Talk about Nothing (and Everything)

20 09 2010

I’ve been busy these days so I’ll lump a few posts into one instead of breaking posts down topically.

Shiva Bhairava sculpture

Shiva Bhairava (The Terrible One); Nepal; ca. 16th century; Gilt copper alloy; Rubin Museum of Art; C2005.16.14 (HAR 65436)

An American colleague at Kathmandu University Centre for Art and Design, Adam Swart, gave a talk on Himalayan art earlier this week. Adam was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal a while back and after returning to the States, began working at the Rubin Museum of (Himalayan) Art in New York City. Now he’s back in Nepal teaching art and working on museum projects. The Rubin was built after I moved away from NYC to Iowa, but it looks spectacular and I’ll have to visit next time I’m in NYC. I checked out their website and I love their current lecture series, a nod to Buddhism, entitled Talk about Nothing. The description states that:

  • “How we perceive and conceive of what is and what isn’t is a universal question. It may, in fact, be the biggest question. It is at the heart of Buddhism’s Diamond Sutra, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. And here at the Rubin Museum of Art–itself, a museum of ideas–we have brought together some of the world’s most active minds to talk about…nothing. There will be a lot to say.”  -Tim McHenry, Producer

Adam discussed the Rubin’s collection scope of Himalayan countries, including Mongolia, which isn’t really that close to the Himalayas but whose work is stylistically similar because, historically, Mongolians employed Himalayan (specifically Newar) artists. He showed representations of objects and images from various Himalayan cultures through time and the ways in which influences traveled from place to place through travel and trade (e.g. Silk Road).

I’ve  been teaching much more lately and my schedule is really filled these days between classes, workshops, my own research, and day-to-day life in Kathmandu. Because Kathmandu is the capital city, there’s a lot happening. I also attended a gallery reception and lecture for an exhibit of Nepali and Indian photographers entitled Rivers of Pilgrimage. Since I’m photographing sacred water sites in Nepal, the exhibit timing couldn’t have been more perfect. There are so many festivals and rituals involving water here (and in India) that I feel like I need another grant to even begin tackling the vastness of this topic! Speaking of water, I attended a fundraiser for Pakistani flood victims the other night. In Cedar Rapids, we were all affected by the 2008 floods somehow, which maybe makes the devastating images from Pakistan hit home for Iowans. The area impacted by the Pakistan floods is larger than the entire country of Nepal. I’ll just let that fact stand on its own.

Kumari on IndraJatra

Kathmandu's Kumari on the eve of the 2007 Indra Jatra (Photo credit: Manjari Shrestha)

There’s a little interruption in life this week because guess what? Another holiday is here! This Wednesday is Indra Jatra to celebrate the symbolic end of the monsoon when, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Kumari (living child goddess) makes her yearly appearance in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. You can read more about Kumaris here but briefly, the Kumari is revered and worshipped by Nepali Hindus and some Nepali Buddhists. Kumaris are chosen when they are quite young and their goddess role ends when they reach puberty. The autobiography From Goddess to Mortal, written by former Kumari Rashmila Shakya (in conjunction with author Scott Berry) attempts to dispel Kumari myths such as that it’s bad luck to marry a former Kumari (they do marry, but have to deal with this stigma). Fascinating reading if you have the time and interest. Traditionally, Kumaris bless Nepal’s ruler on Indra Jatra but since Nepal’s monarchy was abolished a few years ago and there is currently no prime minister due to political in-fighting, I’m wondering who the Kumari will bless? I’ll let you know when I find out.




13 responses

14 10 2010

Why they aren’t Kumaris anymore after reaching puberty?

18 10 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Ndage,

The history of how the kumari tradition came into being involves a story about a girl. Since puberty represents the threshold between childhood and adulthood, the kumari can no longer be a kumari after she hits puberty. There are a couple different versions of the story in the kumari tradition but both include a young girl inhabited or possessed by a goddess, who is treated poorly by the then king. To make up for his bad behavior, that king and all future kings must worship a young girl chosen as the kumari. Because Nepal was, until not that long ago, a country of smaller kingdoms, there is more than one kumari. However, the kumari tradition associated with Indra Jatra is specific to Kathmandu.

3 10 2010

You mention that you are a guest critic. Have you had problems with intercultural or international ideas that you have, that just don’t translate well. That is, you critique and they just don’t understand why you want it that way or may be offended….

