block prints, dot screens,and the technicolor worlds of Tek Bir Mukhiya
This exhibition is part of an ongoing research into the intersection of technical acumen and artistic labor that shapes book cover design and printed matter. Connecting dots to line, scaling, graphing, and situating an archive-in-making to understand the vocabulary of Tek Bir Mukhiya, who defined the visual contours of many of Nepal’s seminal 20th century modern literary works. Born in Kurseong in 1938, Mukhiya spent his formative years in Calcutta, engaging in various jobs like designing movie posters and creating typographic elements for packaging. As a self-taught artist, this early experience would significantly influence his later visual practice.
During the Rana era in Nepal, there was restricted access to printing technology and limited freedom for independent writing. To bypass government regulations, numerous intellectuals in exile began publishing from Bengal as well as Varanasi and Gorakhpur. It wasn’t until the 1950s, with Nepal’s growing connectivity to the outside world, that publishing saw liberalization. This period, akin to Mukhiya’s life trajectory, prompted the migration of numerous artists, writers, and musicians from India to Kathmandu, sparking the emergence of the city’s modernist scene and sensibilities.
Shortly after arriving in Kathmandu around 1965, Mukhiya joined Sajha Prakashan as its chief artist. From the 1960s until the early 2000s, it is estimated that he created thousands of book covers for the publication. This era also marked a period of experimentation in Nepali prose and poetry, including the Tesro Aayam movement that prompted a shift from realist description and embraced themes such as diasporic estrangement. The surge in publication, facilitated by mass printing and distribution coupled with a ravenous readership for modern literary texts, meant that Mukhiya had to adapt to a grueling demand of churning out artworks almost overnight.
Paralleling the assortment of texts he encountered, Mukhiya would often experiment with techniques such as wood cuts, block prints, and zinc plates amidst the astute use of bichromatic colors, expert composition, and striking typography. His designs ended up adorning the front covers of books authored by literary stalwarts like Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala, Bhupi Sherchan, Parijat, and Indra Bahadur Rai to name a few. Yet even after close to three decades of labor, his contributions remain inconspicuous in comparison to the literature they complement. The decline of Sajha as an institution, the artist’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, and the absence of institutional support to document this history make it challenging to string together a cohesive narrative. Despite the thinness of archival materials, the kaleidoscopic creations presented here undeniably stand as a testament to the indelible mark Tek Bir Mukhiya has made on the visual and print culture of South Asia.
Tek Bir Mukhiya