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Dr. Dina Bangdel : The Prodigal Daughter

November 14, 2013 , by Sewa Bhattarai, 3 Comments
Dr. Dina Bangdel : The Prodigal Daughter » My Dreams Mag

Dr. Dina Bangdel is the daughter of Lain Singh Bangdel, a prominent Nepali artist, but her identity as an art historian is her own. Beginning with her undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College in the US, she went on to do her PhD from Ohio State University, and now is director of Art History Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, Qatar. She is the author of several books on Nepali art.

 

A Nepali girl went to the US and was faced with a washing machine for the first time. She loaded all her clothes in and sent them for a wash. But after a couple of times of using it, she realized the clothes were not being cleaned. She asked her room-mate, casually, why her clothes were coming back as dirty as they went in. “I pressed all the right buttons” she said. “Well, did you put the soap?” asked her room-mate. And then she realized what she was missing.

 

On being a foreign student

This might seem like an outlandish joke today, but in the year 1985, it was quite a real dilemma for Dina Bangdel. Today, she can look back and laugh about it “Well, everything was automated, there was the water, the dryer, wouldn’t you expect there to be soap too?”, but back then, it was no laughing matter. “You did not want to look stupid you know, and that was important!”

Apart from the washing machine incident, she remembers having problems with the speech “I just could not understand the heavy Philadelphia accent”, the sudden culture shock “TV was a part of it, multiple channels at your disposal was unthought of, when Nepal TV was just beginning!”, and her struggles with academics “I thought I was a good student. But I had to undo my entire rote style learning and learn to think critically.”

America in those days was not at all what you would expect today. “At Dashain, all the Nepalis in the east coast, maybe 100-120 people, would gather at the Embassy, where we ate a goat Nepali style!” That was the only time Dina met other Nepalis, except when she went to the house of Amar Giri, who lived an hour away, just to have some dal bhat and talk in Nepali. “There was a huge international crowd and I made a lot of friends, but I was very isolated and there was the intense sense of missing home.”

Today, that thought beggars belief, because the east coast is home to thousands of Nepalis. But back then, there were so few Nepalis going to the US that the embassy held an orientation for the six people in Dina’s batch. Dina ended up being the only Nepali in the entire town of Philadelphia. “I remember someone had placed an ad in a newspaper form a woman who wanted to learn Nepali. A faculty member informed me of the ad, because everyone knew that I was the only Nepali there. That was my first job out of campus!” she reminisces.

The only way her family would let her go to the US was if she went to a women’s college, so Dina chose Bryn Mawr College. “Actually they did not really want me to go at all, I was the only daughter” she laughs “but something about studying abroad had always fascinated me.” She began by studying anthropology, but she took one class of Art History, and was hooked. “My whole life was about art” says Bangdel, which was perhaps expected of the daughter of Lain Singh Bangdel, one of the foremost artists of Nepal. “So when I went to America, I wanted to have nothing to do with Art.” And yet, here she is, heading the Art History Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, Qatar.

Today, she flies back to Nepal as much as half a dozen times a year. But back then, with internet not even on the horizon and phone calls incredibly expensive, she used to write letters. They were delivered in fifteen days at the quickest. “My mother still has the stack, and they really give you a glimpse of what life was like back then” she says. “Today, with emails and chat, you don’t really bother to talk about feelings, more about everyday events. Those letters really honed my skills, how to tell your parents what was going on without having them worry too much!”

From then on she went to Wisconsin for her master’s degree, where she studied South Asian art, a change from her undergraduate where she had studied European art history. To study South Asian art, she needed to have a base in either Sanskrit or Tibetan. She chose to study Sanskrit in her undergraduate, which was the first time she learnt it. “My teacher was French, but if you did not look at him, he sounded exactly like a South Indian.” From then on she built up her expertise as an art historian “People often ask me, particularly in Nepal, if I make art like my father. No I don’t, I study art. I look at it as a document of history.”


On traditional art

Dina studies both traditional and contemporary South Asian art. She teaches the art of entire Asia, including India, China, and Japan, but her particular interest is in Nepali Buddhist art.
One of the important conclusions her study has led to is about the importance of Nepali Buddhist art. “When Buddhism died in India in the ninth through the thirteenth centuries, all the great teachers of Buddhism came here. With that came the art and ritual tradition. As a result, Nepal is the last surviving legacy of Sanskrit Buddhism. Buddha being born in Nepal is not the only important thing about Nepal’s Buddhism.” She finishes. And it is from here that Buddhism traveled to Tibet, China, Mongolia, and Japan, through art. “We all know the story of Arniko, who was called over to China. By the twelfth century, Nepali art was so famous that people in China wanted only Nepali artists” she explains. This art consisted of metal and stone sculpture on location, and rolled up Paubha paintings and small metal sculptures when they were travelling.

That is because Nepali art is unparalleled in beauty, she tells us. “Figures are very delicate, there is an unsurpassed sense of aesthetics, softness of modeling.” And then there is the continuity of tradition. Artists today still continue to model art in the same way as hundreds of years ago.

