KATHMANDU, Sept 13: On September 11, a group of men visited Manish Harijan’s art exhibition ‘The Rise of the Collateral’ with a death threat. Taking offense from Harijan’s painting series on Gods and superheroes which was on display at Siddhartha Art Gallery located in Babermahal, by saying that the paintings were anti-Hindu and anti-nationalist, the group of men who have been said to be activists from the World Hindu Federation (WHF) led by Hem Bahadur Karki, former colonel of the Nepal Army, threatened to shoot the artist, sentence him for exile and burn his paintings.
“The group had, apparently, been frequently visiting and photographing my art work. That day, while a fellow artist and I were at the gallery, the group came in and asked me if I was the artist.
Upon confirming, they said, ‘You know what happened to MF Husain in India, don’t you?’” said Harijan who shares that the group of men were aggressive and not willing to listen to his explanations.
“When I started making these paintings, I did not think things would turn out this way because I know I have not painted anything that is offensive. People have simply misinterpreted my work,” said Harijan.
Artist Manish Harijan (L) and Curator of Siddhartha Art Gallery, Sangeeta Thapa (R) at the Chief District Office on Wednesday. World Hindu Federation’s Hem Bahadur Karki issued life threat to Harijan.
Manish also shares that according to the attackers, they had gone to one of the Nepali artist (whose name Harijan did not want to disclose) with photos of Harijan’s work.
The artist told them that some foreigners had approached him to make similar paintings of Hindu Gods for some amount of money, which he rejected. “The activist thus called me a foreigner’s broker, saying I had taken money to create these ‘offensive’ paintings,” shared Harijan.
Nepali artists have taken this incident as not only a threat to an individual but an infringement to the freedom of expression of all the artists.
Despite the negativity in the situation, Artist Sujan Chitrakar is hopeful.
“This incident seems to have stemmed from a clear lack of understanding of the public. It proves that artists have a lot to work on when it comes to helping the public interpret their work,” said Chitrakar.
He also believes that a new chapter will open out of this. “The changes in the society come out of moments like this,” said Chitrakar.
Commenting on Harijan’s work, he shared, “Harijan’s work, in its true sense, portrays the merging of the Western and the Eastern philosophies. It is an example of the diversity of culture that we are living in.”
Sangeeta Thapa, Curator of Siddhartha Art Gallery, also refuses the allegation of Harijan’s paintings being anti-Hindu and anti-nationalist.
“If they were so, I would not have exhibited them in the first place,” expressed Thapa, who also wrote a statement regarding Harijan’s works in the exhibition catalogue.
“When I asked them to go through the text, they replied that the picture should speak 1,000 words, not the text. Instead of reading it and trying to understand the artist’s perception, they chose to misinterpret his work,” she continued.
“The group filed complaints against the artist and the exhibition in several places including the District Administration Office (DAO) demanding that the artist be arrested,” said Thapa.
The gallery itself has been padlocked. “I tried to make arrangements for the artist’s security but the police never came. When they did, they came to seal the gallery without a warrant,” Thapa said.
“I also went to the Chief District Officer (CDO) to file a case against the death threat. At first they did not agree but after Sangeeta Ma’am came, they consented to take the case,” added Harijan.
“We have summoned both the parties involved and are looking into the matters,” informed DSP Dhiraj Pratap Singh of the Kathmandu Metropolitan Police.
When asked about the provisions for the security of the artist, he said that it wasn’t a high level threat but that the artist has been warned to take precautions.
“Until the debate is resolved, the gallery will be sealed,” informed DSP Singh. When asked about the absence of a legal warrant while sealing the gallery, he said, “We got orders from the CDO. In such cases, we don’t require a warrant. His verbal order is the warrant itself.”
“We were told by the CDO that Harijan’s paintings were only appropriate during Gai Jatra and that the artist should paint beautiful paintings that confirm to the traditional ways. They also said that the artist did not have the right to interpret Gods,” added Thapa.
A case of invasion on the freedom of individual thought, the artists of Nepal have shown solidarity and are in preparation to protest against this violation of freedom of expression to ensure that such incidents do not take place in the future again.