Painted walls and pieces of history
The noise and dust from busy traffic at the Mangal Bazar intersection filters in through the lattice window at a corner of Patan Museum. Inside, along the walls of the dark, cool corridor are a series of half-erased murals.
These 17th–18th century wall paintings – 195x210cm and 197x240cm – are indecipherable, but as the eyes get used to the soft interior, four horizontal bands on either side, of approximately 50cm height, begin to take shape. Red separates from blue, lines and angles give way to faint forms and figures. Two-tiered temples rise on the north wall in the cacophony of colours, while a musical procession marches across the passage. There are a couple animals and gods too – but beyond that, not much can be known.
Only fragments remain. The murals are defaced by scratches, including what looks like a cross between the Prachalit (or Devnagari) letter क and a human figure with one arm on the hip, giving this Malla-era artwork a feral touch. After the Shah conquest of Patan, the palace complex was repurposed by the police, with one wing even used to house prisoners. During this time and perhaps till much later, whitewash would be regularly applied over the paintings.
In 1995, the loose lime layer peeled away revealing a patch of colours. Four years later, UNESCO started to unveil and conserve what remained of the murals, and train staff from the Department of Archaeology. French conservator Sabine Cotte retouched some of the murals, filled the gaps using gypsum, and applied a coating of acrylic resin on the north-wall mural for protection.
It was decided that the paintings would be conserved in situ without detaching them from the walls. Following the initial treatment, the Institute of Conservation (ICON) in 2013 conducted the first investigation of the murals and found that the brick walls were first rendered with a layer of plaster of mainly ‘sheet silicates, quartz and plant fibres’ which would have an uneven texture.
Then, this layer was topped with a much smoother layer of fine mud mixed with plant fibres, over which several paint layers were directly applied. Carbon black, orpiment and red ochre were the original pigments, and animal glue added with drying oil was used as a binding medium.
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During the investigation, it was also found that several layers of overpainting had been done over the centuries, using synthetic cinnabar and ultramarine – shades not produced in the 17th century.
The paintings were already in a bad shape in the 90s, with losses of mud plaster and paint layers. Some of the retouching done after its rediscovery did not hold well, as their consistency with the original materials did not match, reacting differently to the changes in humidity and temperature, and even falling out, pulling the original sections with them. Conservation efforts after the 2015 earthquake sought to prevent the paintings from further deterioration by removing the later harmful additions, cleaning, and sealing the cracks.
Barbara Ranki of the University of Applied Arts in Vienna arrived in Nepal two weeks ago to work on the wall. She explains that an important conservation ethic is to not introduce any new material as far as possible and stay in the same system as the original, such as using local mud as artists in Malla-era would have.
“This also helps the conservators to know about the history of the paintings’ restoration methods,” Ranki says, “so it can be easily retreated in the future.”
Today, the paintings look very much like a Jackson Pollock work at the outset. But one can feel a ring of almost-romanticism in the lacunae, like poetry fragments in ancient scrolls. These intervals may be appreciated wholly in their aposiopesis, or the viewer may have to exercise their imagination, fill in the gaps themselves.
Across the river and the city-lines, the mural in Bhaktapur is in better shape. On the walls of the 55-Window Darbar sits a celebration of colours and shapes: a vast mural spanning an entire room, casting a glorious and imposing sense of grandeur.
Divided into five horizontal panels, the 18th century mural is largely intact despite the years of neglect. The palace was once used by the police too, and the room was turned into a kitchen. Few sections of the mural are still behind a thick layer of stove smoke and soot marks.
Ram Govinda Shrestha of Bhaktapur Heritage Conservation points out the unique figure of Vishwaroop, the embodiment of the universe according to Hindu beliefs, with each head sporting a moustache. According to artist Madan Chitrakar, this is a rare iconography of the god since he is almost never shown with so much facial hair.
Further, the face of the god is the image of King Bhupatindra Malla himself, and in his hands he holds the chariots of Ram and Ravan before their final battle.
