Bhaktapur: When Dhana Chitrakar learned to draw sketches of the serpent deity, he was 14 years old. Snake goddess murals were in high demand back then in Nepal. He is 62 now and says he struggles with sales now due to various factors.
“The sales do not stand as high for Naag Panchami as they used to. Now there are some others in our locality who make similar paintings. The circulation of printed caricatures has also resulted in a slump of our sales,” said Dhana Chitrakar a devotional artist in the ancient city of Bhaktapur, which lies at the east end of the Kathmandu valley. The city is barely 15 kilometres from the capital.
On the fifth day of a bright half-moon of the Nepali month of Shrawan, people across the country observe Naag Panchami as per the lunar calendar, dedicating the day to the serpent deity. Devotional artists like Dhana are busy making sketches of the goddess, for the day.
“In earlier days, after the Ghantakarna festival, we used to make our sketches to sell for Nag Panchami. After this, Chotah (Ganesh Chauthi) came for which I made Ganesh, after that Dashain when I made sketches of Bhagwati, Bhimsen, Bishwokarma, and Saraswati. These days, however, the market is flooded with printed pictures of deities and our sales have been driven down,” Dhana added.
On average, it takes about half an hour for Dhana to prepare a sketch of the serpent deity, adding watercolours to the silhouettes. He says along with his wife Danashova, create up to 15 paintings which are then sold at a price of 20 Nepali rupees each.
Passing on the devotional art technique to the next generation ‘Chitrakar’ is an important aspect of the Newar community. They are believed to be proficient in arts and most of the families with the ‘Chitrakar’ surname have been in this business for years. They have been regarded as the saviour of the original history, culture and traditions of the region (Kathmandu valley) through generations.
Danashova, Dhana’s wife has been extending her help to her husband in the field since the two got married.
“I started immediately after getting married and have been helping him since then. He (Dhana) taught me this art form and then I learnt about it gradually working along with him. It was difficult at first but now I don’t feel so,” she recalled on her initial days of learning the devotional art.
Though the Chitrakar couple residing in Nepal’s ancient city of Bhaktapur inherited the tradition, their succeeding generation is distant from pursuing the art form.
“Our son is into his own business, and our daughter-in-law is also into other business. In the younger generation, our grandson might inherit it from us. He is taking on courses of painting, has been taking classes for drawing on portraits. I hope he continues with this,” said Danashova.
Danashova and Dhana also have a separate business of making traditional masks and other curio items. They also sell candies generally known as ‘paun’ in Nepal. Though the operating cost of devotional art stands high, this Chitrakar family sticks to it for preservation purposes.
“The manufacturing cost cannot be counted. It is our ancestral profession and we continue tending to it to preserve it for posterity. We charge customers 20 (Nepali) rupees each for an item while we make sales. If we start selling with an aim to make a profit, then the cost would shoot up crossing over 100 rupees per unit,” says Dhana.