The most senior artist of Nepal and a Founder member of Lalitkala Campus and NAFA.
मास्टर जीवरत्न शाक्य (1920-17-9-2012 Monday)
The collection caused a stir when it was first exhibited in 1999 in Japan. “The Japanese thought that the Buddha was born in India. Perhaps this misconception was natural as there are so many Indian illustrations on Buddha and none from Nepali artists,” says Shakya’s son-in-law Swastiratna, revealing how the neglect of fine art can compromise our own heritage. “We then put up banners that clarified Nepal as Buddha’s birthplace and the gallery visitors were surprised to learn it,” he says. The exhibition, as one can see, salvaged an important fact. Later, the Japanese Buddhist Association organised an excavation to Lumbini to find evidence of Buddha’s origin. “The excavation, of course, proved us right and it led to much publicity on the correct birth place of the Buddha.”
Eighty-eight-year-old Shakya’s talent for fine art was first recognised by his father at childhood when he sketched the image of a human hand, inspired by a similar work of art his friend possessed. Shakya’s father sent him to ‘The Art School’—the nascent phase of Juddha Kala Pathshala initiated by the then ruler Juddha Shamsher himself. Under the tutelage of Chatur Ratna, who received his education in fine arts from Calcutta, Shakya and his friends learned the subject in an old house near Ghantaghar, which got demolished during the 1934 earthquake. “We used to sit on sukuls (straw mats) and use the stationery that Chatur Ratna brought from Calcutta,” he says, reminiscing his childhood.
The school was later shifted to the Durbar school premises before being established as the Juddha Kala Pathshala. Presently, it is the nation’s only fine arts institution—Tribhuvan University’s Lalitkala Campus. After completing the course, Shakya, along with his classmates Kalidas and Chandra Bahadur, got appointed as a teacher at the school. During his time as a teacher, he instructed the likes of Shashi Shah, Krishna Manandhar, Govinda Dangol, Gautam Ratna Tuladhar and Hari Prasad Sharma.
In a few years, Shakya was transferred to the Janak Sikshya Samagri Kendra. There, he served as illustrator for the Education Department. “It was a lot of hard work. We had to travel to the rural areas very often, and transportation was not as easily available as it is now,” he says. In 1970, Shakya’s father passed away and he resigned from the job. Following this decision, he started working on the Buddha Jivani—40 paintings based on the Buddha’s life—a work that has given him his identity.
These paintings have not been exhibited in Nepal even after 18 exhibitions abroad. Works like these ought to be archived safely in a museum, lest we create further misconceptions of our history and culture. But the government has not shown the slightest interest, nor has it recognised Shakya for his achievements.
The tradition of fine art came only about 70 years ago in Nepal under the patronage of the Ranas. Before that, Nepali artists were immersed in paubha paintings and medieval style art and architecture. Shakya himself was the first student in Nepal who pursued fine arts as a subject. Presently, the pioneer sees a lot of changes in Nepali art that are historically significant and in need of archiving. “Art did not have a name at that time. We opened the school at a time when there were no art students and no art teachers. The government provided funds to students who wished to study art, just for the sake of increasing interest in art,” he says.
After the death of his only daughter, Shakya and his wife have shifted to his son-in-law’s place. The artist has been residing on the top floor of a building at the Academy of Sacred Hearts School in Dhalku, which is run by Swastiratna. His room is painted in a luminous shade of light blue, with his own paintings hung on the walls. Shakya points towards a water colour that depicts a Peepal tree, a chaitya, and silhouette figures of a couple and their little girl. “That painting was inspired by a visit to Lumbini along with his wife and daughter. Apparently, it’s these kinds of things that actually inspires an artist to create something,” he laughs.
Apart from a painting of Saraswati and a paubha, there are a couple of certificates on the wall. One presented by the Water Colour Society of Nepal and another presented by Nepal Kala Samikshya Samaj line along with a few more framed papers of appreciation. But for someone who bears historic significance for the nation, these complements do not seem ample. Shakya is still deprived of a major from the government for what he has accomplished.
The artist, whose works have been included in the collections of the Royal Palace and in the Nepal Association of Fine Art, is unable to paint now due to leprosy and old age. “Determination and concentration alongside practice are the two integral qualities an artist should posses,” says Shakya.
Despite the severe lack of support for artists, Shakya seems positive about the changes that have come about and is optimistic about the progress of art in Nepal. “Adopting different forms of art styles is a good thing. New artists are trying all sorts of new techniques,” he says. “We will just have to wait and see what comes out of them.”
Artworks by Jeev Ratna Shakya