A col­or­ful life

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By PALDEN NY­IMA and DAQIONG in Lhasa

While most thangka artists in the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion are men, the work of pro­duc­ing the min­eral pig­ments, and there­fore the col­ors they use, is done ex­clu­sively by women.

At a pig­ment-pro­duc­tion work­shop at Lhasa An­cient Ar­chi­tec­tural Art Co, five women sang a tra­di­tional Ti­betan song as they ground ores into fine pow­der.

Although the work is phys­i­cally de­mand­ing and re­quires great pa­tience and ap­pli­ca­tion, none of the women looked tired or bored. In­stead, they worked en­thu­si­as­ti­cally and har­mo­niously be­cause they be­lieve their work has a spir­i­tual di­men­sion.

“It’s hard work, but I don’t get stressed or bored be­cause the pig­ments are used to paint re­li­gious thangkas,” Pema Dechen said. “The more pig­ments I pro­duce, the more mer­its and virtues I ac­cu­mu­late,” she added.

The 49-year-old hails from Shan­nan pre­fec­ture, which is of­ten con­sid­ered the cra­dle of the Ti­betan eth­nic group and its cul­ture, and has been mak­ing pig­ments for 13 years. She said she will keep work­ing un­til her last breath.

Be­fore mov­ing to the work­shop, she worked on con­struc­tion sites at monas­ter­ies in Ti­bet.

“I’m get­ting older and can’t take heavy con­struc­tion work any­more, so I de­cided to work as a pig­ment maker,” she said.

The process is com­plex and takes more than 20 work­ing days to com­plete. First, the ores are boiled in a large cru­cible for 60 min­utes, then placed in a wa­ter-filled stone groove where they are bro­ken down into smaller pieces be­fore be­ing ground again. The wa­ter in the groove al­lows the pig­ments to sep­a­rate from the sur­round­ing ma­te­rial. The grind­ing process con­tin­ues for more than 10 days.

The rocks in the groove are ground with a heavy stone pes­tle sus­pended from a girder, and its ac­tion al­ter­nates be­tween heavy and light depend­ing on the stage of pro­duc­tion.

The pig­ments are used to ren­der re­li­gious im­ages, such as the Buddha, on tra­di­tional scroll paint­ings, so the work­ers are re­quired to main­tain high stan­dards of per­sonal and work­place clean­li­ness.

“The whole process takes more than 20 days, and pro­duces about 2.5 kilo­grams of pig­ment,” Pema Dechen said.

Her av­er­age work­ing day lasts eight hours, and she works more than 340 days ev­ery year, earn­ing about 2,700 yuan ($440) a month. Although that’s not a high salary in Lhasa, Pema Dechen and her col­leagues said they have never re­gret­ted choos­ing this line of work.

Ev­ery day, the women take turns to buy but­ter tea or sweet tea, and never miss their tea break and morn­ing chant­ing ses­sions.

“We drink tea to­gether ev­ery morn­ing, and we spend an hour chant­ing the daily su­tra, too,” Pema Dechen said.

Tsam­cho, who also makes pig­ments in the work­shop, said the women only take a break dur­ing key Ti­betan fes­ti­vals or re­li­gious events.

“I will con­tinue to work here in the fu­ture. I’m very pleased to be en­gaged this work,” said Tsam­cho, who like many Ti­betans only has one name. How­ever, she won’t be teach­ing her three chil­dren her skills be­cause she wants them to fin­ish school and get a de­cent ed­u­ca­tion.

The 51-year-old said she feels hon­ored to work as a pig­ment pro­ducer be­cause the end prod­ucts are gen­uinely Ti­betan and are made us­ing tra­di­tional skills.

“Grind­ing the green and blue ores re­quires a per­son to be pa­tient, but grind­ing whites and yel­lows re­quires more strength, like a young man,” she said.

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