Curatorial Text by Sujan Chitrakar for
Samaahit | Abstract Paintings | Nabendra Limbu
He was painting a strange still life in a corner of a sculpture studio when I first noticed him. I felt compelled to share our tutor’s hint with him: the bigger the object being drawn, the better the composition. He gave a blunt reply: ‘I am not interested in the object itself – I am contemplating the negative space around it.’ I was taken aback a bit – who knew if this young man was an eccentric or a genius? I quietly went back to my own work. It was the early 1990s; Nabendra Limbu and I were first-year students at the Lalitkala Campus.
It did not take very long for us to become good friends – we both were passionate about art. Occasionally, he would bring tea in an old Japanese thermos flask and a few fancy liquor bottles to add flavor to our repetitious still-life drawing projects. We were among the very few who stayed behind to continue working on our assignments. We had won over the watchman with samosas and Nabendra’s homemade tea so that we could sneak back into our studios in the evenings to continue painting. After long, exhausting yet contented hours, he would ride his old Chinese Phoenix cycle home.
We also saved our pocket money to buy cheap Drawing Course magazines from a roadside vendor and exchanged them with each other to read everything we could find. We frequented the nearby fields and villages to create landscape paintings, but we also never missed any exhibition in town since they were such rare events. Sometimes, I would go to his studio and be amazed to see furniture and tools of his own creation. He would show off his father’s collection of tools and the things around the house that he and his father had made with their own hands: from the chicken coop to Nabendra’s studio easel. These objects still retained the rough surfaces and jagged edges of something infused with the passion of the person who made them.
As the years passed, Nabendra’s eccentricity found a greater canvas: his brother would sometimes call me in absolute panic because Nabendra had gone missing for days. After an absence of a week or two, he would return after hiding out in a distant village. I and my friend Roshan Mishra would visit him to hear about his eccentric escapades. Then, triumphantly, he would show us his new sketches.
Once, he disappeared for a long stretch. We didn’t pay much heed – Nabendra has gone off on one of his long hideaways in the hills around Kathmandu, we thought. When he did reappear eventually, he brought with his stories from much farther afield: he had managed to disappear into India, carrying his rolled up paintings in a rucksack! His plan had been to track down any artist of repute in the city of Patna and show them his work. We laughed at his eccentric daring, but quietly I envied him for his courage and spirit of adventure.
As I was leaving for further studies in India, Nabendra gave me a gift: a reed pen and dip-nib that he had made. I made frequent use of his gift through my freshman year and boasted about it to my classmates. He also wrote letters, with doodles as frequent as the words addressed to me. Although I was away from my home and city, I never had occasion to feel distant from Nabendra, his work and his dedication to the arts. His letters would keep me updated on his adventures around Nepal and in the field of Nepali arts. Around that time, he also created a small atelier in the attic at then Nepal Association of Fine Arts (NAFA). He conceived his works in that grimy space, but his works lit up the Araniko Art Gallery during his first solo exhibition. He was perhaps among the very few artists to thoroughly utilize the facilities at NAFA and to abide by every rule in the contract. A culminating exhibition was a requisite of the contract: that is how he feels about his ethics.
Later, when KU Art+Design was created, he joined as a faculty member. He was as sincere and approachable as he had always been. We would discuss extensively our pedagogies and the direction we needed to take. His vision and dedication have also shaped my own educational philosophy. After a few years, he decided that he should forsake teaching at KU for the modest reason that he could not keep pace with the expectations of the students and meet their demands by continuously keeping himself up to date with current trends in the fine arts. He also wanted time to ponder on his art practice. That was the level of his honesty.
Kalaalayaa is a new space where he continues to share his experiences with young minds. In a tiny space within the premise, which he fondly calls his studio and hideout, he introspects, dissects and contemplates on the self and the surroundings, his emotions and relationships. Meticulously ideated and precisely executed paintings stacked one over another offer only a narrow space for him to work further. Within the confines of that narrow, leftover space he lies down on a sukul and stares at his works, jots notes into his journal and then contemplates on them. Consequently, a new series of works has surfaced.
People fondly call this man ‘Limbu,’ or ‘Limbu Sir,’ but I prefer calling by his pet names from our days of youth. The young man who bluntly rejected my suggestion so many years ago still discards many of my recommendations. But despite our differences we have become very close. He has become dearer to me not only because I have spent nearly half of my life with him and his friendship, but also because of his acceptance, generosity and modesty.
Nabendra would call me occasionally, asking for a visit. I would spare long, leisurely hours for us to chat about over many cups of local tea. His works are the stepping stones of his growth – something not only I have realized but many who have been close to would have noticed. His works are as simple as his personality is, but also similarly profound and complex. But within that complexity there is a wide open space for anyone to find a space for themselves and be accepted.
When he announced this exhibition, he asked me to curate his upcoming show. But I was not sure. Since I have seen his works grow and I have seen him mature and become contemplative over the years, I could not decline the offer. But for an artist whose works have been the only mean to survive in this world, it was a mammoth task for me to accept the request to curate the exhibition. Therefore, my inputs for this exhibition have not been curatorial in intension, but rather an attempt to cherish our friendship, which has also shaped me as an individual and an artist.
Startled newcomers into his domain may find every dab of paint on his canvas alien or naïve, but to reach that level, he has mused on it through his entire youth, forsaken every opportunity to deviate away from his practice, and has contemplated his art for long in solitude. I believe that only such a level of dedication and commitment could yield this precise abstraction in the process of making art. For an inquisitive viewer, even a short chat over a cup of tea with Nabendra will open a vast array of possibilities to appreciate his works, and then, in turn, appreciate ourselves.
Abstract painting should not be perceived as products, but a reflection of a rigorous process. For some, the simple maneuver of paint over a blank canvas can forge the superficiality of an abstract work. But to reach to a level of trust with oneself and the work, it requires tremendous amount of dedication, honesty and sincerity. Nabendra Limbu is probably one of those few abstract painters in Nepal who have reached that level of conviction. An artist who was contemplating the negative space even in his very first year in an art college while I was merely drawing imitations of objects, he has taught me many of the simplest yet vital things in life while he has delved into the deepest level of his thoughts.
Each of his modest gestures demonstrates a warmth that embraces anyone in his domain. Therefore, he has entitled his latest series “Samaahit / Embrace” because this is the level where he has reached. His insights and his level of acceptance are omnipresent in his works and in his life. His art and his life are inseparable, and they are embraced within every thoughtful stroke on his canvas.
The man who was sitting in a corner of a sculpture studio so many years ago still sits in his tiny atelier and contemplates on things we hardly even notice. Whether accepted or rejected by the rest, he persists in devoting his entire life to what he believes in. His determination and unshakeable devotion will yield yet another level of luster in days to come, and for many of us he will remain a humble person who churns with the deepest thoughts within, but also spreads smiles on everyone’s face.