Kiran Manandhar, the flamboyant abstract expressionist’s favourite statement is “I cannot paint anything else but women.” This may also be true for most traditional Nepali artists who usually paint Goddesses. Our art is mostly women based. In fact, the biggest inspiration for artists all over the world is women. Women in all forms, shapes, sizes, colour, age and depicting every possible situation and emotion.
Looking back at the development of art in Nepal, for hundreds of years, women have always been painted in divine forms in paubhas with utmost devotion from the artists as their art requires them to reflect religious sentiments and faith. Then came the impressionists’ during the Rana era who painted in European styles but mostly focused on landscapes and portraits of the ruling class. Women were not the main subject. The abstract modernists in the 60s like Bangdel painted women but were not the focus of his attention. It was only in the 70s that an audacious Kiran Manandhar came into the scene and portrayed women continuously similar to the traditionalists painting Goddesses.
What inspired him to be so dedicated to paint his fish eyed, sharp nosed beauties who have now become a trademark of Nepali contemporary art? Unlike the traditional portrayal of Tara, Vasundhara, Kurukulla and other deities, this abstract fish eyed beauty is not a Hindu or Buddhist deity. Who is she? Where did her inspiration come from?
It so happens that while on a field trip in 1975 to the Khajuraho temples as a student of Visual Arts in Banaras Hindu University, Kiran was spellbound by the high relief carved sculptures on the temple walls. This 10th century temple has been an inspiration for many artists in the subcontinent to learn about women’s figures. The sensual postures, curvaceous bodies and exquisite carvings and expressions have simply enraptured many artists. Kiran was no exception, he was totally awed by the architecture, the ambience and the smoothly carved female figurines. He was so mesmerised that he immediately began to magically sketch the Khajuraho figures, which remain his first drawings of women.
In 1976, Kiran attended the Mardi Gras festival in Chennai. While loitering on the beach, observing the ocean, the eyes and mouth of the fish struck him. It was very sensuous and womanly – well rounded, shapely and expressive. At some point during the thrilling and ingenious vibes of the Mardi Gras festival, the similarities between fishes and young women struck Kiran. Physically, both have elegant lithe bodies, eyes that glimmer with hope, and hungry luscious lips. Figuratively, both are heading towards destinations deep and unknown across the seas. Analysing the similarities, he turned the eyes of his feminine figures as a shape of a fish and along with it came the signature pouty lips.
Kiran Manandhar’s women are usually depicted in vibrant playful backgrounds but in meaningful situations. If he portrays a group of women, then they can be seen in serious conversations or in deep contemplation. It seems like the group of women are always talking about something purposeful and have a mission to fulfil. This you can simply feel and see it in the eyes itself. Though a simple oval shape, the eyes are the window to the soul of the art and the interpretation of his paintings is instantly derived from the eyes.
If a sole woman is painted, then she is usually in a powerful situation of womanhood like the recently painted “Love and Passion” which shows a mother breastfeeding her child. Here again the closed droopy fish eyes depict such pure eternal love for her child.
Traditional artists have focused on women’s posture, hand gestures, ornaments and the emotions evoked through the eyes has either been wrathful or compassionate as per the significance of the deity. But what about emotions of happiness, pain, sorrow, determination, longing, and other feelings? Such intensity and range of a woman’s feelings can be continuously seen in Kiran’s paintings. The passion and power of a lover, the compassion of a mother, the desire of a wife, the solidarity of friends is sensed and perceived in abstract but deeper meanings. As Kiran, himself says, “I think abstract forms emanate from the act of getting deeper into the form and discovering what may not be easily possible for everyone to do.”
Each of Kiran Manandhar’s painting has a story of a woman behind it whether the subject is national or personal. As he says “My art expresses my joy, my sorrow and my attitude towards social issues.” His feelings, his abstract medium, and his hallmark fish eyes has expressed the story of contemporary Nepali women for decades now. Herein lies “herstory” of many of us on canvas.
Reference: Discussions with Sagar Manandhar