Deepak Shimkhada presently serves as President of South Asian Studies Association. A former professor at Claremont Graduate University and in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College, Dr. Shimkhada is now retired but continues to teach as an Adjunct Professor at Claremont School of Theology and Chaffey College.
Former president of Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast, Dr. Shimkhada is also the founder and president of the Foundation for Indic Philosophy and Culture, founder and former president of the Himalayan Arts Council at USC Pacific Asia Museum, and the former editor of Exemplar, Himalaya and Indicator.
With a deep love for his homeland, Nepal, Dr. Shimkhada has published four books: The Constant and Changing Faces of the Goddess: Goddess Traditions of Asia, Popular Buddhist Mantras in Sanskrit, Himalayas at the Crossroads: Portrait of a Changing World, and Nepal: Nostalgia and Modernity. He has contributed chapters to a number of works on Hinduism and South Asia, and is nearing publication for his fifth book, an English translation of Sylvain Levi’s Le Nepal.
Articles by Dr. Shimkhada have appeared in an array of publications, including NAFA Art Magazine, Arts of Asia, Orientations,Artibus Asiae, Oriental Art, The Journal of Asian Studies, International Journal of Dharma Studies, The Himalayan Research Bulletin, Voice of Ulan Bator, Himalaya, Folk Dance Scene, The Overseas Times, India West, and The Rising Nepal.
A regular guest on History Channel’s Ancient Aliens since 2011, Dr. Shimkhada also has authored four children’s books available on Amazon. While talking for the HuffPost, Shimkhada disclosed several significant facts on Nepali art and religion.
As someone specializing in Nepali art and religion, what connections do you see between them? Are art and religion related, and if so, in what way?
In religion, words are used to give instructions to adherents, while art is made of images, be they two-dimensional or three-dimensional. Many sacred texts were illustrated with paintings. Temples were built according to instructions laid down in sutras or sastras, and sculptures are often found inside. So you see, there has always been a deep connection between religion and art. Painting, sculpture, and architecture were used in the service of religion. The KathmanduValley is a living example of this marriage between art and religion.
What unique aspects of Nepali art distinguish it from, for instance, Indian, Tibetan, or even Chinese art?
Art before the Malla period shows a distinct Indian influence, especially from the north and the east. Nepali art during and after the Malla period begins to form its own style that is distinct from India. Although certain aspects of Tibetan art are visible through the 18th and 19th centuries, they are totally digested by Nepali artists and incorporated as part of their repertoire. The combination of colors, the cloud motifs, and the flowing patterns of sash and other geometric and meandering patterns seem to be inspired by Tibetan art, which is influenced in part by Chinese art.
What is the commercial value of Nepali art today?
The connoisseurship of Nepali art is definitely on the rise, although its commercial value isn’t as high as Indian art of about the same period. With that said, the value of Nepali art – particularly pieces dating back to the 5th to 10th centuries – is quite high, simply because there are fewer pieces that can be sold in the auction houses. Theft is the only means to acquire old Nepali art, and this is the reason we see many old art pieces missing from various temples and bahals in the Kathmandu Valley. Hence, the trafficking of Nepali art is on the rise because it is a lucrative business.
In a monetary sense, why does Nepali art typically fail to fetch as much as Western art?
Nepali art, and even Indian art, for that matter, does not compare with Western art. A painting of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci recently fetched a whopping $450 million at auction. It’s a staggering sum and no piece of Nepali art, no matter how old it is, is going to go for anywhere near that price. The artists behind old Nepali and Indian art are typically unknown. In favour of removing their ego, they didn’t sign their works; in fact, this was a general practice all over South Asia when it came to religious art. Since art was used to serve God, it was undesirable for the artist to sign his name. Accordingly, while they are great artists in their own right, they remain nameless.
As Western culture has invaded the world, has contemporary Nepali art become a victim of it?
Western culture has definitely invaded the world, including Nepal. The West once ruled some parts of Asia by means of colonization; now it rules the world through economic and cultural hegemony. Take, for example, the many art forms: performing, visual, and even literary. Each of them is strongly influenced by the West – and not only in terms of the medium, as the form and approach to painting are non-Nepali. The traditional use of mineral or vegetative colors is substituted by acrylic or oil paint. Even in Paubha or Thangka paintings, traditional artists use ready-made poster colors. These clear shifts are because of globalization, a process that is sped up due to technology like computer, mobile phones, and the ubiquitous Internet.
You started out your career as a painter. Tell us about your journey from a painter to a writer.
Writing has been one of my passions since high school. I used to dabble in poetry – in Nepali, of course. Then I wrote short stories. When I went to India for graduate work, I started writing in English. In the late 1960s I began publishing English articles in Rising Nepal, the only English Daily published from Kathmandu.
