After graduating from Brown with a degree in English Literature, reviewer Rajeev Goyal was a PCV in Nepal from 2001 to 2003 where he built a two-stage water pump that helped 400 students get clean water in their school. Today, he leads PushforPeaceCorps.org, having previously run the very successful PushPeaceCorps, a national campaign to expand Peace Corps funding. While in law school at NYU, he founded “Hope for Nepal,” which has raised $250,000 for education and water projects in Nepal. Today, Rajeev is on several boards including the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust. He also blogs for this site.
by Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963–65) with Dina Bangdel
Orchid Press, $16.92
Reviewed by Rajeev Goyal (Nepal 2001–03)
If you have not yet read Against the Current by Don Messerschmidt, you are missing out.
Messerschmidt, who has lived on and off in Nepal for the last 45 years, has written a powerful and important book about an extraordinary artist, Lain Singh Bangdel. This in-depth account, goes beyond the long list of prizes, accolades, and royal honors bestowed on Bangdel during his extraordinary life. Rather, the book tells of Bangdel’s craving for art and seeing, his relationship to cubism and impressionism which he studied pouring over paintings in museums in Paris and London, and his encounters with the likes of legendary Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. The book tells a personal story about Bangdel’s intense desire to be understood not just as a Nepalese artist but as a modern artist. It explores the tug of war between a desolate melancholy and hidden hope and idealism in his paintings and novels and in the lives of the peasants, cripples, and destitute vagrants of Nepal who he took as his characters and subjects.
Filled with beautiful color prints of Bangdel’s landscapes, portraits, and abstract paintings, the experience of reading the book is to enter the world of a complex artist.
Born on a tea estate in Darjeeling in 1919, by the age of 25 Bangdel had already graduated first in class from Calcutta Arts College. A fiercely productive artist, Bangdel between the ages of 29 and 32 wrote three novels that today are required reading for all students of Nepalese literature - Outside the Country, Maternal Home, and The Cripple’s Friend.
“I thought writing it on paper would be better than drawing it on canvas,” he says about why he wrote The Cripple’s Friend.
Throughout his life, Bangdel drew and wrote about the poor, destitute and homeless - these were projections of the artist’s own insecurities and difficulties, observes Messerschmidt. But while his subject matter was close to the spirit of his homeland, his work was stylistically compatible with trends in modern Europe - this is what makes Bangdel extraordinary. At a time when Nepal was synonymous only with “Sherpa” and “Mt. Everest,” Bangdel dared to live in Paris in a dilapidated apartment where he burned newspapers to keep warm as he furiously painted and created.
The book is filled with humorous anecdotes not to miss. For example when Bangdel meets Pablo Picasso for the first time in 1955 and tells him he is from Nepal, Picasso asks “Naples?”
From the diverse titles of his work (Ama Dablam, Mother Nepal, Landscape near the Tomb of Van Gogh, Autumn in Paris, Old Man and the Stupa, etc), it can be seen that Bangdel was not hesitant to dig into the European modernist art movement of the time, and mix and meld it with his own ancestry. In this sense Messerschmidt’s choice of title has pinpoint accuracy. Bangdel was a man who in every way walked Against the Current.
Briefly in 1966, Bangdel lived in Ohio as a Fulbright scholar and again found himself influenced by the artists around him. He was drawn to William de kooning’s abstract expressionism and his own paintings from that time echo de kooning’s style.
The book is also about what home means and the need for the artist to return to it.
In 1961, after many requests by the King of Nepal and the exiled leader of Nepal’s Democratic Movement, Prime Minister B.P. Koirala, Bangdel finally returns to Nepal where he is soon made made head of the Royal Nepal Academy (of arts and literature). After trying to resolve the politics at the academy, he says in his characteristically brilliant way, “They must realize that Nepal is small, art is long, life is short… and the artist must not mix politics with his art.”
The last 40 years of Bangdel’s life as an administrator prove just as interesting as the decade he spent as a starving artist in Europe. In this period Bangdel writes an influential book on the theft of Nepal’s artistic treasures by the west. In this period, he becomes Nepal’s father of the arts. He writes and publishes a dictionary. He co-authors a book on the birds of Nepal.
By the end of the book, you wish you could meet Lain Singh Bangdel and see the world through his eyes.
You must read this book.
Against the Current is a treasure. As someone who has lived in Nepal extensively over the last ten years, I can tell you that I have never encountered anyone like Lain Singh Bangdel. I am grateful to the author and also Dina Bangdel, Lain’s daughter, who helped Messerschmidt write the book, for telling this important story in such compelling form.