An interview with Suyog Prajapati at The Peacock Shop
If you know Nepal, than you probably know that the peacock window in the city of Bhaktapur — that exquisitely carved peacock with its radiating plumage— is an internationally famous example of Nepalese woodworking. But what you may or may not know is that in front of the famous peacock window is The Peacock Shop, a cornucopia of creativity, traditional crafts, and Buddhist devotion.
When you walk into The Peacock Shop, you’ll be greeted by wood-carved — and larger than life size— baby elephants, and elegantly displayed around them, like the plumage of the peacock window itself, are traditional paper arts, collectible as art in the most sincere sense of the word, as they are designed and crafted with a concern for tradition, modern creativity, detailed craftsmanship, and aesthetic beauty that few paper craftspeople on earth could boast.
A tall claim? Then hold in your fingers the handcrafted box, shaped like a monastic sutra case; its cover is decorated with a carefully printed proto-makara in several colors. Opening the case, instead of Buddhist sutras, you see a stack of note cards beautifully printed with the same art. The feel of the paper is thick, raw, and natural. You can feel the care and love of craftwork even in the natural texture. Another example is their popup postcards of the Himalayas, which incorporate handcrafted Nepalese paper in the service of modern design with an illustrative sensibility that is simultaneously contemporary and traditional.
Paper arts of the highest quality cover the walls. Inside the building you can see where the paper is made, where it’s printed, and up on the roof, where it’s dried in the sun. You’ll visit their rooftop temple, and in the adjoining building you’ll see the almost unfathomable achievement in architectural design that is their museum, which illustrates the complete Tripiṭaka —a core religious text in the Buddhist canon— in sculptural elements.
For during the medieval period, in the East and West both, sculpted architecture was the principle storytelling medium. Whether, we visit the Cathedral in Chartres, France; Giotto’s Campanile in Florence, Italy; the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple in Khajuraho, India; or the Krishna Mandir in Patan, Nepal, the architecture communicates religious teachings and values by immersing the visitor in a spatial cosmology of devotional stories. When entering the architectural space, the pilgrim is directly implicated in the stories and becomes a living part of this ongoing narrative of devotion. According to the aesthetic theories underlying this architectural tradition, the pilgrim becomes part of a mandala — an aesthetically rendered cosmos of spiritual values wherein every element of the microcosm is reflected, jewel-like, within the macrocosm — that continues a mirroring interplay of spiritual recognition. (In Asia, the aesthetic theories are exemplified in Hinduism in the Abhinavabharatiand in Buddhism in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, among the many other texts of this ongoing aesthetic conversation.)
This tradition of medieval architecture is a re-shaping of the pilgrim’s cognition to the aesthetics of the mandala, an artful spiritually-infused beauty informing and shaping neurology. This is architecture of no mean design, but of tremendous sophistication informed by a longstanding continuity of, not only Nepalese and pan-Indian culture, but of world culture.
Seeing the Tripiṭaka rendered in this context is literally a revelation, and makes The Peacock Shopmuseum a worthy pilgrimage site for not only any Buddhist devotee, but for any devotee of the human spiritual impulse or of our shared humanities.
For the visitor of The Peacock Shop, entering the storefront, the crafts workshop, and the museum involves entering into a new cosmology — which is to say, a new cognition or spiritual/aesthetic body — as it is entering into a living space where the devotion to beauty, devotion to spirituality, devotion to craft, and devotion to tradition all matter as primary values.
And this is no small feat in the modern world!
No matter who we are as human beings — and I suppose that this is an act of faith on my part — I believe that we all enter such environments and become truly refreshed and replenished by experiencing our connected relationship within universal values that serve and ennoble us all.
Consequently, we are all pilgrims refreshed here and now, in every moment, by devotion to that deep and sustaining aesthetic world-feeling that sunsets evoke in us — time and again, calming our breath and bringing us back to the source of who we are— and which charm us also in the works of great craftspeople with that subtle, yet radiant, reflection of recognition, which we see sun-illumined in Bhaktapur’s famous Peacock Window.
It is with this sense of delight, therefore, that I introduce you to Suyog Prajapati, a creative force at The Peacock Shop.
I had the great fortune of interviewing Suyog Prajapati at The Peacock Shopin Bhaktapur, Nepal, where we conversed on Nepal’s beautiful woodworking tradition; the history of Nepalese papermaking and its connection with Tibetan pilgrimages; the tragedy of the earthquakes; as well as the importance of preserving elegant Nepali medieval craftsmanship and Buddhist ideals.
Dave Alber’s Travel Art and Travel Writing can be found at DaveAlber.com.
The Peacock Shop can be contacted on Facebook here and on their website here.
An interview with Suyog Prajapati at The Peacock Shop:
Dave Alber: What exactly is The Peacock Shop?