In the deity’s other arm sits his divine consort modelled after Bhupatindra Malla’s queen Vishwa Laxmi. On her coiffure in the painting the name ‘Shree Bhupatindra’ is clearly written.
On either side of the painting, a continual set of images – bilampu, says Chitrakar – unfolds, depicting scenes from the Hindu mythology. In one corner, one can make out an image of Ganesh which signifies the start of the story. It is a vast narrative, capturing the many stages of motion and plot: the same faces appear several times in different locations, doing different things, on the same two-dimensional stretch – an art style common in the Subcontinent which feels almost like a precursor to cinema itself.
Chitrakar believes that the methods of its creation are similar to the paintings in Patan: the same base for the walls, the colours and different mud layers.
According to Shrestha, efforts to conserve the painting began in 1998. “Initially we added foam at the back to stabilise it,” he says. “Fortunately, there was not bad damage to the painting despite the earthquakes. The painting has remained the same since the 90s.”
However, among the traces of gypsum and scratch marks are cracks and fading, illegible scenes. While it is clear that the story depicted is from Krishna-leela, several individual scenes are obscure. In recent years, a small section showing a young Krishna with the gopini has been discoloured by direct sunlight.
Outside, the walls of Taleju Temple are also covered in paintings, above the bullet dents and sword marks from Prithvi Narayan Shah’s invasion of Bhaktapur in 1767. They have mostly faded due to exposure to the elements but the line-works in certain sections are still conspicuous, such as the drawing of two peacock-like creatures with human heads and limbs facing each other.
These murals provide a unique look into the art of the Valley influenced by Buddhist traditions, says artist Chitrakar, and are just as important as stone sculptures and wood carvings as a part of the Valley’s cultural civilisation. Most wall-paintings in the Valley are from the Malla period.
“There are a couple such paintings from the early Shah period,” he adds, “but few.”
But when compared to paper or cloth for art, wall poses some challenges – portability being the obvious one. Chitrakar gives examples of large-scale wall paintings found in the Buddhist monasteries of the Valley, explaining that these murals were most likely made for meditation. “So that when one is in the room for worship, nothing else comes to mind except the image of the god before them,” he says.
The Malla kings enjoyed a time of cultural prosperity which could not be replicated by the Shahs owing to relentless political tug-of-war between rival families at court. It was also a time when art was made more as an instrument of religious and spiritual expression, than to be simply admired, Chitrakar remarks.
“This is not to say that the Malla era was always peaceful, that was not the case,” he says, “but the Valley’s kingdoms were wealthy, and the kings were competing with one another to build more temples and create more art.”
There is certainly an aspect of wanting to impress and to transcend in Bhupatindra Malla’s mural in Bhaktapur which depicts himself as the godhead, but it also comes with a desire to be one with the divine, to demonstrate one’s purported godly lineage.
There is also a recently discovered mural at Hanumandhoka Darbar in Kathmandu so badly damaged that the paint layers are mostly all abraded, leaving behind glaring lesions across confused shapes. It was located during restoration work after the 2015 earthquake on the wall at Agam Chhen hidden behind another wall which had been raised some five inches from it.
“It’s almost as if the painting was quietly waiting all these years,” says Chitrakar. “The details are, however, very difficult to describe because of its terrible condition.”
A dancing figure in wine-red – possibly Kapalika, a follower of Shiva – can be made out holding a flag, and someone seated on a bull before him. Chitrakar believes that this painting was contemporaneous with the murals in Patan and Bhaktapur, most likely commissioned by King Pratap Malla.
Back in Patan, Ranki’s team are working with fine-tipped brushes and recently reduced a new layer of lime wash. Her team works undeterred by the passing visitors who stop to watch, steal a glance at the paintings.
Much has been lost to time, but the approach now is to try and preserve everything that is visible. Says Ranki: “We try to keep the object’s history intact as much as possible.”
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