The term “contemporary” in the domain of Nepali art designates the artworks created since 1950s, the year also marked the end of the Rana autocracy. Contemporary Nepali artworks reconcile heterogeneous images and forms. Hindu and Buddhist myths, traditional icons and symbols interact with modern forms and techniques. The shared images and forms are modified, appropriated and sometimes subverted. Similar subject matters are treated with different forms. The homogeneity and authority of early icons are parodied, questioned and challenged. Referential icons of divinities in early Nepali art forms appear in renewed form as distorted plural images in contemporary compositions. The themes of concentration and meditation, and the unity of individual self and cosmic being are expressed in the novel forms. The recycled images and forms are plural, for they resemble to and differ from early forms at the same time. Thus, the Nepali tradition coexists within modern paintings and sculptures.
Contemporary Nepali arts share mystical, magical, symbolic and anthropomorphic features from early religious paintings and sculptures. Furthermore, they share the concepts of religious harmony, and reconciliation of individual self and cosmic being, and sacred and profane from early art forms. Contemporary performance artists also take inspiration to create inter-generic art forms from artworks based on religio-cultural rituals.
Contemporary Nepali arts not only reintegrate forms and contents of early arts but also exploit modern techniques as tools for their expression. The artists exploit unusual and alternative colors and distorted images with new significances. They break the linear surface using geometric shapes. Sometimes, contrary images are juxtaposed with free association as in dream. These modern works are not the realistic representations of the objects and events of the world but the subjective expressions of the artists.
The artworks appropriate both modern techniques and forms and contents of early Nepali arts. They share the themes of religious harmony and the union of the individual self and the cosmic being from the manuscript illuminations and paubhas. Likewise the images, symbols and icons of early Nepali art like Shivalinga, vajra, lotus, meditating sage, temple and stupa reappear in altered and unconventional forms. The images of Shivalinga and Vajra depict the union of prakriti and purusa, the male and the female principles or the self and the divine being. The artists not only reformulate the contents of early arts but also the forms and techniques. The works depict the form of mandala having unconventional structure. The mandala, a geometrical structure having principal deity at the centre, is considered as the yantra (instrument) for meditation and concentration.
Similarly, the artists reintegrate and reformulate the decorative pattern of Mithila folk art, and use the distinct contour and two dimensional colours, the techniques of early Nepali painting. The artists decontextualize and recontextualize the shared forms and contents to renew the viewer’s perception. They recycle age old contents and forms with one of the four motives—first, to depict the same theme with different form; second, to use the same form to explore different subject matter; third, to use the age old icons to subvert and menace them; and fourth, to integrate the early forms and image with no particular purpose as in pastiche. Thus the mélange of tradition and modernity may generate multiple significances.
Since the artworks treat the elements of early arts with non-objective and plural modern techniques, they differ from referential traditional artworks, yet they resemble to the early arts, for they reinterpret and reintegrate the age old images, symbols and icons. These works of art are inter-textual in the sense that the forms and contents of early Nepali arts come into dialogue with modern techniques in the contemporary paintings and sculptures.
In the similar manner, the artworks recycle the religio-cultural rituals and images. They explore the themes of pranayama and meditation for the realization of soul, Brahma or the cosmic being. The art works depict such concepts incorporating the images of kundalini, mandala and meditating figures, the elements of religeo-cultural life. Likewise, some works deal on teachings of Buddha. The rituals like Bhotejatra, Shraddha and worshipping divinities and nature also get expression in visual forms. The images of cow, naga (serpent) and sun, the personified deities also appear in the canvas with new meanings. The images appear in anthropomorphic forms
Contemporary Nepali paintings profusely exploit images of mountain, river, lake, fish, wild animal, tree, and flower taking from their natural context. They explore and celebrate the natural beauty of Nepal. By incorporating such images in the works, the artists explore the themes of biodiversity, ecology and deforestation thereby creating the social awareness for the conservation of natural heritage. The strange thing about these artworks is that, sometimes, the natural images turn out to be mystical and magical symbols and icons of divinities. Transforming natural images into divine symbols, the artists reinforce the theme of preservation more effectively. The images of nature are neither referential as in early painting nor abstract. The artists play with abstraction and figuration simultaneously. The art works not only give emphasis to the biodiversity but also to the ethnic diversity and national unity.
