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Expressions of devotion

Images courtesy: Seema Sharma Shah and Uma Shankar Shah

Publication Date : 25-03-2013


The Siddhartha Art Gallery in Kathmandu is hosting the return of two master printmakers who have been away from galleries for far too long


Saturday morning, and inside a house on the foothills of Kathmandu's Swayambhunath, the residents are surreptitiously working away, preparing for a grand return. Dr Seema Sharma Shah and Uma Shankar Shah are planning their new exhibition, seven years after their last shows in Nepal. “When our son was younger, we traded roles between being the exhibiting artist and the parent,” explains Uma Shankar. “But now that he is older, it’s been much easier.”

It’s been more than a decade since the Shahs have been living and creating art in Chhauni in Nepal's capital, where they have set up a studio. These fulltime parents and professors are occupied year-round and have been missed at Nepali galleries, but their absence is rather excused by the headway they have been making in India.

Expressions of Devotion will not only see the return of these two master printmakers to the city's Siddhartha Art Gallery this month, but will also mark another special occasion: It is the first time the couple will be exhibiting together and alone in the same space.

The two met at the Banaras Hindu University in India, and affter moving to Nepal in the 90s and churning out some extraordinary work, the Shahs could now be said to represent the canon of Nepali printmaking, along with fellow artist Raghini Upadhayay. Together, they have employed ingenious methods in creating unique prints to ameliorate the value of their work. “There was a tradition of destroying a plate to create more value, but we started adding on to the print manually, to make them singular” says Uma Shankar, whose new works have been retouched and/or layered with screen-prints. Similarly, Seema uses stencils to add embellishment to her prints. And besides the technique, there are other qualities their two collections share.

Although working with different subjects - the 'Ramayana' and 'Avatar' -thematically, the individual series compliment one another. “Post-modernism has seen many an artist revert back to and identifying with their roots,” a sentiment both artists repeatedly express as the new direction for art.

In the time spent away from Nepali galleries, Uma Shankar’s once colourful and surreal cityscapes, for instance, have been replaced by figures and stories of the Hindu epic, much closer to the figurative work of his partner. With Ramayana, the artist explores the Maithili kingdom for inspiration. Born in the southern and historically significant city of Janakpur himself, he has set aside ample space in his compositions to include a vast wealth of traditional motifs. But there are also a few prints where influences from Kathmandu make the frame. 'Santiyagya', whose namesake oil paintings have been previously exhibited by the artist, make a reappearance as prints -with a Maithili ‘flavour’ - as the artist calls it. “Back then, I made the oil paintings to symbolise the need for peace in Kathmandu; now I have replicated the work because we need peace in the South as well,” says Uma Shankar. And similar reasons had led the artist to choose the Hindu epic Ramayana as a foundation for his current work, too: “[Characters in the Ramayana] represent the visceral struggle inside of each man, the good and bad aspects that are present in all of us.”

Seema’s series, Avatar, in the same regard, is also wrapped around the possibilities of representation, but the focus is on multiple deities, including Ram. Her figurative strengths are obvious at first glance in the eight different types of the Hindu deity Ganesha, or the nine incarnations of Durga that is part of the collection, among others, and there is a familiarity about the series that stems from her work from the past decade. Seema’s pieces heavily incorporate the influences of Kathmandu, which has been downplayed in Uma Shankar’s collection.

With extensive research (a video installation will detail these sources) and travel, these two artists have created a strong collection of panoramic prints. Sentiments of devotion are apparent in the subject matter, scale and the intricacy of the duo’s work. Most important of all, their temporary absence from the Nepali scene has created a level of excitement about their work that can now finally be satiated.

Expressions of Devotion will be on display until April 17.


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