Where de­vo­tion tran­scends work and art

Kel­sang Dawa has, for 30 years, wielded draw­ing pens that help him to ex­press his faith. Wang Kaihao and Li Yingqing re­port in Shangri-La, Yun­nan.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE / PEOPLE - Con­tact the writ­ers through wangkai­hao@chi­nadaily.com.cn

In an al­ley near the en­trance to Duke­zong, a cen­turies-old Ti­betan neigh­bor­hood in the cen­ter of Shangri-La, hides a thangka paint­ing cen­ter. When visi­tors come to ad­mire its ex­quis­ite silk or cot­ton pieces with a Ti­betan Bud­dhist theme, the owner, Kel­sang Dawa, 36, asks them to put on shoe cov­ers be­fore en­ter­ing the gallery. He even stops a vis­i­tor talk­ing on the tele­phone in front of thangka.

ForKel­sangDawa, whogrewup in Re­b­gong, an area in Qing­hai prov­ince widely re­garded as the home of thangka, what he deals with ev­ery day is not only art pieces, but some­thing sa­cred.

“Once you learn about thangka you are con­nected with it for a life­time,” he says. “For a pi­ous Bud­dhist like me, pro­mot­ing thangka is a de­vo­tional duty rather than just a busi­ness.”

He has en­dured a nir­vana in fire, lit­er­ally.

In Jan­uary 2014, most of Duke­zong was de­stroyed by fire, hun­dreds of the work­shop’s works and col­lec­tions be­ing lost.

For­tu­nately, some of the most pre­cious ones were out for ex­hi­bi­tion at the time. He later opened an art gallery in the 798 Art Zone of Bei­jing, but he re­turned to Shangri-La to con­tinue his de­vo­tions this year and plans to close the gallery in 798 be­cause, he says, the rent is too high and the area is too noisy.

Kel­sang Dawa first came to Shangri-La in 2007, and he was sorry to see that the passin­gonofthangkaart there had long since van­ished.

“I found there were many fine an­cient­thangka pieces be­ing­housed in monas­ter­ies here, but few peo­ple could drawnewones.”

So he de­cided to nur­ture thangka in Shangri-La again by set­ting up the paint­ing cen­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to his stud­ies, tra­di­tional thangka in Shangri-Lado not have col­ors as strong as those of Re­b­gong, and re­veal some artis­tic style of other eth­nic groups in Yun­nan such as Naxi.

Though Re­b­gong Thangka was in­scribed in China’s first na­tional list of in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itages in 2006, and went onto the UN­ESCO list in 2009, Kel­sang Dawa does not want to di­rectly trans­plant his thangka home­town genre to Shangri-La. He ex­pects to re­sume tra­di­tional lo­cal styles in Shangri-La.

The prin­ci­ples of tra­di­tion are strongly ad­hered to. All pig­ments are made from rocks, and painters use their saliva as toner.

Com­pared with an­cient pieces, Kel­sangDawa­paysmore­at­ten­tion to de­tails, and some­times gold pow­der is used in out­lines.

He of­ten spends months fully fo­cused on a work. One 7-me­ter-long thangka took him and another painter two years to fin­ish.

There are six long­time painters in his work­shop, but dozens gather there in sum­mer. He has compiled a text­book on thangka as their ref­er­ence guide.

He is the son of a thangka painter and first picked up draw­ing pens when he was 6. The tech­nique has been passed down in his fam­ily for more than 10 gen­er­a­tions.

“When my fa­ther fin­ished a work for a monastery, he was treated like a god at the cer­e­mony. Though the work was very en­ergy-in­ten­sive, my fa­ther only asked for some yak meat or but­ter as pay­ment. For a thangka painter the most im­por­tant thing is to earn pil­grim’s homage.”

Kel­sang Dawa be­came a lama in a monastery of hishome­town­whenhe was 11, fol­low­ing a thangka guru.

“I had to be very dili­gent, like get­ting up at 5 am for prac­tice. But the hard­ships were worth it. No one can be a qual­i­fied thangka painter with­out at least seven years’ learn­ing and prac­tice.”

That was just a part of his syl­labus to hone paint­ing tech­niques; the study of Bud­dhism clas­sics played an im­por­tant role.

To get more in­spi­ra­tion he has trav­eled to In­dia, Bhutan andNepal.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble to be a good thangka painter with­out in-depth re­search in Bud­dhism, and some­one ex­posed to dif­fer­ent cul­tures can also breed newthoughts.”

Kel­sang Dawa later went to New York to teach thangka to lo­cal peo­ple and col­lege stu­dents. But he felt it was more im­por­tant to teach Chi­nese peo­ple about the art of their coun­try, so he re­turned to China in 2007.

His paint­ings for­eign­ers.

An­naNovikova, 26, a Rus­sian who works in Guangzhou, Guang­dong prov­ince, washookedby the paint­ing cen­ter­when­she­wasin Shangri-La in Au­gust. She re­turned a month later and has been learn­ing thangka from Kel­sang Dawa since then.

“All those paint­ings give­mea lot of pos­i­tive en­ergy,” she says. “And they rep­re­sent very in­ter­est­ing phi­los­o­phy. It is usu­ally just fun stuff for for­eign­ers, but this time I re­ally feel I am a lo­cal here.”

An ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tur­ing 80 pieces of con­tem­po­rary thangka from Kel­sang Dawa’s paint­ing cen­ter is to be shown in the Cul­tural Palace of Na­tion­al­i­ties in Bei­jing soon.

“It’s a priv­i­lege to be rec­og­nized by na­tional-level in­sti­tu­tions,” he says. also still keep at­tract­ing

PHO­TOS BY WANG KAIHAO / CHINA DAILY

Kel­sang Dawa (top) shows his col­lec­tion at his paint­ing cen­ter in Shangri-La, Yun­nan prov­ince. The Ti­betan art genre is en­ergy-in­ten­sive — some­times it takes years to fin­ish one piece.

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