Some art works depict the condition of alienation and disillusionment that the contemporary Nepali youths experience. The youths suffering from poverty and unemployment visualize dark future. Their horror, inner torture and anxiety ridden mind get expression in the works of art created through unusual and contrary images and colors.
The art works give voice to the women. Some women artist break the boundary set by the patriarchy. The characters in the paintings attempt to carve their identity by celebrating the tabooed subject matter, for, they believe, it is the source their identity.
The paintings not only depict the religio-cultural images but also address the socio-political concerns of the contemporary time. The artists also portray the political leaders and parties ironically. Furthermore, the trauma of the victims of political violence and terrorism gets expression in the art works.
Some art works depict interpersonal and inter-art relationship. The collaborative art works deconstruct the concept that a painting is created by a single artist. A number of artists work in the same canvas to create a work of art. Similarly, the artists work in the canvas taking inspiration from the recitation of poems whereas the poets compose poem on the subject matter of the painting. Moreover, the artists paste poem on the canvas creating vision and textuality. The artists share the techniques of juxtaposing verbal texts and visual images from manuscript illuminations. Sometimes, the painters work together with theatre and film artistes. By intermingling the genres they enrich their experience and promote each other’s art works.
Likewise, some installation and performance artists, blurring the boundary among various art genres, exploit the techniques of sculpture, music, photography, journalism, literature and theatre along with painting. They exhibit the art works accompanied by music and theatrical performance. Sometimes, the art works incorporate the object of reality deconstructing the binary opposition art/reality. They also break the boundary between artist, artwork and viewer by involving the audience in the process of creation. As a result the viewer turns out to be the artist. In such art works the artists take inspiration from age old religeo-cultural rituals like marriage ceremony, Bratabandha, Deepawali and Tulasi Bibaha. Such cultural rituals also depict the painted mandalas on the floor, music of conch shell and bell, recitation of the mantras by the priests, installation of divinities, worshipping and performance by the patrons in the direction of the priest and the participation of the guests (as audience) in the celebration of the ritual. However, the purpose of this early religo-aesthetic form and the contemporary art is different. Thus, the art woks appropriate both modern techniques and native forms and contents. They represent the cultural self and cultural other from ambivalent and inbetween space.
The forms of contemporary Nepali artworks are plural, and their significance is not fixed and certain but contingent and multiple. There are at least four reasons for this. First, their forms are non-objective, that is, they do not refer, in pinpointed manner, to the objects, events and people of the external world. Thus, the different viewers may associate the plural images with different things and concepts. Moreover, the same viewer may appreciate the same work of art in different manner depending on the spatio-temporal context. Second, since the works of art are intertextual and intergeneric, various voices and identities of different works of art and genres come into interaction in the same work. Then to derive the single meaning through generalization silencing the multiple voices of heterogeneous images and forms is not justifiable. Thus, significance of these art works is provisional and temporal. Third, in collaborative works, a number of artists work together in the same canvas and create their own compositions which may not be linked to each other. Then, is it possible to construct the single meaning ignoring the different significances of individual compositions in the same canvas? Of course not. The collaborative work has multiple meanings. Fourth, some works of art give emphasis to the process of creation itself rather than the final product. They involve the audience on creative process. As a result the work of art itself and its significance depend on who the viewers are and how they act and interact with the work of art and the artist. Hence, the meanings of such art works are ever shifting and on the process of becoming.
The overall picture of Nepali arts presents the mosaic that includes nature and culture, tradition and modernity, local contents and global forms, myths and mysticism, rituals and folklores, imaginative and pragmatic values, and the cultural self and the cultural other. The mélange of multiple forms and voices makes the works open-ended and plural in which the active viewers may recreate and identify their own personal world of imagination.