After receiving a B.A. degree in painting and graphic art, my interest in writing prompted me to change my field of study. I enrolled in a new M.A. program in art criticism. I received my degree in 1971 from the University of Baroda, India and returned to Nepal the same year. While I was waiting to come to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D., I did some writing for Rising Nepal and other newspapers and journals. In 1972 I came to the U.S. with a Fulbright to study art history. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the book Nepal: Nostalgia and Modernity, published in 2011, I tried to present Nepal from two angles: Nepal of the past and Nepal of today. What we see today is shaped by what was yesterday. Since we are the result of the past, we can’t forget our history. The book is a happy marriage between the past and present.
You are the author of several books. What is the focus of them?
As a student of art, I am always interested in Nepal’s art, which is rooted in Hindu-Buddhist religion. I am drawn to Nepal’s rich artistic tapestry, woven in many colourful threads of Nepal’s culture. My books therefore reflect many aspects of Nepal’s art, culture, and religion.
The book Popular Buddhist Mantras in Sanskrit, which you co-authored with Dr. Shih Pei Lai, is intriguing because my understanding is that the original Buddhist language was Pali. When does Sanskrit become more commonplace and why?
You are correct; earlier Buddhist texts like the Vinayas and the Sutras were in the Pali language, which Buddha actually spoke and taught. However, the Mahayana Buddhists later preferred to use Sanskrit for their texts to distinguish them from the Theravadins. From the time of Asvaghosa in the first century, Sanskrit was widely used to translate the Vinayas and Sutras originally composed in Pali. Additionally, other major philosophical treatises such as the Abhidharma, the Buddhacharita, the Prajnaparamita were composed in Sanskrit. Hence, Sanskrit was the language of choice for the Mahayanists. Since the Buddhist populations of Nepal, Tibet, and China were primarily Mahayanists, the texts that reached those countries were originally written in Sanskrit and later translated into their native languages.
There is an interesting story about the book Popular Buddhist Mantras in Sanskrit. Dr. Shih Pei Lai, a native of Taiwan, was a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate School in the 1980s. I came to know him serendipitously. He was a practicing Buddhist, and when he learned that I was from Nepal and knew Sanskrit, he approached me with Buddhist mantras in Chinese. I did not know Mandarin and he did not know Sanskrit. However, he knew that the mantra he was chanting was originally in Sanskrit. Because he was not getting any noticeable physical benefits from the practice, he asked me to find the original Sanskrit mantra of Adi Buddha, which I did with no difficulty because I had a copy of Benoytosh Bhattacharya’s book The Indian Buddhist Iconography in my collection. He was really impressed. He asked me to chant the Adi Buddha mantra while he sat down in meditation in his small apartment. As I read the mantra, his body shook as if a jolt of electric current had passed through him. Honestly, I was frightened because I was not expecting this to happen. I stopped reading. He came out of the trance and held my feet with both his hands. He told me, “You are my teacher from today.” To make a long story short, we became good friends and collaborated on this book with the support of a Buddhist association.
You have served various organizations in many different capacities throughout your career. You founded the Himalayan Arts Council at Pacific Asia Museum, and you founded and served as the President of Indic Foundation. Are you still active in those organizations? Can you explain their missions and what noteworthy work they have done so far?
The Himalayan Arts Council is now defunct, and has been so since I left the organization after serving its founding president for nine years. However, Himalayan Arts Council was the largest and most active art council at the Museum. We had many programs and organized a successful Himalayan conference with a focus on Nepal, where various notable scholars presented papers. The conference proceedings were published in a book called Himalayas at the Crossroads: The Changing Faces of the Himalayas. Then, in 1992, to celebrate the Year of Tibet, we organized another big conference on Tibet. While many notable scholars spoke and presented papers, I regret that the proceedings of the conference, which were intended for publication, could not come out in a book due to financial issues.
In contrast, The Indic Foundation, founded in 2001, is thriving. Originally affiliated with Claremont Graduate University but now with Claremont School of Theology, it has done some remarkable work to promote South Asian artistic and cultural heritage through lectures, exhibitions, performances, and courses. The Foundation continues to offer graduate level courses in Hindu studies at Claremont School of Theology. Along with some excellent individuals who support the organization with their time, ideas, money, and dedication, I have been serving the Foundation as its president since 2001.
You also served as President of Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast and the South Asian Studies Association. Can you tell us about the missions of these organizations and the work they do?
While Indic Foundation is a cultural and social organization, Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast (ASPAC) and South Asian Studies Association (SASA) are academic organizations that cater to engendering intellectual activities. These organizations organize an annual conference. I served president of ASPAC several years ago and this year I was elected president of SASA.
Source : HuffPost