Palden Ny­ima

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

For most peo­ple, the phrase “Ti­betan art” calls to mind im­ages of a range of hand­i­crafts, in­clud­ing tra­di­tional scroll paint­ings, known as thangkas. How­ever, few peo­ple are fa­mil­iar with the pig­ments that artists in the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion use to paint the thangkas.

The pro­duc­tion of min­eral pig­ments is an an­cient art in Ti­bet, but it’s head­ing for ex­tinc­tion at a rapid pace. “The pro­duc­tion of min­eral pig­ments is an in­ter­est­ing part of Ti­betan tra­di­tional cul­ture that was in­her­ited by our an­ces­tors. We want to en­sure that it lasts for­ever,” said Penpa, a thangka master and in­struc­tor in pig­ment pro­duc­tion in Lhasa, the cap­i­tal of Ti­bet.

“Our team con­sid­ers the pro­duc­tion of gen­uine min­eral prod­ucts as a way of re­pay­ing the love shown by our for­mer mas­ters,” the 43-yearold said. “I con­sider the work to be a con­tri­bu­tion to the con­tin­u­a­tion of our an­ces­tors’ valu­able her­itage.”

While many peo­ple speak of in­no­va­tion or “ex­pand­ing” a her­itage, Penpa sim­ply wants to fol­low in his an­ces­tors’ foot­steps with­out al­ter­ing the an­cient tra­di­tions.

“I don’t want any break­throughs to en­dan­ger the preser­va­tion of what our an­ces­tors left for us. That would be enough,” said Penpa, who works for Lhasa An­cient Ar­chi­tec­tural Arts Co, a 30year-old out­fit that op­er­ates one of just three pig­ment work­shops in the re­gion.

Most of the com­pany’s work in­volves the restora­tion and re­fur­bish­ment of an­cient ar­chi­tec­ture, and the pro­duc­tion of min­eral pig­ments is one of its core busi­nesses.

Although some pro­duc­ers sell pig­ments that con­tain a mix­ture of min­eral pig­ments and mod­ern, syn­thetic dyes, Penpa’s com­pany only pro­duces and sells gen­uine Ti­betan pig­ments. “Real Ti­betan pig­ments are made from min­eral stones and plants. The other pig­mentsintheTi­betan­mar­ket are pro­duced in other Chi­nese prov­inces and in In­dia,” he said.

Ti­betan min­eral pig­ments are of such high qual­ity that they will re­tain their color for more than 200 years. In ex­treme cases, some pig­ments will re­main pris­tine for as long as a mil­len­nium.

The pro­duc­tion process for min­eral pig­ments is far more dif­fi­cult than that used to make other pig­ments, and as a con­se­quence, they are much more ex­pen­sive.

Ava­ri­ety of pig­ment-bear­ing min­er­als can be ground into fine pow­ders to pro­duce five ba­sic col­ors— green, blue, red, yel­low and white — which are then di­vided fur­ther into hues.

The pig­ments are all ex­tracted from ore stones. White stones come from Rin­bung county, while the other col­ors are found in dif­fer­ent parts of the re­gion, such as Nyemo county, Qamdo city, and even in the Diqing Ti­betan au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture in Yun­nan province.

Penpa’s col­league Sam­drub said his team only uses min­eral pig­ments, be­cause col­ors in non-min­eral pig­ments pro­duced out­side Ti­bet fade quickly.

“Ti­betan min­eral pig­ments will re­main bright and un­faded for more than 200 years, some­times as long as 1,000 years,” Sam­drub said.

“The pig­ments pro­duced at lower al­ti­tudes can­not en­dure the harsh con­di­tions in Ti­bet, such as the in­tense ul­tra­vi­o­let light and strong winds,” the 50-year-old added.

He said the com­pany has erad­i­cated the sale of coun­ter­feit or low-qual­ity prod­ucts. “In­stead of cheat­ing peo­ple, it’s im­por­tant to show them dif­fer­ent prod­ucts at dif­fer­ent prices. If peo­ple can­not af­ford to buy ar­ti­facts made with min­eral pig­ments, there are al­ways al­ter­na­tives, such as thangkas pro­duced us­ing pig­ments pro­duced in other places in China and in In­dia,” Sam­drub said.

Only four com­pa­nies in China pro­duce gen­uine Ti­betan min­eral pig­ments — un­sur­pris­ingly three of them are si­t­u­ated in Ti­bet, while the other is in Bei­jing.

Tra­di­tion­ally, thangka pain­ters made their own pig­ments, but they were for per­sonal use and not for sale. The ar­rival of the mar­ket econ­omy re­sulted in changes, though, and Lhasa An­cient Ar­chi­tec­tural Arts trade­marked its pig­ments 15 years ago.

The com­pany em­ploys eight thangka mas­ters, more than 30 ap­pren­tices and five pig­ment pro­duc­ers, who make 18 dif­fer­ent pig­ments, all the col­ors a pain­ter needs.

Mold­mak­ers, cop­per­smiths, welders, car­pen­ters and stone­ma­sons are also em­ployed, so when­ever ren­o­va­tion work is sched­uled for an­cient build­ings and monas­ter­ies, the com­pany can pro­vide a full range of ser­vices. That edge­means­busi­ness is usu­ally good.

The com­pany’s pig­ments are sold across the Qing­hai-Ti­bet Plateau, in other parts of China, and even over­seas in places such as the United King­dom and France.

“An old Ti­betan proverb says: ‘Some work re­quires a light, sick per­son’s touch, while other jobs re­quire great strength, like that of a strong, young man’, ” Penpa said.

“The process of pro­duc­ing pig­ments re­quires a great deal of pa­tience, time and dif­fer­ent strengths dur­ing dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dures, so the work is car­ried out ex­clu­sively by women,” he added. Con­tact the writer at palden_ny­ima@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

LI SHAOPENG / XIN­HUA

A thangka artist cre­ates a va­ri­ety of hues us­ing min­eral pig­ments.

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