Text: Stéphane Huët
Photographs: Kenji Kwok Video: Cynthia Choo Producer: Ayesha Shakya
Jaya Raj Bajracharya grew up in a family of stone carvers. As a child, Jaya Raj often woke up to the sound of his father and grandfather chipping away at a stone sculpture in their workshop. When he turned 15, he was handed his first chisel and mallet.
After six years of apprenticeship, Jaya Raj was allowed to join the family business. Today, he is passing on the traditional occupation to his 11-year-old daughter.
“From my great grandfather to my daughter, the art of stone carving has been in the family for five generations now,” says the 38-year-old.
Jaya Raj Bajracharya working on a stone sculpture at his workshop.
On the wall of his showroom at Babar Mahal Revisited are pictures, one of his late grandfather, Buddha Ratna Bajracharya, receiving the Indra Rajya Laxmi Award from King Birendra in 1973. Buddha Ratna had made many stone sculptures for the Royal Palace.
Statues carved by the Bajracharya family can be seen in hotels and monasteries all over the country. Jaya Raj is most proud of the eight-foot Milarepa statue he carved for a monastery in Manang.
His current project is a concept for a 10m Guru Rinpoche stone figure for Namrung in the Manaslu region. “After I finish the sketch, I’ll have to carve the stone at the site,” says Jaya Raj, who usually works in his studio in Gwarko in Patan.
Jaya Raj with a 8-foot Guru Rinpoche he took three years to sculpt.
Jaya Raj's stone figures have also found places outside Nepal. He has recently finished working on a life-size replica of the sumptuous royal bath of the Sundari Chok in Patan Darbar Square. The whole piece is now ready to be shipped to Germany for assembly. About two-third of his clients are foreigners, mostly from the USA, Germany and Japan.
Bajracharya started striking out to the international market after exhibiting in the 23rd Osaka International Trade Fair in 1997. The exposure encouraged him to learn new techniques and forms, and Jaya Raj now also makes modern sculptures.
When he returned from the Foire de Paris in France in 2001, he made two identical sculptures of a woman holding a jar, which reminds him of Ingres’ The Spring. “While visiting The Musée du Louvre, I was amazed by the marble sculptures,” he says. “So when I came back home, I reproduced them in Nepali stones.”
The two statues of the women have a distinct Hellenistic look as they guard the entrance to Jaya Raj’s showroom. “Many clients are interested in the statues but they are not for sale,” he says.
The same curiosity led Jaya Raj to experiment with new tools. During his visit to Vermont in the USA, a state famous for skilled stonecutters, he learned how to use the air chisel. “It’s convenient for sculpting rough outlines, but I still use traditional Nepali tools for the finishing,” he says.
More recently, Jaya Raj was initiated to AutoCAD by a French architect, and uses the software to make 3-D designs of his sculptures on a computer.
Jaya Raj shares his interest with many Nepalis and international sculptors, and he teaches stone carving to Japanese, Germans Americans, Italians and French apprentices.
Stone carving in Nepal has a 2,000 year history. The earliest sculpture is a Yaksha Bodhisattva figure from the 1st century AD at the National Museum.
A group of workers sculpt individual pieces of stone statues in the factory.
Even though the number of people eking out a living making sculptures is decreasing year by year, Jaya Raj Bajracharya is keeping the art alive by giving free training to anyone interested.
He says: “If you have the passion to learn stone scultpures, I will teach you so that the tradition carries on.”
When Alain Bordier, founder of Alain Bordier Foundation wanted to build a Nepali-style Lichchhavi chaitya within the premises of the Tibet Museum in Gruyères in Switzerland, he contacted Nepali art connoisseur, Ulrich von Schroeder.
Alain Bordier and Ulrich von Schroeder
Bordier couldn’t afford to build an elaborate stupa, and an exact replica would invite unnecessary legal hassles, so Schroeder suggested getting a Nepali artist to improvise a new Purna Chaitya in Kathmandu and take it to Switzerland.
Architect Rajan Shrestha from Bhaktapur integrated the designs of the hemispherical dome of a chaitya outside Kuthubaha and Chabahil for the base of Kinnari Statue. Enshrined with precious gems, the sculpture’s base was to be carved with Nepali and Newari inscriptions.
With the design part complete, they went around Patan looking for a sculptor. They finally met Santalal Dyahkhah Jyapu in Khokana, an artist whose skills, perseverance, passion and humility far outweighed his lack of a formal degree in sculpture.
Santalal Dyahkhah Jyapu hard at work on a stone chaitya commissioned by Alain Bordier and Ulrich von Schroeder for the Tibet Museum in Gruyères in Switzerland.
Shrestha and von Schroeder then started looking for an appropriate stone for the chaitya, and that took longer than the search for the sculptor. After seven months they found a stone in a quarry 4km west of Pharping that was the perfect size and texture.
Although the chaitya was carved in four months, finding a way to smoothen the surface with sand-blasting the surface took some time. The completed chaitya was finally flown to Switzerland and installed according to Buddhist rituals by a Tibetan Kagyu Lama last year.
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The stone carver Sujata Tuladhar
Cast in stone Aarti Basnyat
Written in stone Sarthak Karki