Since arriving in Nepal, we have been met with wide open doors, welcoming us in to see what is going on behind tbe endless rows of bronze buddhas and incredible bronze work visible throughout the streets.
Inside the walls of Patan Museum, a well presented collection of work, includes ancient paintings, mandallas, icons, clearly written introductions to hinduism, buddhism and their merged traditions particular to the culture of Nepal. One cabinet presents a step-by-step explanation of lost-wax casting in the Nepalese method. Already in this small display, I find myself reading of techniques I hadn't been aware of- fantastic! This is why we are here.
Our first meeting is with Sangeeta Thapa, an instantly engaging and strikingly focused lady. With aspirations and visions for uplifting the contemporary art scene of Nepal, Sangeeta founded the successful, contemporary Siddartha Art Gallery in 1987, and is a leader of international projects, promoting the influence and expansing the outlook of comtemporary artists in Nepal. Sangeeta introduces us to Tejesh Man Shakya. The Caste system, established in its present form during the medieval Malla period, is still evident in the roles of many Nepalese. Family names and trades are intrinsically linked. Shakyas are by name historically metal workers, and this is true of Tejesh, who has inherited the knowledge of lost-wax casting through his family for many generations.
Most of the families casting bronze in Patan turn out masses of the highly intricate icons, fulfilling the huge demand from Tibet, alongside a smaller number for international exports. When you roam the old streets of Patan, hundreds of windows proudly showcase row upon row of intricately carved deities, sitting in the same iconic positions, hands expressing recognisable gestures. Mostly depictions of buddha, alongside Tara in her many forms and some of the other gods. The time and skill that goes into each of these pieces is mindblowing. As in all lost-wax casting, there is the original modelling, the mould making, the wax working, the imvestment mould, the casting and the finishing. However here in Nepal, hours of metal-engraving and then polishing and very often gold plating are also added to the process.
We visit Rakesh, a skillful metal engraver. Unlike the Shakyas, Rakesh does not come from a family of metal workers. He has learnt his skills through apprenticeship, something becoming more common, and he too now takes the time to pass on his knowledge to new apprentices who show up interested. Rakesh has a busy workshop. His team of metal workers sit among pieces of half finished limbs, fixing, refining and enhancing the details of the sculptures with every shape of engraving tool you can imagine. Here in Patan the beautiful, intricate patterns covering the clothes of the deities are hand engraved. Even the lines of the faces are carved out in metal, by a master engraver. We are given some tools and watched by the team with much amusement as we try to tap the lines into the hair of an unfinished buddha. A lot harder than they make it look!
Rakesh takes pride in having introduced an original piece into his workshop. A popular deity none the less, however a pose unearthed from a historical image unseen in other shops. This dedicated adherence to the ancient imagery never falters. Perhaps through religious respect but also due to the safety of knowing what sells, new generations follow unwavering in the footsteps of their fathers.
There are positives and negatives to every story. On one hand, there is a struggle for Nepal's art education to pull students into the contemporary art world, fine art students chosing more financially reliable jobs such as graphics, or else stepping back into the safety of continuing the family businesss of producing icons. Those, such as Sangeetea, who are passionate for Nepal to hold its head up in the international art scene, want to see their own artists employing their traditional crafts to make contemporary aesthetics. However it is this strict legacy of sticking to the rules that has kept alive so successfully the old skills, while in the west we have lost so much knowlesge of traditional craftmanship.
We visit Sabin Shakya. Sabin is learning the skills of modelling and wax working from his father. He shows us the wild buffalo horn tools he has inherited, adeptly smoothing the surface of a wax buddha, the skin immediately flawless beneath his practiced movements. His family specialise in producing the multiple armed buddha, sometimes of a phenominal size. He takes the time to show us around their huge workshop, a vast four storey building, hosting almost all stages of the process. Sabin's family are part of a collective of families, collaborating in this space to allow for a larger scale of production. This industrialisation of the foundry workshops is a natural progression with time, the small home foundry set up once numbering in the hundreds, now sadly diminishing. Sabin sends us away with some natural modelling wax, some buffalo horn tools and a traditonal lotus plaster mould to practice their technique.
We return to the home of Tejesh to commence a programme of lessons, starting with the basics of making the wonderful beeswax mixture, through to how to make a mould with the Nepalese clay based method. Tejesh is one of the rare cases of a traditionally skilled caster who has in fact pursued the path of a fine art sculptor. His interests range from science to design, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of history and art, and a fascinating resume that includes a residency in france, an exhibition in Amsterdam and an engineering research project. He is currently working on a sculpture of Chatral Rinpoche, a beautiful and majestic portrayal, modelled from his own home-made plasticine.
Just as his son does now, Tejesh learnt to handle wax from when he was a tiny child, and so sitting with him for a few hours opens our eyes to many small tips and techniques.
Time has flown and we are leaving in five days. We are very sad to be leaving this colourful city, where even the lorries look permanently ready for festival! I could not have imagined meeting kinder people or learning more than we have.