Suyog Prajapati: The Peacock Shop originally was a tiny woodcarving shop. My father got woodcarvings mostly from the Bungamati area. Growing up, I heard legends almost, that it started with only twenty-four items, twenty-four tiny wooden sculptures out in the street in Bhaktapur, in this area where the Peacock Window is more famous. Our shop was named after the Peacock Window and it was the very first shop in the area and gradually, after my mother took over the business, it slowly expanded into a paper shop. Originally we did not have the paper factory. We gave orders to some people and we sold mostly UNICEF cards, the cards which were designed for UNICEF by an artist named Robert (Bob) Powell. It was block printed and then the cards were assembled into packets of four, six, and eight. Those are the things that we sold, and gradually as the business expanded we grew into a paper factory, and now we are hoping to make a museum.
Dave:Wow! Yeah, and the museum is going to be the wood-carved building next door?
The interior of the building is completely decorated with illustrations from the Buddhist canon.
Suyog:Yes, the building adjoining the paper factory.
Dave:“Amazing” is too small a word to describe that building. Your father’s undertaking with the carvings is absolutely outstanding. But before we talk about the museum, tell me about the Nepali papermaking and book arts tradition.
Suyog:Papermaking has been here in Nepal for well over a thousand years and it relates to Buddhist history as it pertains especially to Tibet. Around the sixth century, Tibet became a Buddhist country and many Indian masters began traveling to Tibet via Nepal. While the masters were staying in Nepal, they also had scribes with them, and there was a tradition of copying the original manuscripts that the teachings were composed in; the manuscripts were both Hindu and Buddhist, and particularly Tantric texts in these traditions. They were all copied in Nepal. Some new manuscripts were also written. Because of this tradition of manuscript copying on the way to Tibet, there was a huge demand for paper, so that’s how papermaking became a tradition in Nepal.
Dave:In the craft shop, I noticed the big vats where the paper pulp is sitting. And there is one where red paper is being made.
Suyog:This is not the traditional color for making paper; the red colored pulp is for red paper of course, and we use that paper for envelopes and big packets for when we package the cards. Originally the paper was a slightly yellowish white. In the medieval period, paper producers coated the paper with a layer of arsenic sulfide. Already the paper has some insect resistant properties, and with the arsenic coating, it becomes resistant to silverfish and mites.
Dave:Would putting the paper in a closet, help prevent silverfish?
Dave:That’s awesome. A new use.
Suyog:The coating of arsenic prevents the silverfish. Arsenic is a poison.
Dave:I noticed the old printing presses in the papermaking factory. My Bachelors of Fine Art course of study concentrated on printmaking, so it was a real delight to see the old traditional printing presses.
Suyog:When we started in the paper factory, we did all of our printing using silk screens. We could make multiple colors, but the quantity of what we could manufacture was very limited, so about fifteen years ago, that’s almost five years after the factory was created, we bought a secondhand Chinese letterpress. Back then, almost all the printing in Nepal was done using treadle machines, letterpresses, but then offset entered the market and a lot of those letterpresses became scrap metal. At that time, we got a secondhand letterpress, which was more than useful for us, because then we could print multicolor greeting cards in larger quantities.
Dave: Your Glimpses From Nepal and Tibetbook is printed on that.
Dave:Could you walk us through the papermaking or bookmaking process?
Suyog:The tree for papermaking is called lokta. It’s a shrub that grows in Nepal above 2000 meters. We get it from the far western region of Nepal. In the papermaking process, first we boil the bark until it’s a very soft texture, then we crush it and beat it into a pulp, and then the pulp is spread over a netted frame over a watertank. Slowly we allow the pulp to spread over the frame. Finally, we lift the frame gently and let it dry in the sun.
Dave:I see on the roof it’s drying in the sun on the frames.
Suyog:Once all the paper in the frames dries out, we can peel off the paper. The natural fibers presented in the raw material lokta holds the paper together; we don’t need to add any glue to it. That’s the specialty of this plant, lokta. The scientific name for this plant is Daphne cannabinaor Daphne papyracea. After the paper is dried, it is taken to a machine where two big rollers smooth the paper, and then the smoothened paper is then cut to size, and then it is put through the printing press, which gives the impressions, after which it is hand bound, the layouts of the different pages are made, holes are made in the center, and with threads, the ladies sew the books together.
Dave:The Peacock Shop’s printing press work is now mostly with the metal press: typeset letters and engravings for the illustrations?
Suyog:Yes. However, for my book, Glimpses From Nepal and Tibet, the main problem was proofreading, because we did not have a lot of time for error correction, so what we did was we made engravings for both the letters and the pictures.
Dave:Let’s talk about your book. How is Glimpses From Nepal and Tibetdifferent from any book that I might buy in another bookstore?
