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The Paubha Crusader

June 14, 2013 , by Supriya Rai, Leave your thoughts
The Paubha Crusader » My Dreams Mag
Renuka Gurung’s story of undeterred determination and dedication to Paubha is truly inspirational. Her absolute devotion to this art form she stumbled across 13 yrs ago, has made her an unlikely crusader of Paubha today.

Renuka Gurung has an extraordinary tale. She was a wildlife biologist specialising in Rhinoceros studies when her budding interest in thangka paintings manifested into art classes with the master Lok Chitrakar. For the keen student, the beginning itself should have been a premonition of the magnitude of her undertaking.  An arduous journey that is at once intimidating and truly awe-inspiring.

A two year chase resulted in a reluctant Chitrakar willing to take her on. One can imagine her frustration upon discovering that the elusive master lived only 20 minutes from her home all the while. Furthermore, a few months into the course, she learned that she was not learning her coveted craft thangka, but Paubha, the precursor of thangka.

The painter dissolves into fits of laughter as she exclaims, “The sky fell on my head! I was not happy at all. I went back home and cursed my oversight. I told myself I am not going back. But my curiosity was piqued- I did my research and found out that Paubha was an overlooked art form of the Newars. The more I looked, the deeper I fell into its story. I had to go back then and I haven’t looked back since.”

Today she leads a one woman crusade to conserve this crumbling art form for the generations to come. A PHD student at The Princes School of Traditional Arts in London, she has spent seven years researching the background, history, evolution, practices and traditions, techniques, and cultural significance of Paubha. In between, she has managed to squeeze in workshops, seminars, exhibitions, cataloguing of Paubha artists, and publication of materials on the art form.

When she is back in Nepal for her breaks, she is either knocking on university doors to gain permission to share her expertise among art students, or scouring for traditional artists who might be willing to share their stories with her. A pit-less hunger for knowledge and indomitable curiosity marks this personality- all the more remarkable because her drive comes from an honest, uncorrupted devotion to art and not the promises of remuneration or prestige.

In fact everything Gurung has done so far, to raise the profile of Paubha, has been done voluntarily. She is as generous with her time as she is with her knowledge.

So what exactly is Paubha?

Paubha is one of the indigenous paintings of Nepal practiced by Buddhist Newar communities of the valley since time immemorial. Elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and nature worship combine in a ritualistic spiritual practice that culminates in the form of sacred paintings. Bearing close similarities to Pattachitra of India and icon painting of Christianity, Paubha is an endangered art form that faces real risk of extinction.

The challenges come from the fact that very little of old Paubha art had survived. Also the techniques, the philosophy, and the methodology involved were guarded zealously by the Gurus and painters, the secrets passed down from one generation to next only verbally. Additionally, this art form that was once an integral part of every festival and puja, has dwindled away due to the use of printed images for veneration.

Renuka elucidates that in a sense this art in its purest form has already vanished as contemporary painters have all but discontinued the many spiritual and ritualistic aspects of preparing Paubha. No longer do they conduct any initiation rites or follow the iconographical guidelines. Images are traced on rather than drawn freehand and painted in a 3-D way that is specifically forbidden by the text.

Perhaps owing exactly to that, the relationship between Paubha priests and painters has reached an uncomfortable stalemate. The priests, who are the bearer of the philosophical, iconographical knowledge behind these paintings feel disconnected from the painters who have become increasingly commercialized in their approach to this art form.

The concerned artist endeavours to act as a bridge between these two factions. Apart from that she is also working to guarantee recognition of women’s contribution to Paubha. Until now, the specialized tasks that women carry out– like the preparation of the canvas by a virgin girl and concoction of mineral pigments–have been unfairly brushed aside as only assistance by the male painters.

The fact that Gurung is the only female Paubha painter to have gained recognition alone speaks volumes of the status of females in Paubha painting. The visionary’s hope thus is social inclusion. She strives to unite the painters, priests, patrons, and the public in a conscious effort to break down the barriers of caste system, territorial covertness, and gender to ensure the survival of Paubha.

The artist elaborates, “In the Lichhavi period, art was a collective effort. It was the Malla Raj that introduced the caste system, limiting that privilege to selected groups. But today, we can no longer afford to keep up these barriers of caste. Our rich heritage is slipping from our hands every second. Before it is too late, we need to institutionalize the traditional arts and share our knowledge with everyone.”

Renuka hopes to mark the end of her research degree with the establishment of a school of traditional arts in Nepal. She insists that it is not the infrastructure that is lacking here but quality education. She hopes for an institution that will focus on reintroducing exacting methods, true guidelines and reviving forgotten traditions back to the society to a new generation of students.

It is disheartening the painter admits that foreigners show more interest in our traditions than our fellow countrymen.

“I want to shake these young kids and tell them. Look around you! We are not a poor country. Our country is steeped in culture, traditions and wisdom. You need to go back to your traditions to nurture your roots before you move upwards in life.”

The conservationist quotes one of her professors who proclaimed, “Everything of value is in the East.” Sadly to her despair no one in Nepal seems to care that our traditional wisdom is getting lost in the haze of urbanization.

“I know a mask maker, Poorna Chitrakar. He invests months making masks for the ceremony during Dashain festival. And for all his efforts, how do you think he is rewarded? I encourage his son to learn the skills from him, but where is the incentive for him to learn the trade?” A pensive Gurung continues, “What is the point of honouring an artist once they are gone? We have to appreciate and support them while they are alive.”

In June, Ms. Gurung will be exhibiting her work at the end of year degree show in London. July 15th will mark the start of a short course on Paubha at her university, with the artist herself at the helm.

As she puts it, “Of course, it is not a compulsion… but it is the younger generation’s responsibility to take our traditions forward.”

She is keeping her fingers crossed about seeing young Nepali students there.

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