The art of wood carving in Nepal is recognised globally. It has been handed down through the community of Shilpakars – a Newari clan – for centuries. Indra Prasad Shilpakar is a name that is synonymous with wood carving, a family legacy that he takes forward into time.
His father Indra Kaji Shilpakar, an accomplished wood carver, did not want his son to follow his profession since it requires intense amounts of time and hard work and yet does not pay enough to meet their livelihood. But surrounded by wood works and seeing his father give shape to beautiful works of art, wood carving fascinated Indra since he was a boy. And that interest shaped into his lifelong passion and profession.
His father is proud of his work today. “I was scared if the market goes down and he cannot survive with this profession, but now I am glad that he took this decision. It has been easy for me to work together with him suggesting and advising each other. At the same time, he is also contributing to the preservation of our traditional art,” says his father.
Indra Prasad Shilpakar has been carving wood for more than two decades. He is mainly involved in restoration projects. The Shilpakar duo- Indra Kaji and Indra Prasad, have a big hand in restoring the famed Patan Durbar complex after the devastating earthquake of 2015. Their restoration projects particularly include the Bhaidegh Temple in Patan, the Pavilion at the Bhandarkhal Garden, the Astadikpla and Astapratihara at the Sundari Chowk Courtyard of Patan Palace, the struts of Ratnesvara and Narayana Temples in Patan.
Indra is not only keeping alive a traditional art, but he is also an academically qualified modern sculptor. He has done his Master’s degree in Fine Arts. He says, “If I had not undergone formal education, I would have been limited in the traditional designs, but my education has helped me fuse modern and traditional arts”.
He held his first solo exhibition at the Taragaun Museum in 2019. “Through the exhibition of replicate sculptures of different temples I got the opportunity to showcase wood carvings as a national treasure and inspire young generation towards this art form,” he shares. He was to participate in his first solo international exhibition in June in Germany, but the pandemic has temporarily held up that dream.
In conversation with WOW’s Pabita Dahal, the talented artiste speaks about wood carving in Nepal and what inspires him to create. Excerpts:
What does “wood culture” mean to you? And what do you specialise in?
It is a traditional art that gives an identity to Nepal. Kathmandu valley is rich in religious heritages and temples which are made of wood carvings. Wood culture gives us this cultural identity.
There is no particular design I have mastered, most of the time I work for the temples and craft the replica sculpture of the different temples. I love transferring plain wood into the beautiful images of gods and goddesses.
Your solo exhibition in Germany has been postponed due to the Covid 19 pandemic. What were your expectations from that exhibition?
I did not have any special expectations except representing our country on an international platform. An artiste’s greatest honour is to have the opportunity to represent their nation. Such exhibitions, of course, give recognition to our country.
How has the pandemic affected your work?
In the first 15 days of lockdown, we were puzzled about what to do. After that, we accepted the situation and started making sculptures. We are also crafting the Pasuka Jhyal for Indrayani Dyochhen of Bhaktapur.
There are three types of wood carving workers in Nepal. Some work for the heritage sites, others for the tourism sector who particularly work on furniture and make small sculptures of comparatively low quality, and a few craft the sculptures of good quality. Among them, those who work for sculptures have not been affected as much since they can work from home but the rest don’t have work on their hands right now.
Can wood carving support the livelihood of an artiste?
Any kind of handicraft demands a lot of hard work and time, but costumers don’t understand that. Some people understand the hard work behind the art but most think that we are overcharging them. However, we are able to survive in this profession. Nowadays, people have started showing more interest in wood carving in comparison to the past. They ask for new designs or replica of temples and palaces to decorate their living rooms and walls.
What are the challenges of your work?
Most of the time, we use the Sal and Chap tree wood which are not available easily in the required amounts and sizes. It is also very expensive. The government has also banned wood supply these days. Without proper raw materials, how can we make these products?
You decided to take forward your family legacy. Would you teach your children as well?
I made it my profession because it was my passion since childhood, but I am not sure what the coming generation will do. Yes, I would definitely teach my children the skill of wood carving, but it is completely their choice to make it a profession or not.
You have crafted and restored designs of various temples that will remain for years ahead. How does it make you feel?
The most honourable part of the wood carving artistes who work for heritage sites is that it remains forever and that work carries the name of the restorer. I feel so proud to see my grandfather’s work in the local temples in Bhaktapur. Maybe my generation and the generations to come will also be proud of my work.
Currently, there are two projects lined up: renovation of the Bhaidegah temple of Patan that has been postponed due to lack of financial support and we are also working on making Pasukha Jhyal for Indrayani Dyochhen of Khauma, Bhaktapur. We are working on this for eight months voluntarily with my father Indra Kaji and my two friends Rahul Shilpakar and Krishan Shilpakar.
Is the export business of wood carving good?
The export business gives wood art not only national but international recognition. This directly promotes Nepali architecture and also provides an international platform for wood workers. It also helps widen our knowledge and creativity in the field of wood work as wood carvings for export must be of the highest quality.