Suyog:First of all, it’s printed on handmade paper. Secondly, it’s about the iconography of all the different images that you see around here in Nepal. There are very few books that explain both the Hindu and the Buddhist iconography in the same book. There are even fewer books that base the iconography on art history. Also, it was written when the author was seventeen years old. The subtitle was first step into Hindu and Buddhist imagery. It was a first step for the author and for the reader was well.
Dave:That’s a very humble explanation. Looking at your book, it’s amazing. Unquestionably, it is a work of real art. The type and illustrations are engravings, it has fold outs, so there’ a tremendous amount of creativity in the bookmaking process, in the writing process, choice of topics and illustrations as well as the method of illustrations, and in the entire composition. In every aspect, this is a complete work of art. Do you consider bookmaking to be an art of its own?
Suyog: Yes, bookmaking is definitely an art.
Dave:How is The Peacock Shop preserving traditional craft traditions?
Nepal is in a crucial stage when much of the traditional architecture is in danger, in danger of never being promoted again, of never being praised again. People would not rely on traditional architecture to build their houses again, and in such a time, The Peacock Shop has made it its goal to build only using wood, clay, and bricks, which are the traditional materials.
Suyog: In three ways. First we are continuing in the papermaking tradition; not just in making paper for manuscripts, but also for different handcrafted items such as notebooks and photo albums. Secondly, by promoting woodcarvings, and not just woodcarvings of sculptures, but building materials. I think now at the moment, Nepal is in a crucial stage when much of the traditional architecture is in danger, in danger of never being promoted again, of never being praised again. People would not rely on traditional architecture to build their houses again, and in such a time, The Peacock Shop has made it its goal to build only using wood, clay, and bricks, which are the traditional materials. Thirdly, The Peacock Shop maintains tradition by collecting different old items such as copper pots, bronze utensils, and old woodcarvings that ultimately we are hoping to display in a museum.
Dave:What are The Peacock Shop’s greatest achievements?
Suyog:The first big achievement was making six big pairs of elephants out of wood. That was the first big achievement prior to 2007.
Dave:In the shop, right here, I see a female and a male elephant.
Suyog:They’re both almost two meters tall.
Dave:Certainly more than life size for a baby elephant.
Suyog:The second biggest achievement was the publication of Glimpses From Nepal and Tibet. It was a real undertaking. It took us nearly a year to produce a thousand copies.
Dave:Considering the amount of work, a year seems like a short time.
Suyog:It was unbelievable. Our printmaker here was working almost thirteen hours a day. Yes, we sacrificed many long hours.
Dave:I have to add that the carving work that I have seen in what is going to be a museum is an astounding achievement. It’s absolutely breathtaking. I talked to your father, who is a wonderful man, and he said that in the mornings, he would tell stories from the Tripiṭakato the artist who would create illustrations, then in the afternoon he would supply editorial advice, and then those illustrations would be turned into carvings. The interior of the building is completely decorated with illustrations from the Buddhist canon.
Suyog: I’d like to quote from an art professor here. She said, “You are making the invisible, visible.”
Suyog:A visitor to the building could basically read the whole canonical text in terms of pictures.
Dave:I was thinking that it needs to become a book as well. The real art, of course, is the sculpted architecture. For visitors to digest the whole experience of the architecture of the museum, a description would be helpful. For example, I was in Lhasa, Tibet recently. When I was in some of Lhasa’s Tibetan Buddhist temples and looked at the frescos, going from fresco to fresco, so much of it really needs to be unpacked for its audience, at least a Western or Chinese audience. Anyone who hasn’t grown up with that history, and even if they had really. Each fresco displays such a depth of history, that it requires some explanation for it to be unpacked for the uninitiated. The same is true for the woodcarvings in the museum.
Suyog:We are, in fact, planning to make an abridged version of the Tripiṭaka. Almost all of the illustrations are labeled with the number of the stories. That will be a good reference for us, and we can check it out in the main canonical text, then we’ll read through the text again and make a short version of the stories, and compile it, and have it published again.
Dave:What aspects of Nepali tradition most inspire you and enrich your life and your work?
Suyog:The first thing is the religious tradition, the way we are brought up, the way our life sacraments take place, and all the festivals that are organized in a very systematic calendar system. All of that inspires and enriches our life. Probably the biggest factor is the two-thousand-year-old history of religious art, religious writing, and especially the timelessness that it provides us, so that even though we are living in the modern age with all the gadgets and accessories, we still have not forgotten the cultural periphery in which we are living and it sort of makes our life timeless. Even though we are living in the 21stcentury, many aspects of are daily routine feel as though they are in the Middle Ages or the ancient period because of how this aspect of timelessness enriches our life.
Dave:It’s not inconsistent with technology. Tradition certainly does not need to be separated from technology; it all can be incorporated. That’s one of the things that I see at The Peacock Shop: you have an online presence, and your using technology from different ages and different times. I see a cultural trajectory, a timeline, when I walk through your shop and experience the art.