But in this era of modernizing, do the traditional arts stand a chance at all? “I think the traditional arts may have a better future than contemporary art,” she surprises me with her answer. “One piece of traditional art can command as much as 18,000 dollars, which contemporary art cannot.” But I remind her that traditional art much cheaper than that can be found in the tourists markets of Thamel. “The art there is created to cater to the tourist’s last dollar,” she lets out the secret. “But true traditional art is very much alive, hidden in the city if you care to look for it. But to sustain it, it is our job to let the young generation know of the value of our traditional art, so that they are inspired to put in the dedication it requires.” Awareness and media campaigns are important to make our traditional arts relevant to the younger generation, because its future is in their hands.

This is where she thinks NRNs can contribute. “Art survives on patronage. Traditional art was patronized by religious establishments, monasteries, temples, etc. Today, patrons are individuals who want to own art. The NRNs can be art’s new patrons. Every NRN displays a statue of Buddha or a Thangka painting, or some other Nepali art. This art represents their values and roots. I implore them to buy one genuine piece of art instead of many fake pieces, and thus support our artists.”

 

On the female perspective

Being a woman has affected Dina’s career as an art historian. “When I was doing my field research, there were so many things that people would not allow me to touch or see, since women were traditionally shut out from art in Nepal. What would a woman want with these? Was a frequent refrain. But I am sure I would not be questioned if I was a white woman.” That led us to the trend of Western research being valued more than Nepali ones, and the significance of our art and culture being validated only through western say-so. “All doors were opened for white scholars, not so much for us locals. I had as much knowledge as any foreign scholar, and yet I had to work harder to prove myself. I probably should not be saying this, but we still live by a kind of colonial attitude” Dina frowns. “There are so many people here in Kathmandu doing good research, but we need to put it out there, in the reach of global audience, before we can counter this trend.”

Meanwhile, the shutting out of women from art is a global phenomenon, and not limited to Nepal. “I love this statistics, in the New York Metropolitan museum, 83% of the art is female nudes, and only 3% of the artists are women” Dina informs. And the consequence of this lopsided figure is that the feelings of women are not represented as art. Such art represents women as men see them, as mere objects of desire.

A good example is Kumari, our living goddess. Since most scholarship of art has also been male, understanding of Kumari has centered on her virginity. “For us Nepali people, it is not even something we dwell on. We think about her power, values and what she represents. But now, my interest in the framing of goddesses has taken me to ask if we should be looking at her as a child with rights of her own, and if we are infringing on it with the social limitations” she says of how female art historians can bring in a new perspective. Negotiating the balance between celebrating goddesses in religion, and denigrating women in real life, is another of her research interests.


On contemporary art

Art and life form a cycle, with each influencing other. The ubiquitous male art goes on to influence society and mould our opinions of what women are. Hence, contemporary art, where women have as many opportunities of expressing themselves as men, is really important in changing these equations. “A lot of contemporary feminist movements went hand in hand with art” says Dina. Women’s art is different from men’s because in their art, women talk about their own experiences, which is going to be much more personal than a man’s art on the same subject. Though female artists may wonder why they categorized out as female, and not simply identified as artists, the distinction is important because their art is different.

Traditional artists, though very creative, could not take liberties with the actual iconography. Hence, traditional art had many limitations. Contemporary art provides way for artists to break the limitations of traditional art. In contemporary art, women have found ways to discuss subjects previously tabooed, like gender, sexuality, menstruation. They can give voice to a large section of the populace that was previously silenced, as well as tell men that they are not just objects of desire.


Finally,

Dina loves her current job, teaching, although she laments that not a single Nepali student has ever turned up in her class in fifteen years of teaching. She likes living in Qatar, which, unlike our impressions of the Middle East, is very progressive about women. She does have vague plans of coming back to Nepal, but not immediately. “Being away when I was so young allowed me to identify with my roots early on, as opposed to defining myself in the western way.” She feels that perhaps she became more attached to Nepal and Nepali art when she was away, because time in Nepal becomes so precious. “When people ask me whether I want to come back, I think the important question to ask is what you are doing for your country, whether you live in Nepal or abroad. The question I ask myself is, what can I do for my country from where I am? My way of doing it is sharing what Nepal has given to the world, in terms of art.”

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Text by: Sewa Bhattarai
Photographer: Bikkil Sthapit

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3 comments on “Dr. Dina Bangdel : The Prodigal Daughter

  1. Rosanne Primus says:

    Would love to connect with Dr. Bangdel. My husband’s Great Aunt studied under her father and we have just brought back several paintings by Mr. Bangdel and would love to know more about them. His Aunt, Miriam Frickin, would have been in Nepal in the 1950′s we are guessing. The paintings have made it to Santa Fe, New Mexico, now to Steamboat Rock, Iowa. Would love to get more information on the paintings we have. Also, one has a couple chips in the paint, probably due to the extreme dry air in new mexico. Would like more info. on restoration.

  2. Beth maccurdy wigner says:

    I’m wondering if your father ever visited Kansas City around 1966? My parents hosted him for a short time ,the MacCurdy family and I remember him. Three of us girls and on sister lived in Doha Qatar for three years. Have enjoyed reading the articles. Also the wife of our visitors was nurse to a queen. Thank you for your time.

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