May 18, 2017 10:00 am JST

Creativity rises from the rubble of Nepal's 2015 earthquake

Artists touched by tragedy put their emotions on display

DEEPAK ADHIKARI, Contributing writer

Installation piece “Infinite Mirror” by Mahima Singh echoes the rubble of Kasthamandap Temple, which collapsed in the 2015 quake. (Courtesy Mahima Singh)

KATHMANDU On April 25, 2015, about 50 people had gathered in the centuries-old Kasthamandap Temple in central Kathmandu to donate blood. The blood donation camp, organized by Nimbus Savings and Credit Co-operative, was about to wrap up. But just before noon, it was jolted by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake.

The three-story pagoda, built in the seventh century, collapsed, killing 10 people, including Nima Singh, a 25-year-old who worked at the cooperative as an accountant.

Nima's elder sister, Mahima Singh, a 33-year-old artist and art teacher, struggled to come to terms with her death for almost a year. "We were not particularly close, but her death left me disturbed and confused for a long time," she told the Nikkei Asian Review. Nima was the youngest of four. Three months after Nima's death, their father, a retired banker, also died.

Mahima Singh, a graduate from the Korea National University of Arts in Seoul, was aware of art's potential to heal people coping with trauma. But she was doubtful when it came to applying the theory to her own life. "I knew about self-healing through art, but I turned to movies and even began teaching arts for school students," she said.

While searching online, she learned about pointillism, a 19th century European art technique that uses dots to form an image. She began applying dots to a portrait of her sister. "I wanted to convey the fragility of life. So I used the points over the portraits to denote the fact that life is transient," said Singh. "I wanted to show that life disappears like a drop of water."

An installation of her work, titled "Infinite Mirror," featured a pillar resembling a wooden structure of the Kasthamandap Temple, and was shown in February at Bikalpa Art Center, in Lalitpur, south of Kathmandu, which Singh co-founded with her artist husband Saroj Mahato. Singh is now working on a series of portraits called "Impermanence." She hopes to create portraits of as many earthquake victims as possible. "I am collecting photographs of them," she said. "The earthquake also united people. We all shared the same kind of pain and fear. I want to portray that in my art."

Singh is one of several Nepalese artists who have used the devastating earthquake as a source for creative expression, offering a new way to look at the natural disaster and its impact. The earthquake left almost 9,000 people dead and about 20,000 wounded, with around 1 million homes and other buildings destroyed or damaged -- the country's worst natural disaster since an earthquake in 1934. Rebuilding has been sluggish, thanks to political wrangling and bureaucratic delays.

PRECIOUS ARTIFACTS On the day the earthquake struck, 39-year-old conceptual artist Rabindra Shrestha was in his ground floor apartment in the neighborhood of Jorpati in Kathmandu. He grabbed his camera and set out to capture the devastation caused by the quake, visiting three ancient palace squares in the Kathmandu Valley designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The earthquake had damaged nearly 500 temples and monuments in the valley.

"People were rushing to safer places, but the precious artifacts of the temples lay under the rubble. There were carved windows and beams, sculptures of deities," he recalled. "Our temples are like world-class universities. You see different things every time you visit a temple," said Shrestha, who recently completed a visiting artist program at Harvard University.

Although it pained him to see the loss of heritage, Shrestha turned the experience into inspiration. In March, his solo exhibition of nine pen and ink paintings portraying the impact of the earthquake on the country's heritage went on display at Taragaon Museum, in the premises of a Kathmandu hotel. Alongside a canvas depicting Hindu goddesses superimposed upon a sea creature from Hindu mythology was his signature artwork series called "Fingerprint Art," which embodies the connection between every human being.

"The earthquake has not only resulted in the loss of lives and heritage, it has also helped people connect with one another," Shrestha told the Nikkei Asian Review. His collection of earthquake survivors' thumb prints bears a red line to signify blood. He also exhibited several miniature frames of the paintings during his fellowship at Harvard. "Fingerprints are unique to every person. The red line indicates that in some way all we human beings are inter-connected," he said.

Meena Kayastha's sculptures focus on the Hindu goddess Nava Durga, believed to be a protector of Bhaktapur, one of three former royal cities in the Kathmandu Valley. A native of the city, whose name in Nepalese means a "town of devotees," Kayastha was anguished by the sight of the centuries-old monuments and temples, along with traditional homes, lying in ruins.

A month after the earthquake, she collected about 20 doors that had been discarded, and worked on them for almost a year, giving them a new lease of life as art. Her mixed-media work "Divine Debris," which incorporates acrylic painting and an assortment of old and new jewelry, was exhibited at Siddhartha Art Gallery in Kathmandu in early January.

Bhaktapur serves as a living museum to visitors and a workshop for craftsmen and artists, inspiring young people to pursue arts. But Kayastha said she was also inspired by her artist father, Raj Kumar Manandhar, who created murals, and learned from her mother that discarded materials could be valuable.

Kayastha's parents' home was severely damaged in the quake, and her close friend was killed, his body pulled out of the debris two days after the tremor. But Kayastha said she felt an urge to put aside mourning and create artwork dedicated to her favorite deity. "The earthquake causes death and destruction, but it also inspires people," she said. "The sculptures created out of salvaged doors would be the best vehicle to convey my emotion."

In the aftermath, it dawned on her that the doors also served as passages allowing people to flee to safety. "The door is the first object that a person living indoors struggles with after an earthquake," she said. "My message is that everyone should be alert all the time because we live in a place where natural disasters are routine."

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