I’d like to talk about the earthquake that happened so recently. What aspects of Nepali tradition inspire people through the hard times?
Suyog:Here again, I think that religion has to answer the question. Because of the religious culture here, over the centuries, there are people of many religions living in Nepal, at least in our community; most striking is the Hindu and Buddhist confluence right here, and especially when it comes to the Newari communities over the centuries, many people from different ethnicities have been flocking and settling in Nepal and they all have informed a unique sort of Newari culture, and it has helped us developed a tolerance and syncretism towards any foreign element that comes here. We have had Christians and Muslims since the Middle Ages alongside Hindus and Buddhists. And this feeling of humanism, of religious syncretism and tolerance, has helped us live through the hardships. The mutual feeling of bonding, of loving kindness and compassion, has helped us through the disaster. The biggest religious factor, I should say is also Buddhism, because Nepal has always been a Buddhist country, even though many of its rulers were Hindus. The mutual feeling of willing to help others, of putting others before ourselves, this has unconsciously developed a sort of selfless attitude in nearly all of the people. That has helped us through the earthquake.
Dave:The last time I visited Bhaktapur, there was a festival. What is the name of that festival?
Suyog:It was Gāṭhā-mugha Chahare.
Dave:There’s a demon that represents evil and trouble, and when I was at the festival I saw so many smiling faces, exuberant people who are setting fire to their troubles, who are burning their troubles away. All that is bad, evil, troubling, there’s a ritual process that allows people to let go of it. I found that to be extremely beautiful.
Suyog:The figure that was set on fire was a representation of a licentious ogre. One of the biggest factors that causes trouble in people, that brings disease and unhappiness in people is this deep rooted desire to obtain physical pleasure — trishnain the Sanskrit language — which is represented by the demon ogre. And setting fire to it is like practicing a deep penance that helps us remove all this desire, this clinging attitude, and once this clinging attitude is removed, then we are free from sufferings.
Despite our family’s protests, during the aftershocks my father kept on working. He would disappear for the whole morning, and we were still receiving aftershocks. That’s the level of commitment and devotion that he has toward this craftsmanship, this tradition that he is continuing.
Dave:How has the earthquake and its aftershocks affected The Peacock Shop? I talked to your father and he said that he kept working with the illustrator, day in, day out, not missing a day, with the exception of one day for the earthquake.
Suyog:Yes. Despite our family’s protests, during the aftershocks my father kept on working. He would disappear for the whole morning, while we were still receiving aftershocks. That’s the level of commitment and devotion that he has toward this craftsmanship, this tradition that he is continuing. The earthquake certainly did affect a huge portion of our work. We had a little temple on the rooftop. It collapsed during the second earthquake. We have had to rebuild a big portion of our wall, from the ground floor, the foundation itself. Had the earthquake not happened, we would be a lot further with the opening of the museum. It destroyed our ancestral home, which came down. We had to make temporary living arrangements, changes every month or so. It was a really hard time. The monsoon hit soon after the earthquake. There were times when the clay and rubble, agitated by the water, fell down around where we were sleeping. There were nights when we could not get a good sleep because of the monsoon.
Dave:Not knowing if you needed to run for a door.
Dave:What is important about preserving traditions and traditional culture? Your shop is a living example of this at the highest level.
Suyog:It gives us a sense of identity, for without identity people live a confused and miserable life. It gives us something that we can be proud of. The culture gives richness to our life. It boosts happiness. Whatever we do, whatever our profession, wherever we live, we take our culture with ourselves. If we maintain our culture it links us to our ancestors in a way. Our forefathers, they lived through many difficult times in order to bring us forth, and the culture that they created is a remnant of their contribution towards us. If we are following the traditions, maybe changed in a way so as to fit modern society, and continue the culture so as to reflect the good aspects of our society, that would be thanking our forefathers. It gives us a sense of satisfaction, and certainly it gives us joy.
Dave:I think it connects us to all humanity. We all have stories, we all have shared culture, and when UNESCO talks about World Heritage sites and the importance of world culture, this is something that we all share, this is something that connects us all. We all have these shared threads of human stories that become this great shared tapestry.
Can you show us some of your work? But since this is audio, can you just give us some names? Glimpses From Nepal and Tibet; that’s your first book. And your second book?
Suyog:Discovering Bhaktapur: Guide to the Historic Newar City.
Dave:I have to say that your postcards and some of your gift paper crafts are amazing. I see this one on your desk, it looks like Buddhist sutras.
Suyog:Yes, it’s designed in the way that manuscripts are stacked together, and the design itself is a primitive water symbol, almost like a proto-makara.
I think that’s it for the interview. Thank you, Suyog.