his path. Most of them were awarded in an art competition organised by the Nepal Art Council some three years ago.
Bangdel was born to be an artist but his contribution to Nepali literature is not less remarkable. He also made his room there as a humanitarian novelist, a freak travelogue writer and an incisive biographer. He had published ‘Bishwa Katha Sangraha’ before he left for London. His stay in London, France and Spain helped him in his literary pursuit. Students of literature today remember him for his books, mainly ‘Spain ko Samjhana’, ‘Muluk Bahira’, ‘Maitighar’, ‘Langadako Sathi’, ‘Bishwa Ka Chha Mahan Kalakar’ and ‘Rembrandt’.
Similarly, Bangdel had a deep knowledge of Nepal’s stone sculpture. He might never have imagined that the small Kathmandu Valley is rich in ancient sculptures, some dating as early as the first century BC. He, with his experience and tireless research, sought similarity between the early sculptures of the valley and the Kushan-period sculpture of Northern India. His diligent study and interpretation paved a new way for studying Nepal’s cultural heritage. His research produced Prachin Nepali Murtikalako Itihas (1982), Ancient Sculptures of Nepal (1982, India) Stolen Images of Nepal (1989) and Inventory of Stone Sulptures of the Kathmandu Valley (1995) are some of his books. Among others, his "Stolen Images of Nepal" is still a matchless gem for Nepali authors as it contains pictures of hundreds of idols that have been stolen, as well as detached pedestals. In the course of research, he had taken thousands of pictures of stone sculptures from courtyards and shrines of the valley. The treasure of photographs, yet to come out, is sure to make a history in the future.
Despite all this, he was noted for his isolation from the Nepali artists’ circle. He was accused of misusing his power, being undemocratic to juniors and favouring only his beloved ones. Some even raise questions over the pictures of the stolen idols. Nonetheless, his contributions to Nepali art, heritage and literature will be remembered forever, and it will take time to fill the vacuum left by Bangdel’s demise.
[Kathmandu, Sunday October 20, 2002 Kartik 03, 2059.]