Paubha is not an art form that is practised widely, but rather within particular confines of tradition passed on over generations,” said veteran Paubha artist Lok Chitrakar, “Contrary to modern genres, where the artist is allowed to unleash his imagination, Paubha manifests a deeply-disciplined approach with specific rules and rituals.”
Chitrakar's thesis is at the heart of this lesser-known art form. Although the original form of the much-more popular Thangka, Paubha is mistaken to be the Nepali version of the Tibetan art form. Paubha remains an exclusive representation of the Valley Newars’ cultural sophistication. The oldest-known example—an image of the Ratna Sambhav—now adorns the walls of the Los Angeles County Museum in the US, and belongs to the early 13th century.
A typical Paubha is made on a cotton cloth stretched across a wooden frame. A mixture of saresh (buffalo glue) and sapeta (white clay) is painted uniformly on the surface. The cotton is left to dry in the shadow. A portion of the dry cotton is then slightly moistened to allow the saresh-sapeta mixture to be evenly distributed. A smooth stone is rubbed on the cloth to absorb the remaining moisture. The rubbing continues till the surface is smooth and fine. Thus, a Paubha canvas takes shape.
Paubhas were originally made for religious purposes as an integral part of Newar ceremonies. However, over time this purpose has been replaced by aesthetics; artists now make Paubha only because of their love and admiration of it.
Paubha symbolises religious and spiritual feelings directed by concrete stylistics and motifs that involve very specific use of pose, style and body structures. Paubha artist Deepak Kumar Joshi says, “The Buddha’s eyes are always half-open in the paintings.” This symbolism is because the Buddha is “looking both inside and outside himself.” Linings are vital in Paubha, but shadings are not allowed. However, slight shading is being used nowadays.
The art form has been experiencing a gradual erosion of its traditional values. Modern Paubhas do not strictly adhere to the iconography and iconometry laid out in the scriptures.
Paubhas in the Valley are either stolen or lost. One can find a few Paubhas that publicly exist at Bhaktapur and Chaauni Museums; they are also inscribed at the Golden Temple in Patan. Old Paubhas can also be found at the Kumari Ghar in Hanumandhoka and Bal Bhairav in Kirtipur. But they are not categorised as different from the Thangkas, which makes it difficult to recognise them.
The history of Paubha is as old as the history of the Valley itself. The 5th century Chinese traveller Fa-Hien recorded the wall paintings on Kathmandu’s houses—it is thought this is the first recorded evidence of Paubha. The art form is supposed to have been taken to Tibet in the 7th century after the Nepali princess Bhrikuti was married to King Songtsän Gampo. Archaeological evidence only supports the idea that Bhrikuti took statues and other metal crafts with her, but experts claim the inclusion of Paubhas as gifts. Wall paintings influenced by Paubha can still be found in the Tibetan monasteries of Gyantse, Shalu and Shakhya. There is a conjecture that even Araniko, the 13th century Nepali artisan, was a Paubha artist himself and took it to China. A Paubha painting supposedly done by him in the 13th century is now in the Cleveland Museum. Ideas supporting this issue have also been highlighted by Steven M. Kossac in his book Sacred Vision.
Throughout history, Paubha has been influenced by invasive cultures. During the Malla era, the Valley’s culture increasingly became influenced by the Mughals in India. The Paubhas then began to feature mountains with clouds and birds. The deities’ faces were also drawn in a side view—a feature directly influenced by Mughal Paintings. A visual example of this is the series depicting the life of Krishna at Patan Museum. Towards the end of the Malla era, Paubha faced a threat of extinction with invading Shah Kings. From then on, the art form was sidelined by contemporary art.
Still, it seems surprising that a market for the form still exists, albeit outside Nepal. But that is a problem as well, as artists have to move away from traditional methods to creating works determined by the buyers—the major buyers are from Japan, US, and Thailand.
Paubha as an art form has the potential to represent the Nepali identity in the international art community. This technique can be defined as a part of the national heritage, but as of now, there aren’t many efforts towards that end.
Posted on: 2010-07-10 08:44