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What is Newar Art?

“No other people on earth, Watson, has produced such intricate beauty in as small a space as the Valley of Kathmandu. One trenchant observer has described it best as a kind of coral reef, built up laboriously over the centuries by unrecorded artisans. As a human achievement, it ranks with the creations of Persia and Italy.”

“Good Lord, Holmes, and to think that no one even knows of its existence!”

(Ted Riccardi: The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. 2003)

This fictional exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson perhaps best describes the predicament of these unrecorded artisans who worked so laboriously over the centuries. For these were the Newar artists of Nepal, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, who probably first migrated here from India soon after the advent of Buddhism. Yet it was from this tiny Himalayan kingdom, which occupies the same area as a small city, that much of what is now recognized as ‘Early Tibetan Art’ actually first arose. For the Newars were the direct inheritors of the unique artistic and architectural traditions of the late Pala Dynasties of Eastern India, which were ruthlessly destroyed at the end of the twelfth century by the iconoclastic armies of Islam.

Between the eighth and twelfth centuries the transmission of Vajrayana Buddhism flowed from India into Western Tibet through the Vale of Kashmir, and into Southern Tibet through the Kathmandu Valley. And from the Valley’s three royal cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur respectively came the finest Newar painters, statue-makers and wood-carvers, whose enduring influence on Tibetan art was simply enormous. But with the Valley’s increasing absorption of Hindu culture and religion over the last few centuries, the traditions of Newar art became somewhat static and less innovative. This was due in part to the influence of Indian miniature painting, and to the fact that both Nepal and Tibet had chosen to become isolated from the outside world. Nepal actually only opened its doors to foreigners after the Chinese had invaded Tibet.

However, in the late 1930’s a vibrant Newar artistic renaissance began, inspired mainly by the genius of a painter named Anandamuni Shakya (1903-44). At the age of eighteen Anandamuni spent a year working in Lhasa, where his talents were soon recognized by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, who rewarded him with a lifetime’s supply of mineral pigments. Anandamuni’s artistic style was later influenced by the work of Sandro Botticelli, and by the stark realism of black and white photography. In 1941 he became a partner in Kathmandu’s first art gallery, which closed just after his death in 1944. During these years only one painting was sold at this the gallery.

Anandamuni’s son, Siddhimuni Shakya (1933-2001), then continued to develop the innovative technical skills and photographic realism of his father’s own unique style. Siddhimuni died in the same month that King Birendra and his family were assassinated, and his sublime artistry now rests in the hands of his son, Surendra Man Shakya, who recently finished a painting that took more than six years to complete. I first met Siddhimuni in 1973 and was deeply inspired by his dedication and devotion, as were most of the other ‘senior’ painters of that time, who have since gone on to inspire their own students. The community of Newar artists still only numbers around a hundred painters who earn their living by depicting the various Hindu and Buddhist deities that populate the Newar pantheon. A few of these artists have become divinely inspired geniuses in their own right, while the genius of Siddhimuni Shakya has now become legendary.

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