Sugauli Treaty & Nepali Art: Opening of New Avenues

Apr 23, 2017 |

Sugauli Treaty & Nepali Art: Opening of New Avenues

Text: Madan Chitrakar


Nepal Art Council – an Art organization based in Kathmandu, recently (15-30 April 2017) hosted a unique Exhibition. To a lay visitor, the show may have passed as a routine common Show. For the exhibits included nothing huge and mammoth to impress such visitors.

But to a critical eye, the exhibits presented a grand panorama of Nepali history in visuals. In was a literal unfolding of many new shifting outlooks of the then Nepali social life - that followed the historic Sugauli Treaty. Entitled ‘Nepal-Britain Bicentenary Exhibition’, the Show probably remained the first vivid visual narratives of events that led to earliest openings of many new avenues in Nepali life. Most importantly, it narrated in visuals the earliest unfailing winds of changes in the centuries old tradition of Nepali Painting: also the definite evidences of earliest appearances of Photographic documentations in Nepal.

Common wisdom has it that peace treaties are made to ensure a perpetual peace and friendship between the warring parties. But history has also taught us it may yield unexpected consequences beyond the aimed objectives. Sugauli Treaty - concluded between Britain and Nepal in 1816 remains one - a glaring example. Essentially aimed to maintain a long lasting peace and friendship, the treaty did come as an epitome of a long lasting friendship. But as time would prove later, the Treaty caused many un-thought of effects and impacts to the both.

For sure, to Nepal the ‘Treaty’ led to many new openings. It was all caused by – a series of epoch making events which would not have been possible in a hostile environ or sans a Treaty. But the eventual and far reaching outcomes and the ripples that emerged later were neither thought of nor intended then. And it led to bring number of new monumental shifts in the entire gamut of Nepali cultural outlooks, in particular - in shaping the future evolution of the Art & Architecture of the country then after.

Maharaja Chandra Shumsher JBR with his Maharani , 1905 AD – a photograph direct from the original collections of Herzog & Higgins’s Studio. Source: Madan Chitrakar

The Art of Painting
To begin with, prior to the period, Nepali Painting presented an endless continuation of earlier tradition – rooted on the spiritual beliefs and rendered in a fusion of Newar style with late Mogul and Rajasthani influences. The notion of western style of painting like to emulate the natural forms remained unheard of. An idealistic presentation remained the core of a Painting.

But after the treaty, one of the earliest and consequential events to happen in our context is the arrival of Brian Hodgson in Kathmandu to join the British Legation in the early 1820s. He unintentionally, proved an earliest catalytic agent of a far reaching change in Nepali Painting: and the change was to remain for good. For when he began to pursue his research works in Buddhist studies he needed artists who could draw from the real objects as illustrations for his studies or be able to follow the forms as found or seen in nature. It was a monumental departure from the prevailing perception of an art. Subsequently, a team of Newar artists was formed to prepare the needed drawings as needed to illustrate Hodgson’s studies.

At this point, we see the historic emergence of Raj Man Singh Chitrakar – now rightly described as a pioneer, as the team leader of the group. And the over the years, until Brian Hodgson left Kathmandu after the completion of his tenure during 1840s, the team led by Raj Man had had created an impressive corpus of drawings and sketches – spanning an amazingly a wide spectrum of subjects – from Buddhist art and architecture to studies on Natural life like birds, animals and later to studies on human forms. And it resulted in a huge collection of series of drawings and landscapes – particularly Buddhist monuments and a vast treasure of colored sketches of native birds and wild lives.

Maharaja Dev Shumsher’s “Sindoor Jatra or State visit to Pattan ”. The title is as described in the original album of Herzog & Higgins’s collections.

And what has remained amazing is that all the drawings were made based on or under the direct supervision of a European eye or Brian Hodgson himself; to follow the natural forms with full three dimensional effects. As a result, the works revealed the earliest notion of perspectives, light and shade and of course, a sense of proportion in the annals of Nepali Art history. It was a phenomenal beginning not intended to achieve then. Added to it is an earliest of appearance of Watercolor in these pioneering sketches as a medium in the annals of art here. It is hard to conceive today how complex scenes were created with full sense of perspective and proportion at that early stage. The credit undeniably leads us to the visionary thoughts and guidance of Brian Hodgson.

Although the Show mentioned above revealed a limited number of works, for sure the spectrum of Brian Hodgson’s scholarly pursuits and Raj Man’s drawings and sketches are too wide and vast – stretching from the studies on birds and wild animals to ethnic studies.

Little later, Kathmandu witnessed the arrival of Dr. Henry Ambrose Oldfield (1850 – 63) in the British Legation – equally important in the context of Nepali Art landscape. A surgeon by profession, his tenure at Kathmandu proved no less important and impressive as an artist along with his artist wife Margaret Alicia Oldfield.

A conjured-up portrait of artist Raj Man Singh – painted by Madan Chitrakar . This portrait has appeared in the postage stamp issued to commemorate the contributions of Raj Man Singh in 2009.

