Is woodcarving a dying art?

12, Dec 2018 |

An ancient Newari art is choked by the holds of modernisation while conservationists work tirelessly to protect it, many people don’t know what it means to ‘lose’ a valuable art form.

In the courtyard of Patan Museum, a craftsman sits comfortably on a worn-out Sukul and starts carving on a shapeless piece of wood. Outside the sun shines on a hot July midday while he goes on doing his work with intense concentration. The soft thuds of his instruments can be heard echoing in the languid afternoon. His deft hands move steadily on the piece of wood and leave behind a trail of intricate patterns. It now resembles an arch of perhaps an elaborate window.

Woodcarving is an ancient Newari art whose significance is not only limited to aestheticism but to the carrying of our iconic culture and lifestyle. Most of the woodcarvings that were made in the 16th century by the Malla Kings stand now in places like Patan Durbar Square and Bhaktapur as a testimony to the incredible patronage of art seen during that time. Architects and historians claim that old woodcarvings are the easiest medium to understand and interpret history; the natural aging of wood tells the age and hence the time it was made. In the deft fingers of the woodcarvers is how history is being rewritten and celebrated over and over through the generations.

An important feature of woodcarving is that it is Ancestral; which means it is passed down through the generations. A particular group of Newars, namely Shilpakars performed this revered art and regarded it as a legacy of their family. But with the onset of modernization not many people want to adopt this Ancestral occupation, breaking a continuous chain and bringing rise to a drastic decline in woodcarving since the recent years.

Tirtha Ram Silpakar, an artisan of Bhaktapur who learned this skill from his father has been carving wood for the past 15 years. When I attempted to spark a conversation, he was currently working on renovating an elaborate window of Char Narayan that he says will be completed within the next six months. A shy person he speaks warmly once I ask him about his profession. He too says that “Previously all our people were involved in woodcarving but now they are employed elsewhere”. When I ask him about the reason behind this, he attributes it to low wage. He says, “It is hard to survive on the wage we get from this occupation. This is not a business, we work hard all day and hardly get Rs. 1500 per day (USD $15)”. This is the reason why craftsmen find it easier to abandon their ancestral profession and switch to more wage yielding prospects, for instance, foreign employment. Another artisan, Shyam Krishna Shilpakar retorts, “There is no value or respect in this work”. 

To get more perspective on this issue, I asked Dr. Rohit Ranjitkar Program Director of KVPT (Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust) and a Conservation hero who is a driving force behind the restoration and renovation of almost all historical monuments of Patan. He strongly states that there is no social respect for skilled craftsman in Nepal whereas in countries like Japan skilled people are regarded as ‘God’. Instead of letting their children live a life with low social status, craftsmen prefer to educate their children and encourage them to follow a different path in life which Dr. Ranjitkar states is only natural. However, this breaks a much important chain of artistry posing a threat to its continuation.

It’s not that people from other castes are not joining to learn this craft. There are so many places in Bhaktapur and Bungamati that conducts smaller training for people to learn this elaborate craft.  But here’s the question, ‘Can the authenticity and quality be maintained by learning this art in 2-4 years?’ The reason why authentic woodcarving has survived to this date is because of those people who learned this art from the very best of their family members and had all their life to practice it to perfection. Dr. Ranjitkar argues that in such cases the quality may not be the same as of someone who grew in the family of woodcarvers.

However, the main obstacle in woodcarving now is the market demand and it would be wrong to say that there is no demand in the market. Other aspects like the illegal smuggling and deforestation causes the price of wood to soar incomprehensively which has the local woodcarvers struggling to make a profitable business. The high price of wood carvings creates less demand in the market, affordable only by hoteliers and art enthusiasts.

Although one cannot guarantee if the quality and authenticity of this art can be maintained in such exchanges if it is solely based on business purpose and not for its preservation. In Nepalese market, there is a huge trend of bargaining. If people bargain to their price they feel satisfied without giving thought to the quality which will also decrease significantly. The Nepalese market is price based but not quality based which will certainly aid to the distortion of this artistry.

The main question is ‘How can we potentially protect this art that is on the verge of extinction?’ The key here is commercialisation. As in any other businesses if people see money and prospect in it they will immediately jump in. For this, the state needs to provide recognition to the remaining authentic woodcarvers of our country. Until artisans do not receive a proper social standing and provisions from the state, the future of this art is in stake. In another aspect, the remaining ancient buildings bearing this craft can also be commercialised into hotels which will also bear income along with the preservation of tangible as well as intangible heritage.

Many artists and conservation workers predict that perhaps this art may not survive in the next hundred years. Dr. Rangitkar states, “I am a conservation architect, I understand and do my part to protect our heritage but tomorrow if our craftsmen are not there then it will be impossible to restore our monuments without their skill”. Perhaps woodcarving may or may not survive next hundred years. Maybe it might with just a loss in its original authenticity. We do not know the future. What we do know is that it is possible to protect this original art but the question is which road we will choose next

Shuvekshya Limbu is a content writer at

Photo: Saroj Patrabansha

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