3 10 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi William,

A couple points to clarify:
1. The critique process is not about telling people you want something done YOUR way. The process responds to ideas and issues presented by the student as a way to further THEIR work and THEIR ideas. Sometimes if feels like critics are imposing ideas, but those who feel that way are often resistant to change.
2. I’m working in collaboration with Nepali organizations and institutions wanting to effect change in their own country. They are guiding my actions and words. If I have an idea about something I want to try, I run it by them first for their feedback in order to avoid seeming as though I’m foisting Western ideas onto Nepal.

After many conversations, and armed with my prior knowledge of the culture, I approach teaching situations with some confidence. However, there are instances where I search (without success) for an analogy or metaphor to help explain concepts. Within the classroom, there is always someone to serve as translator if there are misunderstandings or confusion. Today, for example, I attempted to define the word “cliché”. I needed someone with a prior knowledge of clichés and Nepali-language fluency to rattle off a few Nepali clichés. This is the type of fluency that only comes with years of practice…something I don’t have. Other than that, it’s amazing what you can communicate through body/sign language.

29 09 2010
Amanda Walker

That mask reminds me of something….oh ya, we just had to turn in all of our masks the other day! We had to study a cultures mask traditions, I see that the picutre of the mask you have posted is from the 16th century. Can you tell me more about the Nepal’s past/present mask traditions? Why they used them, and what the symbols and colors mean?

3 10 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Amanda,

You ask a good question but I’m afraid that Nepalese masks aren’t my specialization. One general characteristic that will be familiar to you from any Halloween outing or horror film, is that the person wearing the mask becomes the mask’s identity. We might be freaked out if we see someone on a dark night wearing a “Jason” mask from any of the Halloween films but a Bhairab mask (one of the Hindu gods) probably doesn’t do much for us. However, the Bhairab mask is significant for Kathmandu Nepalis, especially having just celebrated the Indra Jatra holiday where Bhairab is featured everywhere in the main squares. There are too many colors and symbols for me to analyze as there are 5,000+ Hindu gods/goddesses and many demons and sainted lamas within Buddhism.

28 09 2010
Ryan Kennebeck

I read that you are teaching and was wondering what kind of art are you teaching them?

28 09 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Ryan,

Since my arrival and departure don’t neatly coincide with Nepal’s semester system, I haven’t been assigned by own classes. Instead, I’m like a guest critic but I do work regularly with a group of senior painting/drawing students and a group of sophomore printmakers. In addition, I’ll be conducting a special week-long printmaking workshop. I’m not teaching any particular style of art but responding to and hopefully guiding students further in their current work.


28 09 2010
Ryan Kennebeck

O that is cool. What types of printmaking will be in the workshop

30 09 2010
Kathryn Hagy

Hi Ryan,

I’ve been asked to teach printmaking methods that aren’t normally taught here as a way to expand Nepali artist’s notions of printmaking. There are 3 (and only 3) art colleges in Nepal and I’ve been to all of them. Only 2 of those colleges teach printmaking and they teach relief (woodcut & linoleum cut), various forms of etching such as line etching & aquatint, and some collagraph. There may be other methods sprinkled in, but those are the main ones. That being the case, I’m teaching experimental monotype techniques, pochoir (a low-tech version of screenprinting), drypoint on plexiglas instead of metal, and an experimental form of aquatint using a sand-like material glued to mylar. Basically, these are all contemporary printmaking methods that turn the traditional methods on their heads in order to expand people’s creativity. We’ll see how it goes!


22 09 2010
Ben Kromminga

Hey, I was curious as to what the criteria is that you have to meet in order to be a Kumari?

23 09 2010
Kathryn Hagy

The choosing of the Kathmandu Kumari is a closely guarded secret. I can tell you that she must be from the Newari indigenous ethnic group (original inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley), specifically from the Buddhist Shakya clan/caste (descendants of Buddha) and she is usually 3-5 years old, and a virgin. The remaining “requirements” may be urban legend, so take them with a grain of salt. They say a prospective Kumari must have no wounds on her body from injuries and have suffered no past injuries where she might have spilled blood. She must have the type of personality (difficult for a 3-5 year old) that can withstand emotionally challenging and scary circumstances. Her courage and wits are supposedly determined by putting her alone into a dark chamber filled with severed animal heads and loud noises. If she shows no fear and doesn’t cry, she passes the test to become the next Kumari. There are other Kumaris besides the Kathmandu one, but she is the royal Kumari celebrated in the Indra Jatra festival. The other Kumaris are chosen in different ways and lead different lives.

23 09 2010
Ben Kromminga

Interesting, thanks for the info. Definitely a different way of looking at life than what we have in Western culture!

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