Tawny Fish Owl – watercolor by Raj Man Singh Chitrakar, 1843 AD. Source: Nepali Art – Issues Miscellany, 2012.- p.118

Postage Stamps (2009 AD) depicting a self portrait of Tej B. Chitrakar (left) and ‘Tributes to my Forefathers ’ – a work by the artist (right ). Source: Madan Chitrakar

By the time he left Kathmandu, he was able to create an impressive collection of Water color landscapes of Kathmandu Valley and around. It remain an important visual documentation of the then Nepal. His drawings and sketches made during his stay in Kathmandu, to this date is regarded as a valuable reference to reveal the cultural life and landscape of the then Kathmandu Valley in visuals. The colorful drawings and sketches he created are all based on the first-hand studies made in the open nature. From this perspective thus along with Brian Hodgson, Raj Man and the works of Oldfield herald the initial phase of modernity or an arrival of western style Painting in Nepal. It was indeed an advent of a new era.

At this point, an event that made a far reaching consequence in the annals of Nepali Painting is the Prime Minister Jung Bahadur’s state visit to Britain and France in 1850 AD. Politically, the visit was, indeed an extension of the efforts made by the both the parties Nepal and Britain. Again, un-intently, the visit was to remain a historic benchmark and an event of monumental consequences in Nepali Art. For the entourage of the Prime minister also included a highly talented Nepali artist. It was the phenomenal rise of a legendary painter Bhaju Man Chitrakar – fondly known as ‘Bhaju Macha’ – a gentleman, who as a member of the entourage, was exposed to many prevailing trends of Painting in the West. And eventually, apparently a keen observer he proved instrumental in bringing unfailing early winds of changes in Nepali Painting thereafter as a direct result of his sojourn in London.

Over the years, today Nepali Painting has had made many long strides; and today it is fast seeking to merge with the global mainstream. But the fact remains that the advent of modernity in Nepali Painting is essentially built on the foundations laid by the two pioneers Tej Bahadur and C.M.Maskey in the late 20s of the last century. They remain the earliest Nepali artists ever to have graduated academically from Calcutta – from an Art institution - modeled and established by Britain. No need to add they irreversibly introduced the Western ways of Painting in Nepali Art – for the first time ever academically.

Historically a very important portrait of Prime Minister Jung Bahadur painted by legendary painter ‘Bhaju Man Chitrakar .’ This is one of the few rarest works of the artist found so far and authenticated on the basis of the writing found in the bottom of the painting. Source: British Library, London c/o Nepal Art Council, Kathmandu.

Earliest Appearances of Photographs
Aside from the art of Painting, the arrival of Photography in Nepal bears an event of high significance in the cultural history of the country. Nepal witnessed the arrival of an earliest ever photographer Clarence Comyn Taylor during the rule of first Rana Prime minister Jung Bahadur. Probably his photographic works - private family photo shoots or the outdoor ‘works, maybe the earliest event of its kind then. Undeniably it should be seen as yet another gift of western civilization to the Kingdom then or an evidence of a growing closeness - a visible aspect of friendship between the two people. It did constitute a new dimension in the socio-cultural life of Nepal.

Clarence C. Taylor, a soldier in the East India Company after being wounded in the Uprising of 1857 in India, joined as Assistant Resident in Kathmandu in 1863. Since he was an avid and a capable photographer, Colonial Government capitalized his skills in the ongoing program of the Indian Government to make photographic documentation of people and monuments of the Capital Valley. During his stay between 1863-65, Taylor was able to make a fabulous collection of photographs – a wealth of photographs from Jung Bahadur’s family to the various locations of the Capital city. These photographs in addition to being the earliest evidence of photography here, today the collection remain a phenomenal window – a rare valuable visual source to know the early life and the physical state of places recorded then in Nepal

Asoka ’s Temple – called Chillundeo – in the centre of Patan . The title is as described in original collections. Picture courtesy: British Library, London c/o Nepal Art Council, Kathmandu.

Both the watercolor sketches are made by Dr. Henry Ambrose Oldfield during his stay in Kathmandu - 1850-63 AD. Picture courtesy: British Library, London c/o Nepal Art Council, Kathmandu.

While talking about the photo-documentations of early Nepal, the visit of two other subsequent photographic teams also merit equal mentions. During the last leg of 19th century, we see the arrival of Johnston & Hoffman and it seemed they made some noteworthy photographic collections. Although more focused to the capital city of Kathmandu, the group also photographed some spectacular scenes en-route from the southern plains to the Valley.

But more important is the collection made by Herzog and Higgins during the early 20th century in 1901. Apparently invited by H.H.Maharaja Dev Shumsher to cover his Sindur Jatra or ‘State Visit to Pattan’ as described in the collection, the collection has some very important photos of Maharaja Chandra Shumsher as well. In the photos of Maharaja Dev Shumsher’s visit to the nearby city of Patan, he is seen on elephant mount amidst a pompous crowd of army men and the public. But the collection also has an impressive list of photographs depicting the Valley of Kathmandu and adjoining areas. Till to this date this collection is often referred as a historic visual document. One may easily describe it as yet one more added benefit of the ever growing friendship between the two people.

A watercolor sketch made by Raj Man Singh. This drawing suggests a good sense of architectural drawing along with ‘Perspectives’ at an early stage of Nepali Art history. Source: Madan Chitrakar

Importance of the Friendship
As has been discussed in earlier lines, the Exhibition organized by Nepal Art Council, made vividly clear how the treaty of Sugauli brought upon phenomenal changes in the thoughts of Fine Arts in Nepal – eventually leading it to the present state of global stage. And no less important is the appearance of Photography – a gift of modern science, at such an early phase of history. It all remained undeniable extensions of the friendship between the two people - unintended and un-thought of then.


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