Rajman and Hodgson

From The Republica Daily (23 March, 2016)

Kanak Mani Dixit & Shamik Mishra

As Nepal turns the corner from conflict, transition, sociopolitical polarization, earthquake and blockade, to revive our spirit we must reach back into history to come up with inspiring personalities. As Prime Minister KP Oli breaks new ground in the Kathmandu-Beijing relationship, for example, we would do well to understand better the life and work of Arniko, the architect who went on to become minister in the court of Kublai Khan, introducing Kathmandu Valley ethos and architecture to the Yuan court.

Back in Kathmandu, at this point of social and economic transition, we have British Prince Harry visiting, here with the clear intention of helping Nepal along through the medium of post-earthquake reconstruction and tourist-led revival. With the UK-Nepal relationship having hit some puzzling potholes recently, and the prince’s visit coinciding with the 200th year of the Sugauli Treaty, we have the opportunity to delve into the rich tapestry of the bilateral relationship.

The history of Nepal’s links with Great Britain is peopled by personalities, none more exciting than the polymath Resident, Brian Houghton Hodgson, who served in Kathmandu starting at the time of Bhimsen Thapa in 1820 till 1843. Remembering Hodgson allows us to delve into the locals he valued as scholars and colleagues, such as Pandit Amritananda Shakya of Patan who helped open up the doors to Western Buddhist scholarship through the medium of Hodgson, and the artist Rajman Singh Chitrakar.

The Nepal landscape

Referred to by Hodgson as “my Bauddha citrakar”, Rajman was one of several artists among the Chitrakar kinfolk he drafted to paint and illustrate in the range of disciplines that the Resident was interested in. Rajman’s oeuvre, therefore, mirrored that of his mentor and employer’s research pursuits, which were diverse even by the standards of the Victorian age and the other research-minded ‘sahibs’ of British India.

Hodgson was an avid collector of manuscripts on Buddhism and Hinduism as well as of religious iconography. He researched the ethnography and linguistics of the host society, recorded details of the temples and monuments in the Valley, and studied the natural history of the Himalayan region. He published extensively on all these topics.

Nepal’s rich heritage of fine arts, including the poubha style of religious painting, tended to stylise the views and streetscapes, and it was Rajman’s generation that first engaged in Western style realism. It was Hodgson who provided Rajman with the graphite pencil, probably also coaching him on the novel techniques required to realistically illustrate landscapes, architecture and objects of natural history.

This is how Rajman Singh emerged as a ‘landscape artist’, perhaps Nepal’s very first. If it were not for Rajman, we would have had to rely only on the arriving Westerners who happened to paint, including the doctor in the British Residency, Henry Ambrose Oldfield, whose water colors have been useful in reconstructing several lost structures. Other Westerners who have left behind Nepal landscapes are Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, Henry Montgomery Lawrence and Hermann Schlagintweit, and the Nepali artists who followed on the trail blazed by Rajman include Bhajuman Chitrakar and Kajiman Karmacharya.

Camera lucida

Artist and art historian Madan Chitrakar credits Rajman Singh Chitrakar as the pioneer artist introducing Western “light and shade and perspectives”. For someone steeped in the traditions of poubha art, Rajman’s output indicated a major shift to landscape and architectural drawings, also on occasion making use of the camera lucida technique to draw perspectives.

Jeremiah Losty, an expert on South Asian archival prints, drawings and photographs, writes that Rajman’s drawings created a stir when they arrived in London. There was even some criticism that the illustrations ‘fantasized’, due to the technique of ‘amalgamation’ that was also practiced by reputed artists of the time. From Losty’s observations, we know that Rajman’s body of work was known to the contemporary world of arts and scientific illustration in Europe.

Study of the sketches by Rajman without doubt will inform us about the Valley’s spaces in historical time. A set of drawings available in Kathmandu, from the collection of the Royal Asiatic Society in London, depict temples, stupas and palaces, with the inhabitants also pictured in local attire. The prints have the artist’s descriptions in Devnagari in pencil, with Hodgson’s pen adding information in English.

Among the drawings is one showing the Ashok stupa at Pulchowk with a set of great buildings at the back that is not there today. While most artists would look north towards the Himalayan ramparts, a fine landscape sketch has Rajman turning southwest from what is probably the Bhainsepati area, marking the Chobar gorge (“Cho Vihar”) and the hills as backdrop with their original Newari names scribbled by Hodgson.

Rajman was equally adept at paintings of birds and mammals. Illustrating natural history is a fine act of balance between science and art, and teamwork between the scientist and artist, in this case, Hodgson and Rajman. One can well imagine the importance of Rajman’s natural history output to the study of wildlife biology and ornithology at the time, especially given his fidelity to the specimen.

Remembering good men

Hodgson is well known in the world of scholarship, and historian Ramesh Dhungel spent three years completing cataloguing the Hodgson collection at the British Library, on a fellowship established by the effort of scholars Michael Hutt, Charles Ramble, David Gellner and others. Now it is time to understand better the life of Rajman Singh Chitrakar.

Rajman produced his works at a time when photography was in its infancy, and the contribution of his paintings and illustrations to the knowledge corpus of the 19th century, therefore, will make for fascinating research. Equally, we must research Rajman the person, about whom we know so little.

Thanks to scholars Harihar Raj and Indu Joshi, we know that the artist lived in Guchha Tole of Kathmandu town. One would surmise that he was born at the turn of the 18th century and lived past middle of the 19th. It is likely he did not marry and had no children. We do not even have a picture of this master artist, but a portrait of Rajman as imagined by Madan Chitrakar (à la the portrait of the poet Bhanubhakta) provides us with material to mull over.

Rajman’s works lie scattered across Europe, the US and South Asia, mainly in the collections of the British Library and British Museum (London), Asiatic Society of Bengal (Kolkota), Musée Guimet (Paris) and the Royal Asiatic Society. One can only express amazement at the accomplishments of a Nepal Valley artist of the 19th century, whose works, thanks to Hodgson, were circulated internationally and appreciated. But about whom our own society knows precious little.

(Note: 40 paintings by Rajman Singh Chitrakar are being prepared for exhibition at the Taragaon Museum, in collaboration with the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya archives. The original prints are kept at the Royal Asiatic Society, London.)
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