The belief that art is new in the Nepali scene requires a deeper inquiry. While the study of art in a formal manner might be new to Nepal, the presence of art is as old as the country and the culture itself. Taking a tour of some of the popular cultural sites around us will show us the rich and deep roots of art history. The scenes of Mahabharata carved on the walls of the Krishna Mandir in Patan Durbar Square might be a novel sight to many. I didn’t know about it until a few years ago – a temple I’d visited many times. Growing up in Kathmandu valley, which is not just the capital of Nepal but also a city of art and culture, I cannot imagine how many artistic elements I might have missed observing.
Listening to KK Karmacharya, a veteran artist and illustrator, as he spoke of the Nepali artistic scene from many decades ago, strengthens the view that the Nepali art scene has a layered history. Karmacharya is currently the Chancellor of the National Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). He is an esteemed modern artist of Nepal, known for his conceptual graphic designs and illustrations, and is the recipient of the Gorkha Dakshin Bahu – a prestigious award given for distinguished contribution to the country in the field of arts, literature, sports, science, and social service.
I had the chance to meet Karmacharya as part of the guest series of i for illustrators’ authorial workshop. Along with six other artists, I have been working on a comic book as part of the workshop.
Art: Then and Now
Karmacharya says he entered the art world in the 1980s believing he’d work for about five years. These five supposed years have turned into decades, and he continues to work and contribute in this field. His long experience starting from the 1980s till the present time made us curious to know about the art scene of the past. The main difference, Karmacharya says, has been in technology. His description of the woodblock printing method took me on a flashback as I imagined the working styles of the time before I was born.
“Producing exact replicas was difficult. The lines would be very thick. Someone other than the artist had to make the woodblocks, and sometimes the blocks were not as accurate as designed by the artist,” he said.
Evolving Role of the Artist
While Karmacharya talked about technological progress in art, he also mentioned the evolving role of the artist as new tools become available. “People told us that because computers were coming, we would be out of work. But that wasn’t true. The computer does not do everything, it is just a tool. We needed to hold the brush in the past, and we need to do the same today too,” he said. New technology means new areas to experiment with and new tools to master. There are opportunities but also time-binding requirements to adjust and adapt.
With the rapid development of AI, the probability of being replaced seems more real now than ever. But will computers be able to replicate the soul of art? We do not know yet, and hopefully, the uniqueness of human touch in art will remain quite difficult if not impossible for computers to outperform. Karmacharya strongly believes that tools will not replace creativity.
Making of the Nepali Postal Stamps
Karmacharya has a distinct contribution in the field of postal stamps of Nepal. He designed 407 stamp designs for the Department of Postal Services of Nepal. Many of the postage stamps we have seen and used were likely designed by Karmacharya.
Postal Stamps are unique art pieces; their small size and space present the artist with novel challenges. Stamps also undergo layers of processing to ensure that they are difficult to replicate. Lack of good quality printing is a big challenge in stamp printing, providing limited scope for the artist in layout design and illustration.
An interesting incident that Karmacharya recalled from many years ago was when he was in a legal suit due to missing the word ‘Sakar’ in one of the postage stamps he designed. Since the stamp designs are very small, he did not realize the error.
Karmacharya also shared how the subject matters for the stamp designs are chosen. The content is usually decided by the government, but the general public can also suggest themes when calls are made for the same. Birds, flowers, mountains, among others, are thematic subjects that have captured the interest of many collectors and stamp admirers around the world. Some popular themes in Nepali stamps are mountains, culture (festivals and jatras), heritages, birds, flowers.
Lack of funding and technology is one of the main barriers to Nepali stamps. An acute lack of public understanding and education in the related field adds to the challenge. Around the world, stamp artists tend to specialize in a particular theme like animals, flowers, etc. This level of specialization is yet to be seen in Nepal.
What to illustrate in a story?
As I worked on my comic project, I noticed a special feature of visual art. The writing – the boy looked at the mountain, has some additional layers to ponder upon while drawing – What kind of mountain? What is the color of his shirt? Is the boy short or tall? Visual art demands more specific details, the kinds that might be trivial in writing. Thus, the question of what to illustrate in a story was an obvious one.
Karmacharya, who has illustrated over 50 children’s books, provided 4 points to consider while deciding what to illustrate in a story:
- Choose a story you like
- Illustration can describe things that written words might not be able to
- How much can the script and text itself explain the scene?
- Does the illustration provide clarity for the story?
Choosing the right moment and the right style of illustration can elevate the story to a different height.
Challenges of the time
In recent times, art communities in Nepal are expanding and exploring more avenues. However, the challenges are persistent. One pressing challenge that Karmacharya mentions is the treatment of illustrators in the industry. “Illustrators are not considered artists,” he said, referring to the lack of priority given to illustrators when working on projects. He also shared about the lack of communication and understanding between the writer, illustrator, and the publisher when working on a book. This communication is vital as everyone is working towards the same goal. Other problems include payment issues that continue to linger and haunt artists making it difficult to earn a stable income.
The challenges are indeed pressing and many, but that does not mean the art scene of Nepal is all grim. As self-help writer Mark Manson twists the classic Spiderman quote: with great power comes great responsibility to with great responsibility comes great power; the current generation of artists in Nepal may be in a similar situation. There are a lot of responsibilities, but hidden inside them are powers too. Karmacharya ends on a hopeful note. “We can bring our renaissance,” he says.
i for illustrators is a space to engage, discuss, and network with visual storytellers started by Neeti Shrestha and Krisha Tamrakar. To learn more, visit their Instagram here. On the cover photograph are KK Karmacharya and the artists of the workshop in the virtual session.
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